Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. Basic Books, 2012
In early nineties when I started visiting the United States, you could hear complaints in Washington about broken political discourse and nasty partisanship but paradoxically, these alleged trends were supposed to mask minuscule differences between Democrats and Republicans. That is not how I had seen it. Czechoslovakia, and then the Czech Republic were just emerging out of the half-century of a totalitarian enclosure that seriously damaged its public sphere. Debates marked nastiness and ad hominem attacks; an omniscient sarcasm fraudulently posed as disinterested detachment. Truth got mangled. I remember thinking how fantastic it would be if the Czech public discourse approximated the American that I had found gentlemanly, factual, generous and genuinely entertaining. Twentythree years after, the fantastic happened. The gap between the two styles has narrowed, but instead of a Czech improvement, the U.S. has seriously slumped. We now see the campaign videos that in the 1990s ran on the NBC comedy show Saturday Night Live, only this time they are meant in earnest. Shrill and shouting crowded out substance.
On the 2008 election night in the Biltmore Arizona Hotel in Phoenix, the McCain-Palin campaign headquarters, I stood on the lawn in front of a podium on which the Republican candidate would soon concede. A crowd of disappointed Phoenix well-to-dos, Republican operatives and activists gathered, and when Senator John McCain spoke of a need to unite behind the newly elected President Barack Obama, shouts of discontent pierced the night illuminated by spotlights. Several hours before, that atmosphere already became palpable in the Biltmore ballroom during a concert and pump-up speeches leading to what would be the electoral anticlimax. It was no ordinary red-meat rhetoric. You could overhear racist slurs, which even given the impending loss were shocking, since these were no street rabble, but well-coiffed, prosperous and educated Arizonans. When the Obama hatred got out into the open during the candidate’s concession speech, McCain was visibly embarrassed. The Biltmore moment to me was a prologue to what was to come in the next four years.
Drubbed in 2008 the Republicans came back in 2010, recapturing momentum and the House of Representatives. In his first two years Obama had scored genuine achievements. The stimulus package very likely averted an economic catastrophe. The help to automobile companies and banks, mis-titled as nationalization, saved key institutions and many jobs. The Affordable Care Act, also passed, is a step towards a deep reform of medical insurance. All were sensible, centrist, market-oriented policies and except the last one, they would have likely been adopted by George W. Bush were he still in office. Almost without exception they were pushed through without the Republican assistance. While in the late eighties and early nineties a common complaint was that there is not much of a difference between the two parties, a charge that briefly fueled Ross Perot’s rise before he self-destructed, the GOP today cannot be more different from its Democratic rival and nemesis. That’s the way it should be, right? Democracies must offer choice.
Not so, write two experienced Congress observers, Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution, and Norman J. Ornstein from the American Enterprise Institute. Their book-length essay, It’s Even Worse than It Looks, follows in the tradition of their earlier book, The Broken Branch, and is a powerful critique of the system and the current state of the Republican Party. Mann and Ornstein argue that while the U.S. Constitution provides for division of powers in the form of checks and balances, the American politics have increasingly moved towards the behavior of a European parliamentary model, in which relatively unified ideological parties compete in elections, and then form cabinets with a majority than enables governance. The U.S. model presumes that because of a frequent occurrence of divided governments, in which President comes from one party and either both chambers of Congress, or at least one, from the other, the political parties should not behave as ideologically unified and strictly opposed to one another. If they do, governance is impossible, as the parties block each other, resulting in gridlock. Yet this is precisely what happened, and Mann and Ornstein do not shy away from pointing out who they believe the culprit is, the GOP.
They briefly chronicle the origins of the Republican intransigence and date it to the 1980s, namely the rise of the GOP Representative from Georgia, historian from a small college by the name of Newt Gingrich. Against the prevailing moderate temper of the Republican establishment, Gingrich singlehandedly decided that the only way to return the GOP to power after decades of marginalization was to launch a radical attack on the Democrats not just as wrong on policy, but simply wrong. This above all meant, illegitimate. Gingrich made some of his enemies’ minor offenses to look as gross corruption and in his speeches to an empty House (yet televised on C-SPAN, while the camera trained only on the podium so viewers had no inkling that he spoke to a deserted chamber) he railed against this “culture of corruption”. It worked beyond Gingrich’s imagination. In 1994, after 40 years, GOP under his leadership took both the House and Senate. Thus the Republican Revolution erupted. However, it lasted only two years. President Clinton shrewdly “triangulated”, which meant he heeded the advice of Dick Morris to move to the center. Gingrich overreached when in a crucial budget battle he made the federal government insolvent, which led to the offices shutdown. Voters blamed Gingrich, not Clinton. Even though Clinton was then impeached, but not removed from office, for lying about an extramarital affair, voters judged him a successful President, whilst Gingrich was deposed and left Congress due to a scandal of his own.
Mann and Ornstein somewhat forget that a good part of the left contributed to the nastiness under Bush 43’s presidency. Reading some of the liberal media from that time and listening to some Democrats, one would be excused if he thought that the first democracy was ruled by a religious fanatic alternately waging war not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also on the working poor, with a quasi-fascist, tortureloving Vice President Dick Cheney as the puppet master. It is true, however, that despite some of the rhetoric, many Democrats worked with Bush and voted for his tax cuts, Medicare expansion and both wars. The relative comity ended with the Biltmore moment.
After Obama’s inauguration, the power in the House shifted to an even more unapologetic group within the GOP, supported by the populist Tea Party and since 2007 led by the Young Guns, Representatives Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan. They believe, or at least give every sign of professing, that government should never raise taxes, always deregulate, cut spending and above all, under no circumstances be led by a Democrat. Their leader in the House, John Boehner, as well as the top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, quickly realized that it would be inopportune to soften the edges and joined the radicalism. Every Obama’s policy proposal met with fierce opposition, some not for any rational reasons but simply because they were supported by him, as Mann and Ornstein amply document. Reserved in the past for exceptional cases, Senate filibuster has by now become the norm. Some laws were nullified, as the House refused to fund them properly, and even qualified presidential nominees to executive agencies were denied hearing, their nominations thwarted simply for partisan reasons. It is a political version of the war of attrition. Obama was to be denied any success, even in cases in which Republicans would normally agree with him. The tactic is clear—a hope that voters would grow disgusted with gridlock and blame the President. It still might work, either denying Obama reelection or making his second term useless.
The authors never mention it, perhaps believing it is irrelevant, perhaps in an attempt to avoid a sensitive issue, still one wonders whether all this rattling about an illegitimate President enamored of a “Kenyan anti-colonial worldview” (Gingrich) might have to do with Obama’s skin color? (By the way, since precisely when have the Republicans embraced colonialism?) In an intriguing essay in The Atlantic, Fear of a Black President, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that while Americans might be enlightened enough to elect African American as President, they feel uneasy fully embracing one that is genuinely culturally black. If that holds water then there is solid constituency for defeating Obama at almost any price.
Mann and Ornstein acknowledge that the deck is stacked against quick improvement. Rather than searching for a magic bullet, they come up with a series of proposals, for example broadening the electoral base to dilute the role of activist radicalism on both sides, possibly even making voting mandatory like Australia does, or shaming by personalities with moral authority the rhetorical excesses that get you fame on cable TV and fortune yet poison the well. Reforming the filibuster and hold rules in the Senate would certainly count as a radical step forward. The book also exhorts journalists not to succumb to false objectivity—in the author’s view it is not both sides that are guilty, but the Republicans who have become, in their words, ‘radical ideological outliers’, incongruously forcing on the American system of divided government the parliamentary habits of Europe.
The authors are excellent at describing and analyzing the beast of American politics, but are wanting in my view in explaining the deeper roots of the polarization. That might be because they simply disagree not just with the Republican Party tactics but also with its message, as The Economist has suggested. Large parts of the American electorate are convinced that the country is headed in the wrong, “European” direction, that would result in expanded government and diminished personal responsibility and freedom. It might be good to provide universal healthcare, strengthen the social safety net, expand the environment and safety regulation, improve and subsidize public transportation… and the list might go on. These measures, taken in isolation, are social goods in themselves, but in their aggregate they would strengthen the role of government, increase spending per GDP, and over time might change the unique, dynamic, entrepreneurial culture of the United States.
If you subscribe to this view you do not care that much that the tactics your party employs is radical. You might forgive a temporary downgrading of the U.S. credit rating, or even a technical default. These are the costs of victory. As the political grandfather of the movement, Barry Goldwater, said memorably, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
Reminded the GOP remains. We shall yet to see whether the American political culture survives in the process.
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