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For about five minutes Wednesday, Norman Ornstein did a little stand-up comedy before a crowd of around 250 at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

That's because the remaining 55 minutes of the lecture was a sobering riff on his and Thomas Mann's politically apocalyptic-titled book, "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism."

"I like to get you laughing because it's all downhill from this point on," Ornstein said.

Mann, who joined Ornstein in the discussion and signed copies of the book afterwards, said one of the key catalysts to writing the book was the ousting of Utah's Bob Bennett from his Senate seat in the 2010 state Republican convention.

In that defeat, Mann said Congress lost a senator who was conservative but was willing to compromise to keep government running and gained Sen. Mike Lee — an ideologue who exists to impede legislation as a member of the minority party.

He said the Lee, who was a principle leader in trying to stop the vote of raising the debt ceiling limit, is the product of a system that rewards members of the political party not in power for being obstructionist at all costs.

He also said Bennett wasn't alone as a disappearing form of moderate, noting Congress will lose Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., in January and he'll likely be replaced by Richard Mourdock, a tea party member who once told Fox News, "I have a mind set that says bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view."

Mann said that viewpoint is destructive.

"If you have no interest in participating in the political process but you have the resources and incentives to undermine it, you can advance your political party's interest but the damage is inflicted on the country as a whole," Mann said.

Lee spokesman Brian Phillips said Bennett lost the seat "fair and square" and that the results were a reflection of what Utah wanted as representation.

"That voting system was well in place before Mike Lee ran for Senate," Phillips said. "If they believe the voting system has flaws, they should take it up with those folks." Phillips also said, "Senator Bennett won re-election under the same system."

A key reason why the book has generated so much interest is because of the authors' divergent backgrounds.

Ornstein works with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank, while Mann works for the liberal Brookings Institution. Ornstein made the case at the lecture that one of the problems facing the nation is it has entered a "tribal" mentality in terms of politics where a facts and ideas can be discredited just because of who is affiliated with them.

"If they don't adhere to the same set of facts...then we're going to be forced to do the next book, 'Run for your Lives,'" he said.

The two also blamed the news media for offering both sides of a story in cases where the other side of the story has been largely discredited. Ornstein used the example of climate change, where "99.5 percent of the scientists" argue it exists and "one-half of 1 percent don't."

"You can't be reporting as they're equal every time," Ornstein said.

The talk had an impact on 18-year-old Sophie Gassaway, who registered to vote two days ago as a Republican and her friend, Shantae Riley, 28, also a Republican.

Both agreed with the authors' premise of hyper-partisanship being destructive to democracy and they were harder on Republicans - with Riley saying she didn't think she could vote for Mitt Romney and Gassaway disillusioned enough to possibly skip Election Day entirely.

"I don't feel there is a party I can identify with," Gassaway said.

Twitter: @davemontero

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