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Episode 38: Why hardball tactics have led to the most polarized Congress ever

Pop Quiz: Which was the most polarized time in American history?

The Civil War? Prohibition? The Civil Rights Movement?

Nope, no, and nyet. Well, if you gauge by the House and Senate, that is.

Political Science professor Sean Theriault tells us that, though the American public has been extremely divided at times over the course of the nation’s history, today’s Congress is more polarized than any before it. Despite the fact that the public is much less so.

Theriault teaches and conducts his research at the University of Texas at Austin, and says that unlike in the past, the current polarization in the House and Senate has little to do with big societal issues, or sea-changes in American culture. The fighting is about something much smaller, more arcane, and frankly, boring: congressional procedure.

The fight, says Theriault, has become “not about the issues but about the war.”

This week on DecodeDC’s podcast, Theriault explains why procedure, and not big issues, are dividing Congress. It’s because of the permanent campaign, he says, bringing hard-ball politics into an institution that used to rely on a basic level of compromise to conduct the day-in, day-out operations of the House and Senate. This is the biggest driver, he says, of the years of gridlock Americans have seen in Washington.

If that makes you angry, says Theriault, don’t blame Congress. Why? Because we elected them.

Earlier this week, House Republican Leader Eric Cantor’s historic primary election loss -- the first and only time in America’s history a top GOP leader has lost his primary to a challenger -- provided a perfect example of how divisive hard-ball politics have become. In recent years Cantor had been a major player in those tactics.

Unfortunately for him, another Republican in his district picked them up too -- and used them against him.

Amarra Ghanni contributed to this post.

Episode 37: Cracking open the government: On the front lines of making Washington transparent

There’s a quiet movement afoot in Washington; one you won’t hear about on cable news or flashy political blogs.

It is the 21st century iteration of a classic American ideal: radical transparency in government.

The modern pursuers of this goal include non-profits and business titans, hobbyists and hackers. They have formed a kind of nerd-corps of cyber-civics - designers, computer programmers, hackers and political activists - all working to build technology that makes government more accessible to people.

Every year, a non-partisan, open-government group called The Sunlight Foundation hosts a kind of conference for this nerd-corps, it’s called Transparency Camp, or T-Camp among its faithful.

Sound obscure? You might be surprised to hear that T-Camp is sponsored by the likes of Google and Microsoft.

Many of the attendees are rock stars in their fields, with experience developing some of the most lucrative sites and apps of recent years. They’re now turning their significant brains toward a less sexy, but in many ways much more challenging problem: Putting every citizen’s government right on their phone.

DecodeDC visited this year’s Transparency Camp to bring you stories from the front lines of the fight to crack open government.

Episode 36: Can Spelling Bee kids spell better than members of Congress? A-B-S-O-L-U-T-E-L-Y

"Can you spell logorrhea?" 

That's what DecodeDC asked Members of Congress and their constituents -- specifically those whiz-kid spellers who are in the nation's capital for the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. 

Turns out, the answer is N-O; just about every US Representative we spoke with had no idea what logorrhea means (excessive wordiness), and not a single one spelled it correctly. Most admitted to relying heavily on spell check and their smartphone to pick the right word at the right time.

Contrast that with this fact: when we spoke with dozens of kids in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, we had trouble finding one who couldn't spell logorrhea. Most correctly identified the word's roots (from the Greek word 'logos' meaning 'words' and 'rhea,' meaning 'to flow') and even knew its meaning. 

Ironic, you wonder, that a bunch of pre-teens in Washington could show-up their Representatives with a word that means, 'to spew words from the mouth'? We thought so too. 

Of course, there are plenty of big-brained lawmakers as well -- not that they'd challenge the super-spellers. Congressman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told us, "I am smart enough to know that I would be whooped in a moment!”

Episode 35: Young, Bright Conservatives; But Who To Look Up To?

Rooster Jacobson doesn’t fit neatly into a box – and not just because of his spiky, rainbow mohawk. That, plus wide-gauge earrings make people “automatically assume I’m going to be a liberal, based solely on the way I look, which is also patently false,” he says.

Rooster Jacobson with Senator Ted Cruz, R-TX

No, Rooster, aka Ian, is a hard-core conservative; so much so, that we caught up with him at Washington’s veritable Republican prom, the Conservative Political Action Conference. But ask him about social issues -- gay marriage? abortion rights? -- and you’ll get this response: “not my cup of tea.”

Rooster’s passions are tax reform, peeling away small business regulations, and promoting personal and economic freedom. And he’s not alone.

“A lot of the younger members of the party coming up – they are very similar to me in that mindset where the federal government needs to back the hell off … I mean …  we’re kind of a more libertarian leaning group,” he says.

Some data is bearing this out. A recent study from the Pew Research Center shows that Millennials, that’s Americans born since 1980, have an independent streak a mile wide. Fully half of them, when asked for their political affiliation, called themselves independents. When they do choose a party, they’re much more likely to choose the Democrats. A tiny sliver of Millennials -- 17% -- identify themselves as Republicans.

Thursday, on the weekly DecodeDC podcast, we talk to young conservatives about what attracts them to their party, and what the GOP needs to do to attract more young people to its ranks. We listen to recent, unsettling statements from some Republican leaders, House Speaker John Boehnerformer GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum, and Iowa Congressman Steve King, and ask the question, ‘are conservative leaders out of step with their younger rank-and-file?’

For young conservatives it’s a critical question. Because people like Rooster – you can follow him @kickassrooster--see a lot of what the Republican Party is doing these days as being “completely superfluous.”


Special thanks to Chris Mandra and Telesma for music in this episode.

Episode 34: What can Mars teach us about politics on Earth?

The future of Congress has been on our minds.

Recently, we considered how advances in technology and data analysis can and will change the way legislators do their work. There are places that are pushing the envelope in this arena. In Brazil official state hackers are building apps, games and data visualizations to help Brazilians – and the members of Parliament – understand the legislative process. In Finland, they are trying legal reform through crowdsourcing – literally turning the legislative process over to the people.

There’s one other place we wanted to explore for ideas about the future and politics – Mars.

Author Kim Stanley Robinson is probably best known for a trilogy of novels called “Red Mars,” “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars.” Their story follows the first human colony on the Red Planet, from scientific outpost through growing villages and cities, to political revolutions, independence from Earth, and a new constitution.

Science fiction is like a big sandbox of ideas in science and technology, but also in culture, politics, and governance. “Lincoln’s great sentence, ‘government of the people, for the people, by the people, shall not perish from the Earth,’ is a utopian science fiction story because it’s in future tense,” Robison says. “We do science fiction all the time in stating our political goals and then acting on them.”

A broad theme in Robinson’s work is tinkering with Mars to make it more hospitable to human life. He’s concocted a Martian constitution where the environment itself is an acknowledged stakeholder that has rights.

As his characters embark on this massive experiment, two factions emerge: those who believe that it is right and good for humans to manipulate and change the planet as much as they like, and those who believe the wild Martian environment should be protected. Sound familiar?

In this case, Robinson’s work is more about NOW than the future.  He uses his science fiction to express a clear point of view on issues such as climate change. As far as he is concerned, we are actually in a better position to protect earth than his characters are on Mars.

This week on the DecodeDC podcast, it’s the future of Congress from about as far outside the Beltway as you can get.

Special thanks to Jeremy Stursberg for his original music in this week's podcast.