Book Review: '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 Ornstein
Review bySusan Grigsby
Last week, Norm Ornstein wrote an article that appeared in the National Review and The Atlantic, titled, "The Unprecedented—and Contemptible—Attempts to Sabotage Obamacare." In the article he made it clear that the Republican attempts are not quite treason. But they are pretty damn close.
For three years, Republicans in the Senate refused to confirm anybody to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the post that McClellan had held in 2003-04—in order to damage the possibility of a smooth rollout of the health reform plan. Guerrilla efforts to cut off funding, dozens of votes to repeal, abusive comments by leaders, attempts to discourage states from participating in Medicaid expansion or crafting exchanges, threatening letters to associations that might publicize the availability of insurance on exchanges, and now a new set of threats—to have a government shutdown, or to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, unless the president agrees to stop all funding for implementation of the plan.
He compares the obstruction of Obamacare by the GOP to what happened to President Bush's prescription drug bill. Even though the Republican Party ignored, or broke, long standing rules and conventions to get a bad bill passed, the Democrats did not fight to obstruct its implementation after the bill had passed, on a federal or state level. Instead they worked to insure that as many seniors as possible could understand the new program and their choices.
Last week was not the first time that Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, called out the Republican Party. In 2006 he was a co-author, with Thomas E. Mann, of Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track. In that book, they criticized the methods of House Speaker Hastert (he of the infamous Hastert rule) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay that increased partisanship and put party loyalty ahead of good governance. They also pointed out that the Republican Congress was giving its stamp of approval to whatever President Bush wanted, shirking its oversight responsibility and destroying the institutional loyalty that in the past had allowed members to take pride in their chambers and in the work they accomplished together.
Since then, things have only gotten worse, much worse. As a matter of fact, It's Even Worse Than it Looks.
By Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein Little, Brown & Co/Mulholland Books/Hatchette Group Hardback list price $26.00 ($19.02 at Amazon) Paperback: $15.29 Kindle version: $12.99 Audible digital audio: $14.95 ($4.49 with Kindle book) May 1, 2012 240 pages
Both men are are fellows at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Mann is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In their younger days they shared the political science graduate student experience at the University of Michigan. They arrived in DC at the same time and went to work on the Hill as Fellows. Over four decades in our nation's capitol, they have become highly respected by members of both parties as serious non-partisan scholars of our political system.
On April 27th of last year, their op-ed in the Washington Post, Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem ignited the political internet, amassing 5000 comments in the first 24 hours, 1.5 million web hits and over a quarter million Facebook referrals. It was, of course, ignored by the Sunday talk shows as Norm Ornstein mentioned during an interview with Bill Moyers on Moyers & Company (April 26, 2013) The reason was pretty obvious; the article and the book from which it was drawn hold the media guilty for ignoring the obstruction and distortion of the Republican Party in its never ending search for balance even when there is no balance. Neither man has been invited to appear on any of the Sunday talk shows since the book came out.
It's Even Worse That It Looks outines two main areas of dysfunction: political party behavior that more closely resembles a Parliamentary Government than our Democracy, and the Republican Party.
“However awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge, 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.”
The problem with a parliamentary system within our form of government is that ours functions through the checks and balances of three separate branches and requires cooperation and compromise to be effective. As a result, the majority party, unlike one in a parliamentary system, does not control all the levers of power. It cannot implement its policies and then let the voters decide on how effective it is. It must work with the minority to achieve common goals. And when that minority has become so ideologically extreme there is no compromise, no progress, and no effective governance.
Newt Gingrich bears a heavy burden of guilt, according to Mann and Ornstein, for the extreme polarization that exists today. In order to achieve a Republican majority he did all he could to delegitimize and denigrate Congress, and Washington, DC, so that voters would throw out the incumbents and elect Republicans to replace them. He was successful in creating that majority, but in the process he further undermined American's faith in their governing institutions. And his strong recommendation that newcomers not settle in DC, but travel home as much as possible went a long way toward eliminating the potential for cross party socializing and friendships that in the past enabled compromise and governance.
Ornstein and Mann also look at the pervasive influence of money in our politics as well as the media which has failed the American people in its most important role, that of providing information, not balance.
The last half of the book looks at possible solutions and some that are not so possible. One is relying on public financing of elections. The two men feel, after Citizens United, that there is just too much money in politics that public financing would do little if anything to alter. Nor do they have much faith in a centrist third party, term limits or a Constitutional requirement to balance the budget.
Some of their constructive solutions involve expanding the franchise. They point out that unlike most other modern democracies where the burden for registering voters fall on the government, in the US that burden is placed on the citizen. (Keep in mind that this book was published over a year ago, before the Supreme Court decided that we no longer needed the full protection of the VRA.) A twenty-four hour voting period, from noon Saturday to noon Sunday should replace voting on a workday and voting should be mandatory. Efforts to restrict voting rights should be fought.
And while they don't believe that proper redistricting to correct gerrymandering would eliminate hyper partisanship, they feel it could help contain it.
They also propose some structural changes in our political institutions, including a return to majority rule in the Senate and the rewriting of the filibuster rules to prohibit the type of abuse we have seen at the hands of the Republicans. They also propose the elimination the mid-term Congressional elections.
The media must start filling its role as a player in our democracy. The authors call on the media to stop treating the 60 vote threshold as normal in the Senate. And fact check determinations should not be placed separately in the back of the newspaper, but on the front page, in the article covering the story. And stop trying to balance a story:
"A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is a distortion of reality and a disservice to your consumers. A prominent Washington Post reporter sanctimoniously told us that the Post is dedicated to presenting both sides of the story. In our view, the Post and other important media should report the truth."
Finally, they suggest that the voter has to become more involved, and must learn to reign in some of the extreme candidates and to punish the party of obstruction by voting against it.
The hardback edition of this book came out in May of 2012, the paperback in September. So why look at it now? Because the issues that these two writers discuss haven't gotten any better, they have continued to worsen.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.