Broken: Can the Senate Save Itself and the Country?

By Ira Shapiro

While the hyper-partisanship in Washington that has stunned the world has been building for decades, Ira Shapiro argues that the U.S. Senate has suffered most acutely from the loss of its political center.

In Broken, Ira Shapiro, a former senior Senate staffer and author of the critically-acclaimed book The Last Great Senate, offers an expert’s account of some of the most prominent battles of the past decade and lays out what must be done to restore the Senate’s lost luster. Shapiro places the Senate at “ground zero for America’s political dysfunction”--the institution that has failed the longest and the worst. Because the Senate, at its best, represented the special place where the Democrats and Republicans worked together to transcend ideological and regional differences and find common ground, its decline has intensified the nation’s polarization, by institutionalizing it at the highest level. Shapiro documents this decline and evaluates the prospects of restoration that could provide a way out of the polarized morass that has engulfed Congress.

With a narrative that runs right through the first year of the Trump presidency, Broken will be essential reading for all concerned about the state of American politics and the future of our country.

The crisis of American democracy started long before Trump became president, or a candidate for president. Our government has been failing for a very long time, and the Senate has been ground zero for that failure.  Partisanship has made the Senate dysfunctional — unable to find common ground on vital issues of the day.  In Broken: Can the Senate Save Itself and the Country?, Ira Shapiro offers an expert’s account of some of the most prominent battles of the past decade and describes what must be done to restore the Senate’s important position as a guardian of democracy against possible threats from authoritarian leadership and a polarized environment.

Editorial Reviews


[T]he Senate is unlikely to live up to its potential as a deliberative body anytime soon. But in Broken, Ira Shapiro makes a compelling and persuasive case that we should never stop demanding that it does. Washington Monthly

Shapiro (The Last Great Senate), a former trade negotiator for the Clinton administration, examines headline-making political battles dating back to the 1970s in this engrossing overview of the Senate’s decline into what he characterizes as hyperpartisanship. In talking about the obstruction tactics that he says have eroded public trust in a formerly respected and reliably bipartisan institution, the author takes the impassioned tone of an anguished parent watching his beloved children fail to live up to their potential. Part one focuses on the implementation of obstructionist tactics that are now firmly entrenched and wielded with ferocity. Shapiro sees them originating with the New Right ideologues who came to power with Reagan, and reaching a nadir under Senate Majority Leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, who cared more about “partisan warfare” than the “health of the institution.” Part two looks at Trump’s first months in office, and though the assessment is bleak, it’s never hopeless. Although “procedural frailty” in Senate rules has led to a state of gridlock, the Senate could fix itself, Shapiro writes, as one of its major strengths is its agility: “Bipartisan action can happen in swift and surprising terms.” Written to inform and to exhort, Shapiro’s work is a fast-paced narrative that moderates will appreciate. (Jan.)Publishers Weekly

“Ira Shapiro’s seminal book The Last Great Senate reflected both his deep knowledge and his love of the Senate of Mansfield, Dirksen, Kennedy, Baker and Byrd. Broken reflects Shapiro’s deep dismay and anger at what has befallen that Senate. By chronicling the dysfunction of contemporary American politics through the prism of the Senate and its role, Shapiro has given us important insights into what went wrong and why, and a roadmap to fix at least one vital part of a system gone awry. His book is particularly timely at a moment when the Senate faces the challenges posed by a radical and dangerous president.” — Norman J. Ornstein, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute; contributing editor, The Atlantic; and co-author of One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not―Yet Deported.

"Broken is a worthy sequel to Ira Shapiro's wonderful first book, The Last Great Senate, which captured the work of the upper chamber during the Carter presidency. Here Shapiro skillfully describes the decline of the upper chamber from then to now by focusing on many of the central episodes and the senators who played pivotal roles. Shapiro's deep knowledge of, experience with, and love for, the Senate makes this a rewarding read for college courses as well for those interested in the future of American democracy." — Joel K. Goldstein, Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law, Saint Louis University School of Law, and author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden (2016).

“While our country, and the world, is understandably focused on the unprecedented and reckless nature of the Trump presidency, Ira Shapiro’s narrative history takes a wider lens to describe how dysfunction in the Senate helped open the door to Donald Trump in the first place. His unflinching account is a call for the Senate to rise above partisanship rather than succumb to it. The book reminds us that Congress must provide the ultimate check against one-man rule, as our founders intended.” — Madeleine K. Albright, former United States Secretary of State and author of Fascism: A Warning

“Ira Shapiro has written a riveting, unsparing description of the Senate’s long decline and a frank assessment of its performance during the first year of the Trump presidency. His book reminds us that the Senate has the power, the special responsibility, and the potential to rise above the partisan wars. The question facing today’s Senate is can it and will it act to reclaim its proud history.” — John Podesta, Chief of Staff to President Clinton, Counselor to President Obama, Chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and Founder of the Center for American Progress

“[A]n important new volume on the contemporary Senate, flaws and all — and in fact the sad story is that the flaws have become the defining characteristics of the chamber.” — David Shribman, Executive Editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Pulitzer Prize winning political columnist