Over the last year or so, it seems that I regularly encounter questions from friends, family, and neighbors along the lines of: “Why is our government so dysfunctional?” or “How come they can’t get anything done?” or “Why don’t they just grow up and stop acting like a bunch of babies?” These are, of course, entirely legitimate but very broad questions. For those who are interested in a sophisticated, concise answer to those questions, I would recommend reading the following two books, in this order:
The Polarized Public: Why American Government is so Dysfunctional by Alan Abramowitz
It’s Even Worse than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism by Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein
In short, the first book argues that our elected leaders are polarized because the American public itself has polarized, meaning that ideological diversity has decreased among the constituencies of the two major political parties over the last fifty years (i.e. unlike a generation or two ago, there are no longer very many liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats).
The second book argues that our American political system only works if there is ideological diversity within the representatives of the political parties in Congress. Since this is no longer the case (as shown in the previous book), it becomes very difficult to forge “bipartisan” agreements in Congress simply because there are no longer any like-minded individuals to reach out to across the aisle. The bottom line is that our system is not working because the parties act as if they were in a parliament (where parties are strong and expected to vote in lock-step) instead of a Congress (where parties are weak and cross-party coalitions are regularly expected), and our system was not designed for parliamentary-type political parties.
Understanding why our current system is so dysfunctional doesn’t solve the problem or make us feel any better, but it at least helps to understand what’s going on and gives a realistic expectation about what is likely to occur in a such an environment, as well as to be able to critically evaluate the merit of any proposed solutions.