Political Philosophy

The normative and conceptual inquiry into forms of government

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, Synopsis

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, 2016, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein

  • Thomas E. Mann is the W. Averell Harriman Chair and senior fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution.
  • Norman J. Ornstein a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of a weekly column for Roll Call, called “Congress Inside Out.”
Two Overriding Sources of Dysfunction in Government
  • Mismatch 
    • There’s a fundamental mismatch between
      • polarized political parties
        • and
      • the Constitutional separation of powers
    • Students of comparative politics have demonstrated that the American policy-making system of checks and balances and separation of powers has more structural impediments to action than any other major democracy. 
    • The mismatch is a formula for willful obstruction and policy avoidance. Our Madisonian system is predicated on the willingness of elected officials representing highly diverse interests to engage in good faith and compromise.
  • Asymmetric Polarization
    • The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
    • The radicalization of the Republican Party was given impetus and sustenance by a vast talk radio, cable news, and social media, the modern, hyper-charged partisan press. These outlets attract and reinforce relatively homogeneous audiences with extreme views.
    • At least as problematic is the traditional or mainstream press that routinely provides evenhanded treatment of the decidedly uneven behavior of the two parties. This pattern of false equivalence has continued unabated in the last several years, depriving the American public of an accurate account of what is driving our governance problems.
  • The polarization in today’s Congress has roots that go back decades, March 10, 2022 Pew Research
Role of Newt Gingrich
  • Newt Gingrich deserves a dubious kind of credit for many of the elements that have produced the current state of politics. He crystalized the approach of crafting a cohesive, parliamentary-style minority party and using it as a battering ram to stymie and damage a president of the other party. By moving to paint with a broad brush his own institution as elitist, corrupt, and arrogant, he undermined basic public trust in Congress and government, reducing the institution’s credibility over a long period. His attacks on partisan adversaries in the White House and Congress created a norm in which colleagues with different views became mortal enemies. In nationalizing congressional elections, he helped invent the modern permanent campaign, allowing electoral goals to dominate policy ones; the use of overheated rhetoric and ethics charges as political weapons; and the take-no-prisoner politics of confrontation and obstruction that have become the new normal.
Increase in Ideological Polarization
  • Scholars have amply measured and established the sharp increase in polarization over the last three decades. We can see it in roll call voting patterns in the House and Senate. As Figure 2.1 shows, the period from the end of Reconstruction through the first decade of the twentieth century was also a deeply partisan one, reflecting divisions on issues like farming and whether the United States should rely on the gold or silver standard for its money. Earlier periods in American history also experienced sharp partisan conflict—from battles over federalism in the early decades of the republic to slavery in the 1850s. But for most of the past century, the parties were less internally unified and ideologically distinctive, and more coalitions in Congress cut across parties than is the case today. All the evidence on parties in government in recent years points to very high unity within and sharp ideological and policy differences between the two major parties.
Figure 2-1 Party Polarization, 1879–2012: Ideological Gap Between the Parties.
Asymmetric Polarization
  • The phenomenon of asymmetric polarization is clear when we look at roll call voting averages for parties on the same liberal-conservative dimension over time. Since the late 1970s, Republicans have moved much more sharply in a conservative direction than did Democrats in a liberal direction. And the change that occurred among Democrats was mostly within their Southern contingent—the demise of Dixiecrat conservatives and the election of minorities. Democratic representatives outside the South barely moved at all. (See Figure 2-2 for voting averages.) The 2010 election dramatically increased the conservative tilt of the House Republicans. Nearly 80 percent of the freshmen Republicans in the 112th Congress would have been in the right wing of the party in the 111th Congress.
Figure 2-2 Liberal-Conservative Voting Averages in the House of Representatives, 1879–2014.
Is It Really As Bad As It Looks?
  • Holds, filibusters, and other delay and obstruction tactics have been around since the beginning of the republic. But as we look at the panoply of tactics and techniques for throwing wrenches and grenades into the regular order of the policy process, which the new and old media’s outside agitation encourages and even incites, we do not see business as usual. The target is no longer an individual judge or cabinet member hated for a real or imagined ideological leaning. The pathologies we’ve identified, old and new, provide incontrovertible evidence of people who have become more loyal to party than to country. As a result, the political system has become grievously hobbled at a time when the country faces unusually serious challenges and grave threats.
  • The single-minded focus on scoring political points over solving problems, escalating over the last several decades, has reached a level of such intensity and bitterness that the government seems incapable of taking and sustaining public decisions responsive to the existential challenges facing the country.