Saturday, May 26, 2012

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

Basic Books, ISBN 9780465031337, May 2012

This is a scary book.

First, it needs to be said that Ornstein and Mann are not "liberals" in any sense. They are, at most, center-right conservatives. They are respected and popular pundits "inside the Beltway" and frequent guests on the Sunday political talk shows.

At least, before they published this book.

We're all aware that our politics in recent years have been unusually broken, with gridlock and partisan obstructionism preventing even basic government functions from being carried out properly. Conventional, mainstream media wisdom says that this is equally the fault of both sides, that Democrats and Republicans both have become more extreme in recent years.

Mann and Ornstein say that's not correct, that the Democrats have moved a little to the left, while the Republicans have become an extreme ideological outlier, unwilling to compromise on anything, and not accepting even a shared understanding of facts and evidence with the rest of the world.

Furthermore, they document this: the slight shift in the Democratic ideological tilt, as they lost the Dixiecrats, with very little movement in the rest of the Democratic caucus, while Republicans moved much further to the right. This happened in part because they welcomed the Dixiecrats who no longer felt welcome in the Democratic party, but also as a result of deliberate strategy and tactics used to break the longstanding Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. One of the key players in this was the relatively pragmatic Newt Gingrich, who deliberately developed parliamentary-like party discipline and unity, in order to obstruct the Democrats, make Congress less functional, therefore less popular, and induce the voters to "throw the bums out."

The authors lay out clearly the ways in which parliamentary parties, the Republicans especially but the Democrats, in response, developing similar if not quite as strong discipline, are incompatible with the governmental structure we have, which requires a high degree of consensus and cooperation in order to work. They beautifully explain how the GOP has driven the system closer and closer to the edge, driving out the liberals, the moderates, the center right, the merely "very conservative" members of their own party, in pursuit of ever-greater ideological purity.

They also, thankfully, lay out suggestions for how to make the situation better. These suggestions include changes to the government (extraordinarily hard to achieve), changes to how the parties behave (very hard to achieve), and changes to voter behavior (dependent on voters recognizing the seriousness of the situation.) They propose open primaries as one way to lessen the power of the extremes, and encourage voters and candidates more ready for cooperation and compromise in order to get the practical business of government accomplished.

This is an important book, one that everyone who cares about our political system ought to read. Unfortunately, it's getting very little attention because the mainstream media that normally love Ornstein and Mann haven't been interested in having them on since this book came out. Why? Maybe because they place a lot of blame on the mainstream media for buying into the false equivalency of "both sides do it" and not reporting on the genuinely extreme and destructive behavior of the current Republican party.

Highly recommended.


  1. Um, they've done two or three major op-eds in the Washington Post that based on the book that have gotten a lot of play. Good review and I look forward to reading the book. Do they address the need to reform or eliminate two of the biggest problems: filibusters and Senatorials "holds" on nominations?

  2. Yes, they do.

    And yes, they've done those op-eds, but they're not getting the kind of attention that you'd expect a controversial book from these two people to get. The way they're being ignored by the Sunday talk shows, you'd almost think they were Democrats.