What's Really Wrong with the U.S. Congress
The rhetoric of the 2012 presidential campaign exposed the deeply rooted sources of political polarization in American. One side celebrated individualism and divided the public into "makers and takers;" the other preached "better together" as the path forward. Both focused their efforts on the "base" not the middle.
In Dangerous Convictions, former Democratic Congressman Tom Allen argues that what's really wrong with Congress is the widening, hardening conflict in worldviews that leaves the two parties unable to understand how the other thinks about what people should do on their own and what we should do together. Members of Congress don't just disagree, they think the other side makes no sense. Why are conservatives preoccupied with cutting taxes, uninterested in expanding health care coverage and in denial about climate change? What will it take for Congress to recover a capacity for pragmatic compromise on these issues?
Allen writes that we should treat self-reliance (the quintessential American virtue) and community (our characteristic instinct to cooperate) as essential balancing components of American culture and politics, instead of setting them at war with each other. Combining his personal insights from 12 years In Congress with recent studies of how human beings form their political and religious views, Allen explains why we must escape the grip of our competing worldviews to enable Congress to work productively on our 21st century challenges.
Allen, a former Democratic congressman from Maine and current president and CEO of the American Association of Publishers, offers a panoramic critique of Congress based on his 12 years in office (1997 2009), covering policy areas from the budget to health care. Since he left office four years ago, Allen says, Congress "has descended to new lows of dysfunctional partisanship and vanishing public trust." Many centrists will agree that today's Congress exhibits a frightening degree of factional bitterness. This combination of memoir and game plan will not astonish the Beltway crowd. Allen's solutions generally align with moderate factions in the Democratic Party. Allen defends Obamacare and takes a polite swipe at Paul Ryan's economic policies. His gauzy and rather na ve analysis of why "polarization" the word he returns to throughout has occurred is less convincing that his ample reflections based on personal experience. To explain conservative "rigidity," for example, he recycles psychobabble about parenting styles and authoritarian personalities. However, Allen's pragmatism and reason help frame major issues for Americans hungering for some legislative wisdom after the election.