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‘Even Worse Than It Looks’: Extremism In Congress?

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
April 30, 2012

Congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein are no strangers to D.C. politics. The two of them have been in Washington for more than 40 years.

They came together in 2006 to write a book about dysfunction in Congress, called The Broken Branch. But their assessment of Congress today is even more dire — so dire, they’ve called their new book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.

Mann, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, and Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), join Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep to talk about the book, which comes out this week.

The book claims that democracy in America is being endangered by extreme politics. From the first day of the Obama administration, Ornstein says, our constitutional system hasn’t been allowed to work.

“When we did get action, half the political process viewed it as illegitimate, tried to undermine its implementation, and moved to repeal it,” Ornstein says.

Ornstein and Mann make no secret of who they blame for most of the dysfunction in Congress.

“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,” they write.

Ornstein says some of his colleagues at AEI, which is known as a conservative-leaning think tank, “are going to be quite uncomfortable” with him getting behind such a statement.

“We didn’t come to this conclusion lightly,” he says. He points out that he and Mann have been highly critical of both parties in previous works. For example, they called the Democrats “arrogant, condescending, [and] complacent” after Democrats had been in the majority for 40 consecutive years up to 1994.

“But for Republicans currently inside Congress, you have a new set of litmus tests and a new outlook that leads them in directions where you can’t say that there is such a thing as climate change, you take positions on things like immigration that are simply off the rails, and if you compromise, you are basically defiling what the party stands for,” Ornstein says.

“We’re not exactly neutral or balanced, are we?” says Mann. But a central message of their book, he says, is that norms of non-partisanship in the media and elsewhere sometimes do “a disservice to the reality.”

“It disarms the electorate in a democracy when you really need an ideological outlier to be reined in by an active, informed public,” Mann says.

Mann and Ornstein recognize that many people will likely be skeptical of the argument that things in Congress today are so much worse than they used to be.

Last year, Ornstein wrote a piece for Foreign Policy magazine about the 112th Congress titled “Worst. Congress. Ever.” He says a lot of people wrote to him and said, “Oh, come on, what about the period right before the Civil War?”

“And I said, ‘I’ll grant you that. Do you really want to be compared to the period right before the Civil War?’ You know, maybe we are better than we were in the period leading up to the Civil War, but that left us with a virtual fracture in our society. We don’t want to see that happen,” Ornstein says.

Some might argue, however, that a politics of extremes is necessary at times. Solutions are not necessarily to be found in the middle — sometimes we may have to go to the edges to solve our problems.

“I think that’s a reasonable argument,” Mann says. “I don’t believe in a golden mean; I don’t believe you find policy wisdom between two polar points. I don’t dismiss that possibility, but I look at the platform that’s so ideologically based, that’s so dismissive of facts, of evidence, of science, and it’s frankly hard to take seriously.”

Ornstein adds: “We’re not against conservatives. Some of our heroes are very, very strong conservatives here. We’re not against strong liberals, either. … The problem is not one that is resolved by just turning it over to one side to do simplistic solutions that are based on more wishful thinking than reality. It’s finding that hard reality.” [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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