Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How To Get It Back On Track - Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein

"Politicians are not merely waifs amid forces"

Over the last couple of years, it has become a commonplace to say that American politics is increasingly polarized and that's the reason why nothing ever gets done -or gets done through a very suboptimal process, such as Obamacare, or with disappointing results, such as fiscal policy, which now has to be approved every six months (fiscal cliff, anyone?). You can say that a commentator has nothing to talk about when (s)he retorts to the polarization of the American political scene, particularly Congress. If the commentator in question has a partisan bias, (s)he will obviously blame the other party for that.

The first two people who studied the disfunctionality of the U.S. Congress were Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, longtime specialists on congressional affairs. In The Broken Branch, they describe the reasons behind the divisiveness prevailing in American Congress and its consequences on lawmaking. In the conclusion, they obviously provide their policy recommendations to change the situation. The book doesn't say anything you can't find regularly in some common sense publications or columns such as The Economist's Lexington, but it's a good read to get an idea of where this polarization-destroying-America agenda came from. Probably the only problem with the book concerns the reasons provided by Mann and Ornstein behind the polarization of Congress. They attribute the situation to the breakdown of the Liberal coalition after Barry Goldwater, some changes in the internal functionning of Congress, and the arrival of Newt Gingrich and other radical conservatives to Congress in the 1980s, among other elements. All of these elements are certainly true, but nowhere do Mann and Ornstein talk about the real polarization and changes in social capital that the United States and other Western societes have been going through over the last couple of years (a good place to start reading about these changes is Francis Fukuyama's Trust). These changes are real: technology is making citizens change the way they interact with each other, and that is obviosuly changing politics. Without recognizing the profound changes societies are going through, the recommendations proposed by the authors, which stay mostly in the realm of politicians, are likely to go nowhere.

And the proof that what I'm saying makes sense is the fact that Mann and Ornstein recently published a sequel to The Broken Branch with one of the most depressing titles I have ever read: It's Even Worse Than You Think: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.

Picture taken on November 2009


  1. Interesting angle on the book. Do you know if the sequel takes on the issue of technology as a driver of changes in social interactions and its political implications?