The American Political System at Its Nadir? Yes, and "It's Even Worse Than It Looks"


By Bai Linh Hoang (Doctoral Student, American Politics)
Dec 13, 2012

UM Political Science Alums Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein at Michigan Union, November 2012

UM Political Science Alums Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein at Michigan Union, November 2012

Is the state of partisanship in Congress so terrible that leaders who participate in bipartisan efforts such as Senator Olympia Snowe would prefer retirement than serving another term?  Does the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis, which resulted in a dramatic decline in public support for Congress and the subsequent downgrading of the U.S. Treasury bond’s credit rating for the first time, reflect an ominous turn in political bickering?  Is the state of our political system really as bad as it looks?  Actually, it’s worse according to congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, authors of It’s Even Worse than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, a New York Times best seller.

Mann and Ornstein came to the University of Michigan on November 27 by invitation from the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy to discuss their latest book, which identifies a number of dysfunctions that has and continues to lead Congress down a path toward disintegration.  Not surprisingly, Mann and Ornstein talked about their concern over the hyperpartisanship and gridlock that at present appear to dominate the congressional atmosphere.  Congress, they said, used to be a place where “people from vastly different areas would come together to deliberate and debate.”  Currently, however, the “fundamental reality” is that this system no longer exists.  Instead, there is a grave mismatch between the American political parties, which have become as adversarial as parliamentary parties, and a system that, unlike a parliamentary democracy, makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act.

The hostile and adversarial environment in Congress reflects the increasing ideological and partisan polarization that has led Mann and Ornstein to characterize the parties as “tribal.”  Furthermore, social and new media (which are partisan in nature) amplify conflicts waged by the parties.  Although both parties are culpable for the acrimonious polarization, the movements of the parties along the political spectrum have not been equal.  While Democrats have made a moderate shift toward the left, Republicans, on the other hand, have moved sharply to the right in a manner that both authors have characterized as threatening to reposition their party from a “conservative to radical status.”  According to Mann and Ornstein, a number of incentives contribute to the increasing ideological distance between the parties, especially the rightward movement of the Republican Party, and these incentives include financial contributions to campaigns and the primary and caucus systems.  

Essentially, Mann and Ornstein depict our political system and especially Congress at a nadir.  Americans currently live in a country where their elected officials are scornful of compromise, skeptical of facts and evidence, and dismissive of the political opposition’s legitimacy.  Furthermore, this dilemma is not only located in our structures and institutions but in our culture as well.  

How might the problems plaguing our political system become resolved?  This question was posed by a number of individuals in the audience during the question and answer session following the discussion.  Mann and Ornstein debunked the argument that an American third party might alleviate the crisis, questioned redistricting as a panacea, and asserted that some of the problems are external to Congress, although they offered a few solutions.  For example, they called for greater public participation and for institutional restructuring of the House and Senate, such as returning the filibuster from its current use as a gridlocking, obstructionist instrument to its original purpose, a “rare” device for minorities to have their opinions heard.  Such reforms might lead to the intended positive effects if implemented, but even in this seemingly optimistic scenario, our political system would still have a long road to recovery.

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Thomas Mann is the W. Averell Harriman Chair and senior fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution.  He received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Michigan in 1977.  

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a weekly columnist at Roll Call.  Mr. Ornstein received a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Michigan in 1974.  

Both scholars have been immersed in politics and in the policymaking process in Washington D.C. for 43 years.  They have developed and gained a reputation for conducting straightforward and non-partisan research.  They are members of the Michigan in Washington Advisory Board where they have established a newly endowed scholarship fund.  

Ornstein and Mann signing copies of their book

Ornstein and Mann signing copies of their book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks" November 2012