It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism

  • Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein
  • Basic Books
  • 240 pp.
  • June 6, 2012

Two congressional scholars theorize on the acrimonious nature of American politics, and offer a variety of reforms to realign party politics with our constitutional system.

Reviewed by Jon Sallet

American politics is broken. Seriously.

Those sentences have the rhythm of an old joke. And they repeat an old saw. American politics has been deemed broken, in one way or another, since the election of 1800 featured the written exchange of calumnious brickbats between supporters of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. But this time really is different, according to two veteran observers of American politics. Thomas E. Mann is the W. Averell Harriman Chair and senior fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution. Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Their earlier book, published in 2008, took Congress to task, severely.

Now the authors proffer a theory on the failure of American politics generally. We are in the throes, they say, of a mismatch “that arises from the incompatibility of the U.S. constitutional system with parliamentary-type parties.” In other words, the system of checks and balances established by the Constitution was designed to prevent momentary political impulses from overwhelming deliberative governing processes (see the Federalist Papers No. 10). That, however, presumes a political process that is motivated to take action, whose ultimate form the constitutional process will filter through deliberation (check) and compromise (balance).

By contrast, these authors describe parliamentary-style parties as ideological and confrontational. Parliamentary governments work because (with the exception of circumstances like those that bedevil Greece in May 2012) the process of governing gives a majority or a working coalition the power to act, even in the face of the opposition’s intransigence. In other words, strong ideology and partisanship don’t block parliamentary governments because, in such systems, majorities have the freedom to rule.

Thus, Mann and Ornstein argue, systematic intransigence, symbolized by parliamentary-style opposition to governmental initiatives, takes too great a toll in our political system, with a constitutional structure that consciously limits the power of a congressional majority, a sitting president and, when the Supreme Court strikes down legislation signed by the president, both of them.

This is an important argument — the depiction of a body politic that has grown up in a manner that frustrates its creators. And it is a creative way to understand the current turmoil of American politics.

Exhibit one is the collision in the summer of 2011 over the debt ceiling. Mann and Ornstein portray “the utter dysfunction of our politics and the disdain of our elected officials for finding solutions to big problems.” That summer, congressional leadership and the White House failed to enact comprehensive budget reform in any sort of “grand bargain” and, after a bout of high- stakes gamesmanship, succumbed to a short-term solution that itself soon proved incapable of building momentum for consensus. In the August aftermath, both the president’s and Congress’ approval ratings plunged. Serious efforts to reach bipartisan agreement, such as those of the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Six,” were sidelined.

In two respects, however, the authors offer a less familiar analysis of this conventional narrative. First, they decry “asymmetric partisan polarization” and, although they call out excessive partisanship on the Democratic side (such as the nature of opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork), they leave no doubt about the source, in their view, of the asymmetry: the Republican Party is described as an “insurgent outlier” that “has become ideologically extreme” and that is “dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition, all but declaring war on government.”

Second, they directly criticize the mainstream media for what they say is a failure to call ‘em as they (should) see them. In a world of sensationalized discourse, Mann and Ornstein focus on the mainstream, traditional media, telling those outlets that “[a] balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is a distortion of reality and a disservice to your consumers.”

What to do? Mann and Ornstein describe both dos and don’ts. Among the proposed solutions they say will not work are third-party-presidential campaigns, a balanced-budget amendment, term limits and public financing of elections. They cite as examples the experience of states with term limits over the past two decades, concluding that they can result in legislatures that are less productive and innovative, with legislators focused narrowly on their own political ambitions. The dos require the will to make big changes in order to realign party politics with our constitutional system. To fix the electoral process, the authors recommend steps to increase voter turnout, stop gerrymandering, restructure the nominating process so that centrist voters are as valuable as partisan voters (who dominate closed primaries), and reform political financing in ways compatible with the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

To improve governance, the authors also place great emphasis on the way that the Senate should, in their view, work. They decry the manner in which modern-day filibusters slow the process, even when cloture and final passage win overwhelming approval, and the practice of anonymous “holds” delays presidential nominations for months for reasons that have nothing to do with a nominee’s qualifications. (In my own conversations with current and former Senators from both parties, I have heard the same tone of frustration and discontent about the Senate’s operation and partisanship.)

The authors’ focus on the Senate is no surprise. If the core problem is that political partisanship trumps deliberative process, then understanding the historic role of the Senate really is important. In his notes of the Constitutional Convention, James Madison observed that the purpose of the Senate is to govern “with more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch.” Thus, the authors emphasize ways to restore majority rule to the Senate and, in the concluding chapter, suggest ways to change the political culture of the nation generally. Mann and Ornstein are long-time experts in governance and their diagnosis and prescriptions largely hit the target. Agreement with their proposals does not necessarily require acceptance of their analysis of an “asymmetric partisan polarization.” To this centrist Democrat, the idea of a better-functioning Senate, for example, seems likely to appeal to many Democrats and Republicans alike.

But there is one, very big question that the analysis of institutional failure doesn’t fully comprehend, a question captured in an observation of Congressman Barney Frank: “Politicians make mistakes, journalists make mistakes, and the public is no bargain either.” What about the public? To what extent are the voters consciously selecting the mismatch that the authors decry? After all, the politicians whose actions Mann and Ornstein criticize have all been duly elected and could all be removed from office. Although the authors describe voters as both anti-incumbent and politically polarized, voters themselves do not take center stage in the analysis.

My own sense is that greater emphasis needs to be put on the long-term economic environment that shapes voter attitudes. We are now almost four decades from the high-water mark of real wages in the United States. Since then, the growth of family incomes has slowed dramatically and income disparity has widened. The ability of institutions to forge consensus has weakened. This milieu powers the politics of frustration (on the right and left), which in turn, means that political power shifts rapidly between the parties. And that dynamic, in turn, means that an opposition party’s path to political success is most likely to be, well, opposition per se in order to capture the crashing wave of anti-incumbency sentiment (even though the subsequent wave may toss them out in the next electoral cycle).

Economic growth building on America’s great strengths in innovation, skills, flow of capital and spirit of entrepreneurship could break the cycle of voter frustration. Of course, sustained economic growth likely requires exactly the kind of grand fiscal bargain that failed in 2011, which brings us back to the authors’ analysis of the problem at hand. It is possible, of course, even in a time of polarization, that politicians across the spectrum may come to realize that none of them will be safe from voter revenge unless the nation produces a common economic strategy. At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” What was literally true then remains figuratively true today.

Jon Sallet is a partner in the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers, L.L.P. He served as a law clerk to Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. and worked in the Clinton administration as director of policy and planning at the Department of Commerce.

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