With the November elections only months away, the turbulent political climate has sparked widespread concern. In It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, identify adversarial partisanship and Republican ideological extremism as the roots of the problem. Ornstein spoke recently with U.S. News about the origins of polarization in Congress and its effect on politics in the United States. Excerpts:
Why was it important to publish this book now?
We have both written extensively in the past about the breakdown in the regular order, about failures in Congress to do what it was supposed to do. And it has gotten worse in a time when the country's problems, short and long term, are severe enough now that you can't function without having some kind of functional political process. I'm not sure we would have done it were it not for a sense of alarm.
What in particular made you think things had gotten worse?
We start the book with a discussion of the debt limit vote. If you look at that, in so many ways it's just a case study for dysfunction. We've had over 80 of these votes since the 1960s, and plenty of politics are played. But every time, everybody knew, in both parties, that you can play games with this, that you're not actually going to let the full faith and credit of the United States go down the toilet. This time was different. This was the first time that the debt limit was consciously held hostage to a set of very strong and nonnegotiable demands. It wasn't a spontaneous thing, it was a strategy developed well in advance, and the way it played out led to the first downgrade in credit in the United States in history.
What are the implications of a polarized Congress?
We've got another set of potentially disastrous decisions ahead with what for a while people were calling the "taxmageddon" and now they're calling it the "fiscal cliff." We settled the debt limit but we basically pushed it off, and we're going to have another debt ceiling coming up, possibly early next year, maybe even before the end of the year.
What do you expect will happen in the budget debate this fall?
A part of it depends on what happens in the election. If Barack Obama wins re-election, then I think it's going to be a really interesting dilemma for congressional Republicans because they're going to have to deal with him and it's probably better to make a deal in December than it is to wait until January.
What broke the congressional system?
Some of these are roots that go back 40 and 50 years to the pretty dramatic regional realignment of the country. The parties became more like parliamentary parties. We also focus a lot on Newt Gingrich, who from 1979 on had a strategy to try and break the stranglehold that Democrats had on majorities in the House. It worked, but in the process Newt, who thought he could then turn it around and strengthen Congress again in his own image, created a group of people who really did believe that it was all evil and that the other side was the enemy and not the adversaries. And that began to reverberate throughout the political process, really from the 1990s on, and it has only gotten worse in the last three years.
How can the system be fixed?
First of all, it's important to keep in mind that there's a cultural element to all of this. This isn't just a structural problem. The media have changed and become more partisan, and we had that in the 19th century, but now it's that much more depth and breadth and reach and immediacy. You no longer have a public square where people share a common set of facts and can debate issues. People get the same things repeated, lying no longer has any consequences, so you can believe stuff that's patently false. So it's going to take a while to bring this to a different place.
When was the last time Congress was defined by such partisanship?
You could go back to two periods when we had dysfunction at this level. One is right around the turn of the 20th century, the 1890s. Then it was the Democratic Party that had moved off to an extreme level and it took more than a decade to bring it back and we went through also very difficult economic times. And then there's the period right before the Civil War. It's frankly not very encouraging to have to compare ourselves to those periods.
What advice would you give to legislators?
I'd like to see members of Congress try and transcend these tribal differences. Partisanship is a healthy part of a democracy and it can get plenty rough. But there are times and places where you have to find common ground and find compromise because the future of the country is at stake; you've got to try to move in that direction.