Saturday, June 24, 2006

Book Review: "Fight Club Politics"

One month ago today, I recommended a "Fresh Air" interview with WaPo correspondent Juliet Eilperin, who was speaking about her new book Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the U.S. House of Representatives. I've since gotten a copy of the book, and read it on this rainy Saturday in Boston.

Eilperin's major themes in the book are those she outlined in her interview with Terry Gross: that gerrymandered districts, schedule changes and the centralization of power in Washington have all contributed to sideline centrists in the House and decrease the effectiveness of both individual House members as well as the chamber as a whole. In an atmosphere where "bipartisan cooperation amounts to betrayal," and members are not given the opportunity to either debate or interact with members from the opposite side of the aisle except for in scripted sound-bite attacks, it's no wonder things have gotten so nasty, Eilperin concludes.

This book realizes that the mused-after "good old days" of bipartisan comity probably weren't quite as amiable as some seem to think they were, and blames both parties for their role in the state of today's affairs. As Eilperin puts it, "each side nurses its own wounds, ignoring how its political barbs and harsh tactics can alienate members from the opposing party." There is some justified recognition, however, that the Republican claims of "changing the tone" and "opening government" that were major themes of the '94 "revolution" have largely fallen by the wayside in the last twelve years of GOP majority status.

Eilperin's discussion of the role of congressional centrists is particularly important, and deftly argued. Because centrists have become less common in Congress, those who are left are "less able to pressure their respective leaders, ... they cannot broker deals between the parties like they did in the past." The diminishing number of centrists, she recognizes, is a product of the current redistricting process, another key section of this book. The system in place in most states today has "spiraled out of control," Eilperin writes, "with party operatives engaging in a never-ending game of tit for tat that has alienated voters as well as some of their elected representatives."

The process of creating "safe" districts, whether done on a bipartisan collusive basis (see California, New York, and others) or through partisan manuevering (see Texas, Michigan, Georgia), has "ensured that more politicians from both the extreme left and right have Washington sinecures, from which they face little chance of being ousted." (Except of course by resignation or indictment, which only results in the election of an ideologically indistinguishable replacement in recent cases). With the primary election now effectively functioning in many districts around the country as the general contest (and with more restrictive primary rules being enacted), candidates must continue to play to the most extreme members of their respective bases, contributing to the vicious cycle.

Eilperin's chapter on the various methods of redistricting reform is quite good, and she writes favorably of Rep. John Tanner's Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act, which would be a giant step forward [lots of my posts on that are listed here].

Clearly a discontented centrist at heart, Eilperin has written an important book, which I recommend to all, whether you share her concerns already or not.


At 2:39 PM, Blogger Andy said...

Thank you for taking the time to post your review of this book. The centrist views Eilperin asserts in the book seem like common sense to me, and I hope many others will benefit from the centrist kind of thinking to see a way to get away from our extreme right and extreme left views that have polarized our nation and are causing us so much strain. Andy


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