It’s Even Worse Than It Looks

by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein


“One of the two major parties, 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.”

If you could read that sentence without getting mad, you might consider hearing what Mann and Ornstein have to say. Otherwise, this book will probably just anger you. In other words, Spoiler Alert: the Republicans take a lot of shit in this one.

The basic argument here is that our political process is incredibly dysfunctional; this can be seen primarily in the way Congress handles (or is unable to handle) its business. The authors blame two factors, one of which is the disconnect between our political system and our political parties; the Democratic and Republican parties are ideologically unified but are forced to govern under a system that gives great power to the minority. The other is the aforementioned polarization, labelled ‘asymmetric polarization’ by those who believe that the Republican Party has ideologically consolidated far from the mainstream.

The first example given is the debt ceiling debate, in which what had been a formality suddenly became a crisis that downgraded our nation’s credit and nearly mandated a default on our sovereign debt. The Republicans in Congress would not agree to raise the debt limit unless serious budget concessions were made by the Obama Administration. It's Even Worse Than It LooksThis bit of hostage taking nearly resulted in disaster, but the Republicans didn’t seem ashamed. On the contrary, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell stated after the crisis, “We’ll be doing it all over.” If you’ve been paying attention over the last month or so, yes, it’s happening again.

The authors also explore the filibuster, which has been abused by both parties when they have been in minorities in the Senate. The filibuster developed over the years as a tool for members of the minority to voice their vehement objection to a bill, as the southern Dixiecrats used it trying to stall civil rights legislation in the 1960’s. By now the filibuster has become almost synonymous with the Senate itself in the minds of voters, though Mann and Ornstein accurately point out that the filibuster is neither in the Constitution nor a permanent rule of the Senate. The use of the filibuster has degraded to the point that a single member can hold up legislation or appointments for days, shutting down the business of the Senate and often forcing the Majority Leader to simply give up on certain items of the Senate’s agenda.

I have to say, as a Democrat, it’s not hard for me to see the Republicans as the party of obstruction when, right now, they’re preparing for another debt ceiling negotiation that will inevitably become a debt ceiling crisis. Whatever sympathy I had for John Boehner as one of the weakest Speakers of the House in recent history evaporates when he laments that President Obama wants to “annihilate the Republican Party,” seemingly forgetting that Majority Leader McConnell had previously said the Republicans’ top priority was to make Obama a one-term president. That being said, the Republicans didn’t invent obstruction, and blaming them for our system’s inadequacies, while satisfying, is kind of a waste of time.

But regardless of who’s at fault, Mann and Ornstein paint a pretty bleak picture. Most of the time, any lament to the intractability of our democratic process comes with a ray of sunshine; there’s really none to be found in this book. Legislative remedies are offered, but given the book’s insistence that our legislative process has been corrupted, these seem like a long shot at best. The authors dismiss the possibility that our process will right itself, as many optimists believe.

There are no quick fixes, but the authors do outline some long-term goals for reform, and it’s not the Republican plan to divide up electoral votes (of large blue states) by Congressional district. (It’s bad enough that the Republicans are behaving like the sorest losers in history, adapting to a loss not by trying to get better but by changing the rules so that they’re more likely to win, as if democracy was some perverse electoral version of Calvinball. But they’re trying to do it in Virginia, attempting to blatantly disenfranchise the clear majority in my state that had the audacity to twice vote for Barack Obama after voting Republican for forty years. It really doesn’t incline me towards thinking that Republicans have anything in their plans that would make me, y’know, actually want to vote for them.)

It's much funnier when it's not about your civil rights

It’s much funnier when it’s not about your civil rights

Back to the not-so-quick fixes. According to the authors, with me in agreement, we need campaign finance reform. Money isn’t speech, and the legal fiction that allows the wealthy and powerful to divert huge sums of money towards getting their candidates elected boggles the mind. And yes, instant runoff voting will help elect a candidate that the majority of a district’s voters will actually be able to support while allowing voters to vote their conscience. The authors also reiterate that the Senate needs to be seriously reformed, as Majority Leader Harry Reid nearly accomplished last month.

The most interesting fix I read about was mandatory voting, to which many Americans, myself included, have an almost visceral revulsion. We don’t like being told that anything is mandatory. However, Mann and Ornstein make the argument that the most informed voters, the most likely voters, and the most partisan voters are by and large the same group. This means that Democratic candidates only need to play to Democratic voters, and ditto for the Republicans, since those in the middle are more difficult to court and are unlikely to vote anyway. If we had mandatory voting, with a nominal fine, candidates might find that the electorate would become significantly more moderate overnight.

Anyway, It’s Even Worse is bleak about our government, to the point of being upsetting, but its second half offers real goals for the future. Remember, the GOP kind of takes a beating in these pages. Republicans, you’ve been warned.


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