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Partisan Death Jam: How the Two Parties Are Destroying Our Political System

The new book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks" explores the adversarial, winner-take-all climate we find ourselves in today that makes governing near impossible.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Christos Georghiou


If you thought the debates over the debt ceiling last year – one of the most striking examples of political dysfunction and gridlock in recent memory — were over, think again. Although Republicans agreed to a small raise and to put off discussion of the issue until after the upcoming 2012 elections, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox, “We’ll be doing it all over” in 2013. Clearly, the partisan rupture that’s dividing Washington is not going to heal any time soon, but how did things get so dire to begin with?

When congressional scholars Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein say  “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” – the title of their book – they’re being serious (subtitle: “How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism”). Mann, the W. Averell Harriman chair and senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, and Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, began the Congress Project in the midst of the 1978 midterm campaign to track the institution as it evolved. What they’ve found since hasn’t been encouraging.

In their book, Mann and Ornstein trace political dysfunction to the present, illuminating the basic incompatibility they see between the U.S. constitutional system and two highly partisan, parliamentary-like parties. Mann and Ornstein argue that the adversarial, winner-take-all climate we find ourselves in today makes it extremely hard for a majority to act in our two-party governing system. Though both parties engage in corruption, they believe the current Republican Party – which they argue is unpersuaded by fact and science, and has little in common with Reagan’s GOP – tilts the political system into “asymmetric polarization” with its refusal to support anything that might help Democrats, no matter the cost to collective interest.

Meanwhile, changes in mass media, a populist distrust of non-military leaders deemed suspiciously “elite,” and the insidious connection between money and politics join to create the terrible recipe for a truly dysfunctional political system. At a time when we’re facing serious national and global problems, they write, “The country is squandering its economic future and putting itself at risk because of an inability to govern effectively.” But there’s hope. Mann and Ornstein dedicate the second half of the book to outlining what specific institutional restructuring won’t work and what will, as well as what the public and media can do to be part of positive change.

Salon spoke with Thomas E. Mann about how the media plays into the partisan warfare, the role of the Citizens United decision in the upcoming election, and what we can do to make American politics less dysfunctional.

I’m wondering how you chose the book’s title.

It is a rather unusual title, isn’t it? We were thinking through titles and somehow we got in our minds Mark Twain’s quip about Wagner’s music, which is “It’s better than it sounds.” And so we were thinking relative to how our dysfunctional political system looks and we said, “Well, we’ve gotta say it’s worse than it looks, but that would make no sense to people who think it looks horrible already.” So we put the “even” in it – “It’s even worse than it looks.”

We are two long-time students of American politics and Congress. We’ve really become exceedingly discouraged about developments in our politics and in thought. And we’ve become frustrated by what we think is a commentary about it that ends up not being especially accurate and, frankly, reinforces the destructive dynamics of the system by leading the public to think it’s all hopeless: They’re all the same, it’s a corrupt system, it’s an utterly incompetent system, and therefore removing, in many respects, any basis on which a public could actually change that system. Instead you get a kind of visceral reaction: “Throw the bums out!” And that usually has the effect of reinforcing whatever you have now or making it worse.

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