The past few years have produced one testament after another to America's broken political system: the most partisan Congress on record, the first U.S. credit-rating downgrade ever, one of the most polarizing presidencies in recent memory, and the least popular and productive U.S. legislature in modern history.
But that's usually where the conversation ends. Enter the Brookings Institution's Thomas Mann and the American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein, two of the Beltway's most respected congressional experts, who had the temerity to point fingers and name names. Their verdict, rendered in their new book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks, is surprisingly blunt for two such consummate centrist insiders: The increasingly adversarial relationship between the Democrats and Republicans is imperiling America's constitutional democracy, and the GOP is the primary villain.
The Republican Party "has become 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," they write, while allowing that the Democratic Party is "no paragon of civic virtue" either. The "asymmetry between the parties, which journalists and scholars often brush aside or whitewash in a quest for 'balance,' constitutes a huge obstacle to effective governance," they add.
It's hard to disagree, when Republicans' obstinate refusal to countenance any new revenues has America staring at a "fiscal cliff" that independent economists warn could plunge the country into a new recession. We can't say they didn't warn us.
MANN Reading list: Our Divided Political Heart, by E.J. Dionne; The New New Deal, by Michael Grunwald; Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. Best idea: Progressive consumption tax pegged to the state of the economy. Worst idea: Libertarianism. American decline or American renewal? Renewal (if we get our republic working effectively once again). More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Not for me.
ORNSTEIN Reading list: Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics, by Jeff Greenfield; The New New Deal, by Michael Grunwald; The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. Best idea: A lottery prize for voting. Worst idea: We need more permanent tax cuts. American decline or American renewal? Teetering at the edge, but renewal is more likely. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Not me, thanks.
"Make no mistake," Saudi activist Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani said this summer after being arraigned on a long list of charges accusing him of promoting sedition. "We are all going to prison." It's hard to argue with that: The Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, which Qahtani co-founded, has broken some of Saudi Arabia's biggest taboos, highlighting corruption within the monarchy and questioning its legitimacy to govern.
Qahtani, an American-educated economics professor outraged at Saudi Arabia's treatment of political prisoners, has been at the forefront of efforts to popularize the idea that even citizens of one of the planet's most repressive and unaccountable monarchies deserve to be treated like human beings, regardless of what lies beneath its sands. "All authoritarian rule is illegitimate, even more so when it is an apartheid and despotic regime," a petition posted on his group's website reads.
The Saudi regime charged Qahtani with "breaking allegiance to the ruler," but the activist has tried to put the entire government on trial. Banned from leaving the country as he awaits his verdict, he faces years in prison if convicted. Although few Saudis are nearly as outspoken, Qahtani hears the rumblings of dissent on the horizon. "Eventually, the regime will fail," he told Al-Monitor. "This price … is a small token for regaining our people's liberty and freedom."
Reading list: The Oil Kings, by Andrew Scott Cooper; On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines -- and Future, by Karen Elliott House; Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally, by Thomas W. Lippman. Best idea: The increasing possibility of political change in Saudi Arabia that will bring about democracy. Worst idea: Stories that still praise tyrannies in Arab countries. American decline or American renewal? American renewal. More Europe or less? Europe will weather the storm. We will see "more Europe." To tweet or not to tweet? I do tweet. @MFQahtani.
Bahrain, the tiny archipelago wedged between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is the only country where tear gas and buckshot have succeeded (so far) in squelching an Arab Spring uprising. And for the ruling monarchy, the brave activists who run the Bahrain Center for Human Rights are Public Enemy No. 1.
The center, co-founded in 2002 by Nabeel Rajab, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, and others, played a vital role in advancing the idea that all Bahrainis should be treated equally in this religiously divided kingdom, regardless of their sect. But after Rajab called via Twitter for a powerful member of the ruling family to step down, the monarchy had enough -- in July he was hauled into prison for "insulting" Bahrainis. Khawaja, who has been a thorn in the government's side since the 1970s, fared even worse: His jaw was shattered in four places by police upon his arrest last year, and he subsequently embarked on a marathon hunger strike that turned him into a global cause célèbre.
The activists' sacrifices, however, have gone largely unrecognized in Washington, which has been only too eager to ignore the revolt in a country that hosts a critical U.S. naval base and is an ally in efforts to isolate Iran. "It has become evident today that, to the United States, democracy and human rights should only be applied to countries that are in conflict with the United States -- but not with dictatorships it calls its allies," Rajab told Foreign Policy before his arrest. With the two veteran opposition leaders in jail, the Khawaja daughters, Maryam, 25, and Zainab, 29, have taken up their father's mantle to remind Americans that their founding principles are applicable the world over. "This is an issue of pride and dignity. People are sick and tired of living in a country where they cannot speak about what is on their mind," Zainab told Der Spiegel. "I am speaking out, but we are paying a high price for it."
MARYAM AL-KHAWAJA Reading list: Iran Awakening: One Woman's Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country, by Shirin Ebadi; Little Daughter: A Memoir of Survival in Burma and the West, by Zoya Phan; The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, by Peter Popham. Best idea: Developing laws that protect people online. Worst idea: Use of drones. American decline or American renewal? Decline. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? To always tweet.
RAJAB Reading list: As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda, by Catherine Claire Larson; An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, by Mohandas Gandhi; Call of Surat (history book in Arabic). Best idea: We got rid of some autocratic tyrants during the Arab Spring. Worst idea: Tribal and sectarian feuds taking over. American decline or American renewal? American decline. More Europe or less? Less Europe and weaker eurozone. To tweet or not to tweet? To tweet.