“It’s All the Republicans’ Fault” and Other Fairytales
Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
-Winston S. Churchill
The process of turning political messages from voters into coherent policies is endlessly fascinating. It is also massively frustrating. As even the most casual observer of American politics has noticed, partisan politics is just as cutthroat as ever — some would say more cutthroat than ever. Is our Congress more polarized than it has ever been? Or is what we are seeing today just another chapter in our long history of rabid partisan warfare?
Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein definitely fit into the former camp. Their 2012 book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, is a political scientist’s take on what exactly has been happening in Congress and what should be done about it. Seeing as how Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (what I think is the greatest think tank in the world), I was hoping for a thoughtful and balanced look into the issue. I knew from the reviews and synopsis that the book would primarily blame the Republican party for the gridlock we see in Congress today. However, I was disappointed to find that much of the book read like a Democratic stump speech.
There is one passage at the very end of the book that is particularly damaging to their claim of unbiased observation (in this passage, they are making predictions on what would have happened if President Obama had lost the 2012 election and Republicans controlled both houses of Congress):
The new Republican government will certainly use the tools [George W.] Bush did, starting with budget reconciliation, to promote a sweeping agenda that will start with dismantling health reform, gutting financial regulation, cutting taxes even more, and making deep cuts in domestic spending… the changes… would come to a country that is deeply divided politically, and more than half of whose citizens would likely strongly oppose these moves and be jolted by their implementation.”
They then go on to say that this scenario would not mean the “end of America as we know it.” But, thank God that in the end, “The country, with its… inherent flexibility to respond and adapt to crises would survive and ultimately come back as it has in the past.”
Let’s set aside, for the moment, the unfortunate fact that the American people had a health care law that they didn’t want (even Chuck Schumer all but admitted this) forced upon them using budget reconciliation by Democratic majorities in 2010.
Essentially, what we have here is two eminent, ostensibly nonpartisan scholars calling their maliciously-worded version of the Republican agenda a “crisis” that we would have to “survive.”
Now, I like to think of myself as a more moderate Republican. But I would call dismantling Obamacare, overhauling the tremendously damaging Dodd-Frank bill, simplifying and cutting taxes (particularly on businesses and the working poor), and getting our entitlement system on some semblance of sound footing a pretty darn good start. Definitely not a “crisis,” in my humble opinion.
My point is this: speaking from a policy perspective, these guys are Democrats.
Of course they think the gridlock in Congress is the Republicans’ fault. Of course they think Republican majorities in Congress would be a disaster. I simply find it distasteful that they claim non-partisan expertise in giving their take on the situation.
For the record, there is absolutely nothing wrong with reading a book about the Democratic view of what’s gone wrong in Washington. The entire point of this blog is to look at books coming from different perspectives and try to put it all together. In fact, I found the book a great review of the literature on polarization, and some of their ideas for improving our political system were good stuff (particularly their calls for Australian-style mandatory voting).
But the fact remains that the book reaches conclusions based on false premises. The book is marketed as “a book by two eminent nonpartisan truth-speaking political scientists who set the record straight on who is to blame for the partisan gridlock we see in Congress.” But what the reader actually gets is “two Democratic-leaning scholars give their take on what is wrong with the modern Republican party.”
All of which makes it just another chapter in the partisan battles the authors pretend to be trying to remedy.
As I have argued before, it doesn’t take Ph.D. in American history to see that there have been some pretty polarized times in our history. It is also common knowledge that American political institutions have evolved throughout our history and each era has left its mark on those institutions, for better or for worse. Political scientists, such as Mann and Ornstein in particular should be aware of the literature on this subject.
At this point, I would argue that, yes, we are in a time of increased political polarization. But there is no reason to believe that we haven’t been here before and we won’t be able to come together to solve the problems we face. Remember the Civil War? I agree with Ornstein and Mann that Republicans would do well to step back from their no-tax “starve the beast” orthodoxy — much could be gained from an increase in trust between the parties. We should bring back the days of back room wheeling-and-dealing politics, in my opinion.
But there is little doubt that there is plenty of blame to spread on both sides of the aisle. Isn’t it obvious that some of the political tactics decried by Mann and Ornstein have been put to ample use by Democrats as well as Republicans? Remember the awful things people used to say about about George W. Bush? Have you seen how well Bernie Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist” is doing in the Democratic primary?
Some argue that the “post-war consensus” has been “coming apart” at the seams for a while now. There are definitely some massive historical forces at work here that Bernie Sanders, the Tea Party, massively important bills passed with budget reconciliation, and Congressional gridlock are just symptoms of. The problem is much, much bigger than people like Ted Yoho and Jim Jordan.
The next few books I review are going to follow up on some of this subject. There is a lot of interesting material on this subject, and I’d really like to get to the bottom of it. I’m going to start with James Piereson’s Shattered Consensus, which may support the “we’ve been here before” argument.
Stay tuned for more on this most interesting of subjects!