Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Book Review: It's Even Worse Than It Looks, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein (2012)

Paperback cover of It's Even Worse Than It Looks, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, 2012.

Why is Congress so gridlocked? Why can’t anything get done in Washington D.C.? Political scientists Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein attempt to answer those questions, and others, in their excellent 2012 book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. Mann and Ornstein are both non-partisan political analysts, so they don’t have a partisan axe to grind, but they do place much of the blame squarely on a Republican party that has moved much farther to the right, and has refused to work with President Obama at all. 

In the Introduction, Mann and Ornstein write:

“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.” (Mann and Ornstein, p.xxiv) 

I think Mann and Ornstein have hit the nail on the head. I’m a liberal Democrat, so I have my own biases, but from where I stand, it’s not that the Democrats are getting any more liberal, it’s that the Republicans have taken a sharp turn to the right. Liberal and moderate Republicans are an endangered species, if not outright extinct. Nelson Rockefeller, who was something of an outsider in the Republican Party during his own lifetime, wouldn’t be able to find a place inside the Republican Party in 2014. Republicans have demanded a stifling orthodoxy of all their members, and the insurgent Tea Partiers have made sure that anyone not toeing the line will see a primary challenge from the far right. 

Republicans have made it very clear from day one of Obama’s Presidency that they were just waiting out the clock, and wouldn’t lift a finger to help him. This has hurt our country, as the Republican party has not offered any ideas of its own, but just turned into an obstructionist faction. Of course, it’s natural for the party opposing the President to not just roll over and give the President what he wants, but Republicans have taken obstructionism to a whole new level. The Republican party of 2014 doesn’t have an agenda beyond just opposing Obama’s policies. What do they stand for? It’s a question the party has to ask itself. If they keep only appealing to old, rich, straight white men, they won’t win any more Presidential elections.  

Part of the problem with gridlock in Congress is that our political system is designed to be hard to change. It’s meant to be difficult for a simple majority to completely override the minority party. And while that might be a good thing in the long run, it also means that it’s extremely difficult to get anything done in the short term.

Mann and Ornstein also discuss other problems facing contemporary politics, like the proliferation of Super PACs and unregulated money that has poured into the political system since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010. Stephen Colbert has often highlighted the absurdity of the rules surrounding Super PACs by forming his own Super PAC in 2011, “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.” Colbert deftly showed how much of the money going to Super PACs is untraceable, and how the contributors’ identities remain secret. 

Fortunately, lest you get too depressed by Mann and Ornstein’s compendium of the political madness of the 2010’s, the authors also have a long section of the book in which they propose solutions to some of these maladies. Some of their solutions are modernizing voter registration to increase turnout, which Republicans have been overwhelmingly against, making Election Day a holiday, and making voting compulsory. They also mention doing away with mid-term elections, which would be a great idea, as turnout in the 2014 mid-terms was a pitiful 36.4%, the lowest since 1942. Changing to open primaries would be a great idea to get candidates for office that are more moderate, since they would have to appeal to more people than just the base of their own party. Another solution Mann and Ornstein suggest is limiting the number of filibusters in the Senate, which would greatly increase the amount of floor time available for debate. 

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks is an excellent look at the politics of today, and I would recommend it to anyone wondering why Congress is so ineffective.

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