Mann and Ornstein, Revisited, on Asymmetric Polarization

Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein are out with a new version of their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks (on the cover “Looks” is crossed out and the word “Was” is written in). It has a new afterward, which addresses, among other things, the Trump phenomenon.  The most controversial aspect of their book (and they talk about reaction to their book in the new afterward) is their argument that Republicans are more to blame for dysfunction in Washington than Democrats, because Republican legislators moved more to the right than Democrats to the left.

Here’s what I wrote about their book in a 2012 Slate review:

In their new book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein offer both an insightful diagnosis of the problem of a broken Washington and a set of proposed solutions. Their diagnosis is mostly right—there’s a mismatch between our form of government and our new, fiercely ideological political parties. But their proposed solutions won’t get us very far thanks to the very pathologies they identify. The cliché is true: Washington is broken. But it’s even worse than Mann and Ornstein say: It can’t be fixed.

Think of the most pressing domestic problem facing the country today. Whether you choose persistent unemployment, the struggling economic recovery, the housing market, health care, the social security fund crisis, or the ballooning national debt, chances are good that there is consensus that the problem is real and that the president, a blue ribbon commission, or someone in Congress already has proposed some solution. And chances are even better that the proposed solution has no realistic chance of being enacted into law.

The problem, Mann and Ornstein tell us, is that we have increasingly ideological parties working in a constitutional system premised on the need for continued compromise to get things done. Thanks to our Constitution and the rules of the House and Senate, any piece of legislation must run through a series of “vetogates” to get passed, from congressional committees to the Senate filibuster. (Schoolhouse Rock’s take is a bit quaint. Try the Daily Show instead.)

Without supermajority support for proposed legislation, it is next to impossible to get anything through Congress these days. There is no question that parties have become more ideological, with the most conservative Democrat more liberal than the most liberal Republican in the Senate. (The causes are complex, but come in large part from the movement of Southern conservatives from the Democratic to Republican Party with the passage of civil rights legislation.) Partisan competition is so intense these days that the minority party does what it can to block even the good ideas of the other party, in order to gain electoral advantage in the next election. And just wait for the next Supreme Court nomination.

Mann and Ornstein have gained the most attention for their claim that Republicans are more to blame than Democrats, a charge which seems unfair. As Chris Cillizza explained, many of the extreme ideological Republicans in the House are doing exactly what other members of the House are doing: representing the interests of the constituents who elected them. The Tea Party crowds who pushed for more extreme legislators got just what they hoped for. It is not only the legislators who have a strong ideological, no compromise attitude: The voters who elected them do, too. And Democratic legislators have shown they can throw up roadblocks as well as Republicans.

The focus on whether Republicans are more to blame has distracted from the fundamental truth in Mann and Ornstein’s book: If such ideological polarization persists, we would be much better off with a British-style parliamentary system rather than our traditional “separation of powers” approach to government. In a well-designed parliamentary democracy, the majority party can actually govern, and voters can punish that party when it governs badly or things go wrong. Voters hold politicians accountable.

In retrospect, and with the rise of Trump and Cruz on the Republican side, there is now no question that the Republican party has become extreme, and more extreme than the Democrats. On this asymmetric polarization point, I think Mann and Ornstein are right. The interesting question going forward, and one which perhaps Mann and Ornstein will address in the 2020 version of their book, is whether the counter-reaction on the Democratic side, with the rise of Sanders and Warren etc., means the Democrats will move parallel, further to the left, creating conditions for even greater dysfunction.  Or maybe the Republican coalition comes apart and we end up with three parties for a time (tea party, center-right, and liberal).  Three parties would not be stable, and so this portends a period of perhaps years of churn before we likely settle into a new two-party pattern.

In any case, you should pick up the Mann/Ornstein book–but be prepared to be disheartened about the current state American democracy.

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