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Tom Allen: Congress Through the Publishing Lens

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Allen has a fresh take on partisan bickering in his new book, “Dangerous Convictions: What’s Really Wrong With the U.S. Congress.”

Tom Allen has a fresh take on partisan bickering.

But instead of siding with those who long for the cozy weekends of bipartisan revelry in the nation’s capital, Allen believes it’s different worldviews, not weekend schedules, that divide the Ds from the Rs.

The former six-term congressman from Maine and a one-time Senate staffer for Sen. Edmund S. Muskie decided to put pen to paper after concluding that Republicans and Democrats perceive the world through dramatically different lenses. His book, “Dangerous Convictions: What’s Really Wrong With the U.S. Congress,” was published in January by Oxford University Press.

In the four years since he left public service, Allen says he can’t find one thing about Congress that has changed for the better. But he did take time from his schedule as CEO of the Association of American Publishers to do a Q & A with CQ Roll Call.

Q. Much has been written about partisan gridlock in Congress — open any newspaper, turn on cable TV and someone is opining on the subject. What does “Dangerous Convictions” bring to the discussion?

A. My argument is that political ideas, bundled into incompatible worldviews, are closer to the source of partisan gridlock than lack of civility, gerrymandering, manipulation of House and Senate rules or the fading of bipartisan socializing in D.C. on weekends. The Republican worldview is grounded in America’s quintessential virtue, self-reliance, but has become imbued with a fierce hostility to government that prevents Republicans from proposing constructive solutions to critical public issues like health care or climate change. The Democratic worldview is grounded in Americans’ characteristic instinct to cooperate on vital projects. Democrats see government as a vehicle to serve the common good, while Republicans believe government infringes on personal liberty and fosters dependency in the population. We don’t understand each other, and that creates a wall of distrust.

We cannot overcome congressional gridlock without understanding its deeper sources in the American psyche. That’s where I hope “Dangerous Convictions” can make a contribution.

Q. Congress is unpopular as an institution, yet individual members are well-liked and often re-elected back home. What do you think accounts for that discrepancy?

A. Personal contact. Members of Congress meet and talk with more people in their districts than anyone else. Those relationships allow them to build bridges to voters who might otherwise lean to the other party. In addition, incumbents enjoy advantages in fundraising, media attention and constituent services that challengers lack. It is also true that Americans are moving into states and areas where the prevailing culture fits their worldviews. Like gerrymandering, that contributes to more safe districts.

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