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Pure Onsense

Summer reading

Scott Zuke

(July, 2012) It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the Politics of Extremism, by Thomas E. Mann, Norman J. Ornstein

Two highly respected scholars of the US Congress make the case that, far from being business as usual, the recent stalling and failures of the US government are due to new phenomena that have seriously damaged its functionality and reputation. Beginning with a case study of last summer's debt ceiling crisis, they lay out a case that, while partisan brinksmanship and party polarization are certainly not new, they have reached a new height since President Obama was elected.

Often news organizations attempt to prove their lack of bias by reminding their viewers that responsibility for partisan politics rests equally on both sides of the aisle. Mann and Ornstein, however, see things differently. "However awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge," they write, "one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country’s most pressing challenges."

Where the book becomes more intriguing is in its recommendations, which begin with a fascinating debunking of the most popular recommendations for solutions--from seeking salvation in a third party to backing a Constitutional balanced budget amendment. Their argument against the merits of tightening Congressional term limits has me rethinking my own position on the subject. The positive recommendations are thoughtful, provocative, and fresh, but also challenging. There are neither simple solutions nor any magical Big Ideas that can save Washington, but there may be practical steps to nudge it toward a better course.

If you love to hate Congress, this book will certainly help you to separate the real explanations of its hurdles and the best ways to clear them from the dumb, partisan political chatter filling airtime on cable news.

Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, by David E. Sanger

Sanger, the senior Washington correspondent for the New York Times, takes the baton from Bob Woodward's "Obama's Wars" and adds a wealth of new information into the public record on President Obama's national security policy. The book has been making waves in D.C. lately as members of Congress have been in an uproar over the highly sensitive leaked information it publishes, particularly with regards to drone policy and the use of sophisticated cyber weapons to sabotage Iran's nuclear facilities. While any leaked top secret information pertaining to security is bound to stir up anger, Sanger's reporting is a perfect example of how investigative journalism can responsibly inform public discourse on such sensitive topics, and hopefully drive a much-needed debate on these controversial policies.

His highly readable book is a timely and comprehensive account of Obama's foreign policy, which, due to being the one area where he has had the most leeway to act unilaterally, is also the best window into the President's leadership style (hands-on and pragmatic, which seems to be the consensus among presidential scholars and journalists). The book is arranged by topic, and includes sections on Afghanistan/Pakistan, including the Bin Laden raid, Iran, the Arab Spring, China and North Korea, and a dedicated section on drones and cyber warfare. It's highly recommended for anyone who wants to step into the upcoming election season and be able to see through the empty rhetoric (on both sides) on foreign policy and national security. These are highly complex situations that don't fit well into stump speeches, so this is likely our best shot to let actions speak louder than words.

The Dictator's Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy, by William J. Dobson

A nice change of pace from US politics and policy, this book is an engrossing collection of stories of people who weren't born activists, but transformed into them almost accidentally by simply following their consciences and refusing to stay quiet within some of the world's most repressive modern dictatorships. Dobson's thesis is that totalitarianism essentially died out in the 20th century, but that it has been replaced by a new form of autocratic regime that has situated itself between authoritarianism and democracy.

"Today’s dictators and authoritarians are far more sophisticated, savvy, and nimble than they once were," he writes. "Faced with growing pressures, the smartest among them neither hardened their regimes into police states nor closed themselves off from the world; instead, they learned and adapted. For dozens of authoritarian regimes, the challenge posed by democracy’s advance led to experimentation, creativity, and cunning. Modern authoritarians have successfully honed new techniques, methods, and formulas for preserving power, refashioning dictatorship for the modern age."

The book is filled with anecdotes and the testimonies from courageous activists in countries including Russia, China, Egypt, and Venezuela, among others, and range from terrifying to almost humorous in a twisted way. In a section on Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, for example, we learn that Chávez, who came into the presidency with plans to drastically overhaul the country's charter, spontaneously inserted the words "on this dying constitution" as he gave the oath of office.

Coming back around to Mann and Ornstein's argument about the GOP's shift to the extreme right, it's hard to avoid noticing the sharp increase in the routine use of words like tyranny, socialism, and authoritarianism to describe America's government. Dobson's book, engaging in its own right, also serves as a catharsis--a refreshing reminder that those words actually do still mean something to a large portion of the world's population living and dying under true dictatorships. It's a great way to learn something new, appreciate what you have, and gain some global perspective this Fourth of July.

Read other article by Scott Zuke