12/06/2007 08:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Symposium on Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes' The Genius of America

We are living through an exceedingly difficult and dispiriting period in American public life. Our political institutions and electoral processes have been dysfunctional. An intense ideological polarization of the parties has produced an ugly, tribalistic partisanship. The parity between the parties in this high-stakes ideological era has elevated the permanent campaign to a dominant position in our politics, one in which politicians scramble to manipulate rather than to respect and lead public opinion. The fallout for public trust in governmental institutions, confidence in the country's future, the quality of deliberation, and the wisdom of public policy has been devastating.

To be sure, as Lane and Oreskes remind us, we have been through such difficult periods in the past. The late 19th century comes immediately to mind. And nothing today approaches the perilous years leading up to and through the Civil War. Those who yearn for the golden era in American politics in which the political system operated smoothly and the public viewed politicians and governmental institutions with respect and appreciation are greatly romanticizing our rough and tumble past.

Such difficult times throughout our history led to critical assessments of what had gone wrong and to corrective steps to restore the vitality of American democracy. We are a feisty public, not reticent about challenging the status quo and open to changing the way in which politics and policymaking are conducted. This has at various times led to decisive electoral defeats, the emergence of new leaders to try to reshape the structure of our politics, the scrambling of party coalitions, statutory reforms, and constitutional amendments. Two recently published books, Our Undemocratic Constitution by Sanford Levinson and A More Perfect Constitution by Larry Sabato, argue that these times call for a major reconsideration of our constitutional architecture. Too reverential a view of our Constitution, they both contend, ignores some of the costly compromises the framers were forced to make because of political realities (e.g. the representational base of the Senate) and understates some of its anachronistic elements (e.g. the electoral college). They invite a vigorous debate on constitutional first principles and welcome a wholesale reconsideration of the sacred text.

Lane and Oreskes, on the other hand, believe that the central problems of contemporary public life in America stem not from shortcomings in constitutional design but rather from a failure to live up to the standards and expectations of its architects. Given the formidable obstacles to constitutional reform, those seeking a timely restoration of a healthy balance among the three branches of the national government, a return to regular order and genuine deliberation in Congress, and some diminution in the partisan wars will find more satisfaction in the counsel offered by Lane and Oreskes.

We are now in the midst of a serious effort to mend our political system. The 2006 midterm election - a clear rejection of the political and institutional pathologies of recent years and the policies that flowed from them - was a necessary first step. The 2008 election appears to be shaping up both as a disenchantment with the fruits of a conservative agenda and a quest for a more inclusive, less ideological approach to governing that is genuinely responsive to the new set of challenges facing America. If it seems likely Democrats are afforded an opportunity to lead a unified party government in 2009, they will quickly discover that any hopes of succeeding will require a very different approach to politics and governance - one less partisan, more pragmatic, and respectful of the proper responsibilities and comparative advantages of the legislative, executive and judicial branches.