Magazine June 25, 2012, Issue

Extremely Non-Partisan

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein (Basic, 240 pp., $26)

The impulse for harmony in politics is understandable. All else being equal, most of us would prefer civility to narrow-minded partisanship and petty bickering. The difficulty is, of course, that all else is not equal. Most of us would accept partisanship and bickering if it meant the enactment of better policy.

This is the problem with facile appeals to comity and non-partisanship. When people innocently ask why the parties can’t get along, there is often a veiled assumption: The other side needs to stop dragging their feet and get with the program — our program. They would be perfectly willing to fight (rather than get along) if it meant that their vision of justice would be enacted. Thus they display bumper stickers proclaiming “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism” when in the opposition, and denounce partisanship when in the majority.

This problem has afflicted political parties since the birth of our republic. The Founders embodied this tension between the desire for political harmony and the necessity of political conflict. George Washington denounced the “baneful effects of the spirit of party” in his farewell address, and Thomas Jefferson famously declared that “we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” in his first inaugural address. But at the same time, the Founders engaged in bitter squabbling, using partisan newspapers to spread slanderous rumors about political opponents. And these petty tactics resulted in an infamous set of laws passed in the name of preserving political harmony: the Alien and Sedition Acts.

This tension between political harmony and political conflict has produced total confusion and hypocrisy in many of today’s commentators. In this new book, two longtime Beltway political analysts lecture readers on how dysfunctional Washington has become, and how the Republicans are responsible for it. They thus produce a book that suffers from exactly the sort of one-sided narrative they denounce.

Their argument is relatively simple: There are “two overriding sources of dysfunction” in today’s politics. The first is “the serious mismatch between the political parties . . . and a governing system that, unlike a parliamentary democracy, makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act.” The second is “the fact that . . . one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier.”

The first of these two propositions — that our party system has been transformed and polarized over the past several decades — is worthy of serious consideration. This story is familiar to most political scientists: “Political parties today are more internally unified and ideologically distinctive than they have been in over a century.” The parties have become essentially nationalized. Republicans tend to hold the same political views as other Republicans, regardless of geography. There is very little difference between a northern and a southern (or western) Republican. The same is true of Democrats. The causes of this trend are numerous (political, migratory, and demographic), and they ultimately came to a head in the 1960s, when Democrats lost their strong hold on the South and Republicans’ strength in New England began to wane. Mann and Ornstein’s account of this trend, though it spans only ten or so pages, is interesting and readable, and is a good introductory treatment of this important topic.

But the authors devote most of their effort to defending their second proposition — that “the Republican party has become an insurgent outlier,” incapable of coexisting with a well-functioning democracy. Their argument bears all of the characteristics, and the subtlety, of a rant. There are conspiracy theories and paranoia, identifying the usual suspects (Newt Gingrich and the Koch brothers) and the not-so-usual suspects (John Roberts). Bizarrely, several pages are dedicated to discussing a chain e-mail about congressional pensions.

The resulting conclusion is that we face an unprecedented situation, in which one major party is so beyond the pale that it threatens the very fabric of the country. Mann and Ornstein are very clear that what happened last summer with the persistent battle over the debt ceiling was evidence of a crisis. But several pieces of anecdotal evidence do not constitute a proof. A book that offered serious discussion of a widening philosophical gap between the two major parties and linked that gap to an increase in partisanship would be a fascinating and important contribution. Unfortunately, that is not what Mann and Ornstein have written.

Anticipating this response, the authors acknowledge that “readers might be struck by a lack of balance in our treatment of the two major parties.” In reply, they fall back on bare assertion: “Democrats are hardly blameless and have their own extreme wing and their own predilection to hardball politics. But . . . those tendencies have not generally veered outside the normal boundaries of robust politics. At the same time, Republicans in office have driven both the widening of the ideological gap between the parties and the strategic hyperpartisanship on such crucial issues as financial stabilization, economic recovery, deficits and debt, health-care reform, and climate change.” In other words, Democrats use hardball politics, but they do so within “the normal boundaries of robust politics”; Republicans do so in pursuit of a radical, ideological, hyperpartisan agenda.

In the end, then, Mann and Ornstein seem to oppose not hardball politics, but hardball politics in the pursuit of certain ends. The tactics aren’t the problem. The Democrats can be nasty, because they are right. The Republicans cannot be nasty, because they are wrong. If the Republicans weren’t so damn conservative, there wouldn’t be so much partisanship. The implicit premise is that Republicans are radical and partisan because they are conservative, and we’d be much better off if we returned to the days when Republicans were content to go in the direction of progressive liberalism, albeit a little bit more slowly.

To restate the argument in this manner is to demonstrate the problem with it. The authors provide very little argument that the Republicans have crossed an ideological Rubicon in any substantive way. There are a few quotes from Republican dissenters Chuck Hagel and Mike Lofgren, but that is all they offer.

They do note that a couple of prominent commentators (Ramesh Ponnuru and Steven Hayward) have warned against taking a position of avoiding, at all costs, accommodation and compromise. But these statements are not the smoking gun Mann and Ornstein are looking for. They are simply a friendly reminder that opposition is most effective when it offers feasible alternatives — something that the Republicans have arguably been doing, with Paul Ryan’s Roadmap on the budget and the repeal-and-replace approach on Obamacare. The book never acknowledges the existence of these alternative ideas.

In tracing the causes of our present discontent back to the 1960s, Mann and Ornstein ultimately miss the bigger picture and fail to address the larger questions. Perhaps Congress was designed as a party-based institution in which conflict was resolved through confrontation. In grappling with this question, William F. Connelly Jr.’s 2010 book James Madison Rules America is far more helpful and nuanced.

Furthermore, perhaps the specific source of today’s partisan conflict is found earlier than Mann and Ornstein think: in the mass democracy introduced during the Progressive Era. With the rise of mass democracy, problems of campaign finance, demagoguery, and media influence inevitably became more acute. Sidney Milkis’s Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy (2009) provides a good discussion of these issues.

In the end, some of Mann and Ornstein’s proposals are interesting and defensible. Some of them are obvious (the media should be more responsible in reporting the truth about Washington politics and policy). Others ought to be given serious consideration (reforming the cloture rule in the Senate).

Their closing proposals aim to direct voters in an especially helpful way: “Punish a party for ideological extremism by voting against it. (Today, that means the GOP.) . . . Consider carefully which presidential ticket (the candidates, party, and platform) you prefer to lead the country. Then entrust that party with the majority in the House and Senate. It makes more sense than divided government in these times of partisan polarization.” The solution for partisan polarization turns out to be quite simple: Give the Democrats control of the House, the Senate, and the presidency. Voilà! No more partisan opposition!

Mann and Ornstein acknowledge that the idea for It’s Even Worse Than It Looks was hatched in the wake of the debt-ceiling debate last August, a mere nine months before it hit bookstores. Unfortunately, the haste with which the book was written explains, but does not excuse, the final product.

– Mr. Postell is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He is a co-editor of Rediscovering Political Economy.

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