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The Democratic Challenge from Within

Liberal democracy may be the only socio-economic system left standing on the modern world stage, but that hardly insulates it from serious challenges from within, according to Francis Fukuyama.

Communism has receded as an economic challenger and even states such as China that offer expanding economic opportunity to its people in return for obedience to one-party rule are finding it harder to retain control. Liberal democracy is in the global wind. 

However, in his new book, "Political Order and Political Decay," Fukuyama explores how you can lose while winning. He suggests America's political development is going in reverse — and not in ways that the federal government's sharpest critics allege. 

Fukuyama describes the decline with an American government that is weaker, less efficient and more corrupt — not bigger. The evidence of decline, he says, can be seen in a government unable or unwilling to tackle major challenges, while submitting itself to the will of well-heeled special interests at the expense of a population experiencing widening income inequality. 

In his earlier work, "The Origins of Political Order," Fukuyama said liberal democracy rests on three pillars – fair, multiparty elections; political accountability; and the rule of law. His latest work suggests that elections alone don't guarantee a liberal democracy and that their value can be undermined by resulting political dysfunction and chipping away at who actually can vote.

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Beheadings May Unite a Divided Nation

Maybe it took the beheading of American journalists to unify a national divided on almost everything to confront the newest danger to world security.Most pundits predicted it would take a miracle to unsnarl partisan gridlock in DC. Maybe it will take something very non-miraculous, like the beheadings of two American journalists by Islamic radicals.

As Congress wanders back to the nation's capital, pressure is building on President Obama to take action against what is viewed as the fast emerging threat posed by ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The threat is fresh enough, there is even disagreement over what to call it. Obama and others refer to the group as ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

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Poll Reflects a Seething, Alienated Public

Americans aren't happy. They see the country headed on the wrong track. They aren't satisfied with the economic recovery. They have low opinions of the President and Congress. They think America is in decline. They believe a widening gap in incomes undermines the idea of opportunity for all.

Those are some of the findings from a poll conducted this month by Hart Research Associates for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. Hart interviewed 1,000 American adults, including 350 respondents who only have a cell phone, which yielded a broad spectrum of participation, including 11 percent from adults between the ages of 18 and 24. 

The public rarely has an opportunity to see raw poll results from a credible pollster. Hart Research was founded by Peter Hart in 1971. In addition to work for Democrats, Hart Research has conducted surveys for nonprofits and social causes. Since 1989, Hart has teamed with a leading Republican pollster to conduct polls shared with the public. 

Some of the findings in the latest poll aren't surprising and don't veer from recent trends. The last time Americans thought the country was headed in the right direction was April 2009 and even then it was a 43-43 percent tie.

Much is made of declines in approval ratings for President Obama, but they aren't as severe as some suggest. The August poll showed 42 percent of respondents approved of Obama's handling of the economy, compared to 53 percent disapproving. However, the low-water mark for Obama came in May 2011 when his approval rating was just 37 percent. It was 39 percent as recently as last December.

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The Transportation Investment Conundrum

Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer is preparing to push a legislation to raise the federal gas tax by 15 cents per gallon and lay the groundwork for a transition to what he terms a more stable source of funding for U.S. transportation infrastructure.

In the current congressional climate, it doesn't seem as if Blumenauer's ​"Update, Promote and Develop America's Transportation Essentials Act" has much of a chance to see the light of day, let alone pass a sharply divided Congress.

Blumenauer spent time in Oregon during the congressional break to tout the legislation. He says added gas tax revenue will help catch up on lagging transportation investment and relieve pressure on the federal general fund, which has been tapped to supplement the Federal Highway Trust Fund that is running on empty.

Congress grabbed $50 billion from the federal general fund to sustain projects underway as part of the federal transportation bill that expires at the end of 2014.

As vehicles have become more fuel efficient — and some have stopped using gas or diesel altogether — federal and state highway trust funds have felt the squeeze of declining revenues relative to road miles they must maintain, upgrade or expand. 

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Lobbying Okay; Lobbyists Not So Much

New survey data indicates Americans don't mind lobbying; they just don't like lobbyists. 

The 2014 Public Affairs Council survey shows support for lobbying has grown since 2012, despite the seeming dysfunction in Washington, DC that has led to fewer bills being passed by Congress. 

[New York Times columnist Charles Blow consulted the Library of Congress website to compare the productivity of Congress in the first 19 months of each term from the 104th Congress (1995-1996) to the 113th Congress (2013-2104). The 113th Congress has passed the fewest bills (108) of any Congress in the last two decades. Its closest rival was the 112th Congress with 110 bills.]

According to the nonpartisan Public Affairs Council, strong majorities of Americans favor lobbying to protect jobs (84 percent), open new markets (79 percent), create a level playing field (74 percent) and reduce business costs (68 percent).

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