It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. Kindle Edition,272 pages. Published April 5, 2016 by Basic Books. ASIN: B01AFE3ABQ
I am a little late to this party. Mann and Ornstein published the first edition of this book in 2012–I distinctly remember listening to their interview on NPR as I inched my way toward the 3rd Street Tunnel. To be fair to myself, there was nothing in the book of which I was not generally aware, but the authors bring together a wealth of detail about the legislative process, the polarization of both elected official and the electorate, and the debasement of the Republican Party in a way that is useful, maddening, and depressing. For those who care deeply about policy and politics, this book might just as well be titled, “Go Kill Yourself, Now.”
Eric Cantor recently came clean in an interview with Washingtonian magazine and admitted that he never really believed his own rhetoric about the Affordable Care Act, but that did not stop him from touting the effort to completely defund Obamacare. Going further, Cantor acknowledged that the GOP leaders all knew they could not defund Obamacare, but they continued to present a false narrative and false hope to their base to pump up the anger of GOP loyalists and win elections. The policy position was constructed completely around electoral victory. As Cantor put it, “if you’ve got that anger working for you, you’re gonna let it be.”
To the jaded American voter of 2017, the idea that the GOP structured their rhetoric entirely around electoral advantage with no thought for the policy implications seems unsurprising. This is the core problem that Mann and Ornstein so clearly, and depressingly, articulate. The GOP has mounted a campaign of calumny and slander against government since 1964. Since 1980 it has been at the core of GOP dogma. We should not be surprised that Republican elected officials and Republican base voters have come to believe it, and the cynicism of Cantor and his fellow leaders is therefore unremarkable. Of course they were cynical! Government is inherently corrupt, and therefore anyone who participates in it is corrupt or corrupted.
Cantor, of course, demonstrates the danger of that particular strategy. Once you convince your voters that government and all elected officials are corrupt, there is no way to separate yourself from their anger. Cantor was hoist on his own petard, but he was just a pale imitation of the real villain of Mann and Ornstein’s story. That villain was Newt Gingrich, a man willing to destroy Congress in order to control it. More than willing to destroy Congress, Mann and Ornstein demonstrate that Gingrich identified the destruction of Congress’s reputation and norms as his road to power years before he actually effected it. He was not just willing to accept it–he set out to do it.
The disease that Mann and Ornstein diagnose largely boils down to cynicism. Conservative Republicans believed the worst of government, and therefore they felt no compunction about operating by the same rules, or more accurately lack of rules, that they believed pertained. Whether their cynicism stemmed from their sincere belief in the corruption of Washington or whether their rhetoric of corruption was merely a justification for behaving cynically is unknowable. It was probably a little of both in a self-reinforcing spiral to the bottom. Gingrich demonstrated repeatedly that he was willing to use any tactic no matter how hypocritical (he had had 22 overdrafts at the House bank when he used the issue of overdrafts to slime his fellow members) and that he could quickly moderate his behavior and language when he overreached. Perhaps most telling, when Gingrich was ousted–destroyed by the forces he created just as Cantor would be later–he went quietly. Rather than try to retain his position, Gingrich built a highly lucrative business and political “advising” empire while striving to retain his relevance by speaking into any camera that stayed still long enough to capture his voice and image. Over his years in the wilderness, he has continued to demonstrate the same sort of, shall we say rhetorical flexibility, that characterized his rise and his occupation of the Speaker’s chair.
If Gingrich was the primary villain, Mitch McConnell is his less intelligent sidekick. Completely devoid of policy aims, McConnell continued and extended Gingrich’s tactics and strategy. It has never been clear what Mitch McConnell wished to achieve in the Senate beyond a Republican majority and his place at the head of it. Where Gingrich was a visionary and a revolutionary, McConnell is the epitome of the machine politician–concerned with vote counting and raising money and willing to do anything to maintain his grip on power.
While the leaders of the GOP in Congress were cynics and charlatans, they exploited the very real polarization of the electorate to build their majorities and hold onto power. At a time when American increasingly identify with and define themselves by party affiliation, Gingrich, McConnell, et.al. were willing to stoke the fires of tribalism without regard to the policy consequences, the damage to our institutions of governance, or the effects on their own constituents. By focusing voters on social issues and emotionally weighted charges of evil and corruption, they were able to build ever more impregnable party apparatus. Voters have never been highly informed on policy, but with two parties near the center, voters could focus on material goods from government, and the parties could duel to see who was best at providing them. As the parties have divided and moved away from the center, they have focused more on zero-sum positions and cultural hot-buttons. The GOP has led the way with no-tax pledges and radical promises to eliminate abortion that fire up their base, condition their voters to expect total victory, and offer no hope of compromise.
Mann and Ornstein finish by offering proposed solutions to the current hyper-partisan nightmare, but the majority of solutions run up against the basic structure of our government. The U.S. government was built to be slow and inefficient. As the authors point out at the beginning, the problem is parliamentary parties operating in a system that was not designed to accommodate them. That means it is virtually impossible for one party to effect change without any cooperation from the other. Their prescriptions include restoring public shame; shifting voters from partisan outlets like Fox News to longer-form, more legitimate outlets like PBS; creating a shadow Congress of former members to provide real debate; modifying filibuster rules and holds; and media fact checking in the body of stories. It is difficult to see how legislative changes like filibuster reform can pass in the polarized environment that makes them necessary. In the wake of the 2016 election, major outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post are thriving, but a sufficient number of voters derive their “information” from social media, and by extension from shady pseudo-news outlets like Breitbart and Newsmax and Infowars, that voter knowledge and understanding is getting worse rather than better. As for public shame, the country that elected Donald Trump president is clearly incapable of it. The legitimate media performed heroic feats of fact-checking in the 2016 election and beyond only to meet a wall of resistance–voters determined to not believe any legitimate source of news that failed to reinforce their prejudices.
Ironically, the most hopeful sign since the republication of this book is the failure of the GOP attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. McConnell, Cantor, Ryan, et.al. were utterly cynical in their attacks on the law. They consciously chose to provide not legitimate alternative knowing that broad promises and inchoate anger would win elections while specifics could be challenged and debated. The electoral results were stunning, handing the GOP both houses of Congress and the White House, but Republican leaders can be forgiven if they do not seem happy. They won the White House, but only at the cost of installing Donald Trump–a president who made many of them distinctly uncomfortable and who shows every sign of driving the party deep into the wilderness. Winning both houses of Congress put them on the hook to fulfill their promises of seven years, and a funny thing happened. Their electoral victories and cynicism could not overcome the fundamental lack of a plan. It is very hard to beat something with nothing. While they came far too close for comfort, in the end, they could not replace an imperfect law with one that promised total failure. Policy considerations trumped campaign rhetoric (admittedly at the last possible second), and Republicans like Lamar Alexander are now coming to the table willing to actually work on improvements. It may be that the only way to bring sufficient Republicans back into the fold of responsible legislating and governance is to suffer through a period of embarrassing and damaging failure. The modern GOP may have to hit bottom before it can regain its self-control.