Review: “It’s Even Worse Than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism”

This is a short, accessible, and comprehensive overview of the current state of polarization and dysfunction in the U.S. Congress. The authors are two recognized Congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein. I’m making this book assigned reading in my class on Congress next January during CentreTerm.

The authors start by describing some examples of what they call “the new politics of hostage taking” where a super-majority is required to do anything in Congress and where the minority has gotten in the habit of threatening to shut down the government and bring down the economy unless they get what they want. (Chapter 1)

How did it get to be like this? They basically pin the blame on Newt Gingrich in the late 1980s and his strategy to incorporate parliamentary-type tactics and de-legitimize political opponents. Over the last three decades these strategies have come to be accepted as normal and appropriate. This was compounded by the widening ideological polarization and partisan/geographical sorting of the two major political parties over the last few decades. We now live in a world where there is no ideological overlap between the two major parties and where partisans essentially adhere to completely different worldviews and have different standards of what they accept as legitimate, fact, and reality. It becomes difficult to find common ground in situations like this. (Chapter 2)

As they put it: “a fundamental problem is the mismatch between parliamentary-style political parties (ideologically polarized, internally unified, vehemently oppositional, and politically strategic) that has emerged in recent years and a separation-of-powers system that makes it extremely difficult for majorities to work their will” (page 102).

In chapters 4-7, the authors give recommendations for what they think can or should be done to help repair the extreme dysfunction in Congress. These solutions range from large (turn our government into a parliamentary system) to small (limit filibusters to one per bill). There are some interesting proposals that are certainly worth consideration. If enacted, they would undoubtedly do much to alleviate today’s extreme state of legislative gridlock.

As I tend to be cynical by nature, however, I can’t say that I think there’s a remote chance that any of their proposals (even the small ones) will be adopted any time in the near future. Even if they were enacted, their recommendations will merely minimize the secondary effects of the polarization without getting to its root cause, which they identify in Chapter 2 as the ideological/partisan self-sorting that has occurred in America over the last three decades. In my view, we the public are responsible for the cause, while politicians merely take advantage of and intensify the effect. 

To me, the only long-term hope for changing the new politics of gridlock and polarization is for some new, major issue to emerge in the American political landscape that will create new ideological coalitions, making the Democratic and Republican constituencies more ideologically diverse. The last time this happened was in the late 1960s/early 1970s when the seeds of the current polarization began. Only when the partisan constituencies diversify will elected officials be incentivized to pursue more moderate, diverse policies and once again value compromise and results over gridlock and polarization. I hope this comes sooner rather than later.

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