Republicans are the problem. That is the conclusion of the excellent new tome “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism” by congressional scholars Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. Mann is a liberal from the Brookings Institution and Ornstein is a conservative from the American Enterprise Institute, so they can hardly be accused of a partisan agenda.
“It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” labels today’s GOP as an “insurgent outlier” in American politics that “contributes disproportionately to its dysfunction.” The Republican leadership made it clear from day one President Obama took office that their mission was to make sure he spends only one term in the White House. Then in 2010, the House of Representatives was overtaken by right-wing extremists with a take-no-prisoners approach to (un)governing.
Anti-government Republicans have a strategy to “starve the beast” with damaging cuts to the public sector so the federal government has a difficult time of doing their job. They want the American people to lose faith in Washington institutions and it appears to be working given the low approval ratings of Congress. The mainstream media contributes to the anti-Washington sentiment by trying to be “fair and balanced” and blaming both sides for the dysfunction rather than squarely aiming at the Republicans for their relentless filibustering obstructionism.
So it is quite clear that for the past nearly two years, Republicans in Congress have put President Obama, congressional Democrats and by extension the American people through hell by refusing to even consider legislation that would put people back to work. Teaching and national service positions remain unfilled. Construction workers sit at home while infrastructure projects are idle. Global warming continues on a dangerous course while many Republicans refuse to even acknowledge the reality of man-made climate change let alone attempt legislation to tackle the problem.
But will the average voter punish the Republicans for punishing them? Historically, when times are tough there is the urge to “throw the bums out of office.” Mann and Orenstein provide a dire warning if we want to find our way out of the current dysfunction. First they warn that “voters often treat elections as referendums on the performance of the party of government,” meaning that this gives Republicans an incentive to obstruct President Obama’s agenda because they cynically plan on the American people blaming Obama for the economy.
There is also the danger that swing voters who don’t pay close attention to the everyday workings of Congress and how the Republicans have made every little decision into an epic battle, will “simply bet that times will improve with different leaders.” This is what happened in 2010. The economy was (unrealistically) not improving fast enough so many voters chose Tea Party Republicans hoping something, anything different would make things better. Instead it made things worse.
Thankfully, the book is not all doom and gloom. Mann and Orenstein are actually optimistic that today’s deeply dysfunctional political situation will change. They go over specific proposals such as expanding the vote (and fighting Republican-led efforts to restrict the vote), modernizing voter registration, moving election day from Tuesday to the weekend so it is easier to get to the polls, and following the Australian system by making attendance at the polls mandatory.
There are many other excellent ideas, such as restoring majority rule in Congress and limiting filibusters, but the most immediate change needs to be made within the Republican Party and by the American voter. The authors argue that change must come from within the GOP. The hard swing to the right must be countered by an uprising from pragmatic moderates and centrists who used to have more of a say in the Republican Party but now look in horror at the uncompromising extremists who have taken over the GOP.
The longer term fix is a transition to a Westminster-style parliamentary system that “provides a much cleaner form of democratic accountability than the American system.” More importantly in the short term regarding this November’s election, the authors provide the following recommendation to voters:
“Punish a party for ideological extremism by voting against it. (Today, that means the GOP.) It is a surefire way to bring the party back into the political mainstream.”