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Today's GOP: Worst Political Party Since the Civil War

The last time things got this bad was about 150 years ago -- and we needed a Civil War to resolve it.

Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein recently wrote a column for the Washington Post with a provocative headline: “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.” Their thesis was that they had never, in 40 years of observing Congress, seen the institution behave in such a dysfunctional manner. They wrote that while they had long found reasons to be critical of both Democrats and Republicans, things have changed and our current crisis is solely the fault of a Republican Party that "has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."

The article went on to present extensive evidence to back their case. Nothing has signified these extreme tendencies more clearly than last summer's debt ceiling fiasco, where the Republicans acted so irresponsibly that  Standard & Poor's felt compelled to downgrade America's hitherto gold-plated credit rating. In their press release, the ratings agency implicitly accused the Republicans of "brinksmanship" and said they had caused American governance and policymaking to become "less stable, less effective, and less predictable that we previously believed." They were particularly alarmed that the statutory debt ceiling had become a bargaining chip over fiscal policy.

Looking back at that debacle, Steve Benen recently wrote, "It was, to my mind, the worst thing an American major party has done, at least in domestic politics, since the Civil War."

When I first read that, it struck me as a preposterous statement. What about the Jim Crow laws, or the Palmer raids, or the Japanese internment camps, or McCarthyism, or the Vietnam and Iraq wars? But when I started to think about it, I realized that many of the big mistakes our country has made since the Civil War were not really the result of one political party's actions. The Jim Crow laws are, of course, associated with the Democratic Party. But only the Southern half of the Democratic Party. Wartime measures, like the Palmer Raids during World War I, the internment camps of World War II, COINTELPRO during Vietnam, or illegal surveillance and detainee abuse during the current War on Terror, have been instigated less by political parties than by particular administrations, or they have had significant bipartisan support. The same can be said for our country's decisions to fight in Vietnam and Iraq. In these cases, the blame is both too narrow in one sense, and too broad in another, to lay all the blame on a single party. Even McCarthyism can't be laid squarely on the GOP, since much of the Republican establishment, including the Eisenhower administration, wasn't too pleased with it. The debt ceiling fiasco was different. Here's how Benen described it: 

It was a move without parallel. The entirety of a party threatened to deliberately hurt the country unless their rivals paid a hefty ransom -- in this case, debt reduction. It didn't matter that Republicans were largely responsible for the debt in the first place, and it didn't matter that Republicans routinely raised the debt ceiling dozens of times over the last several decades. 

This wasn't just another partisan dispute; it was a scandal for the ages. This one radical scheme helped lead to the first-ever downgrade of U.S. debt; it riled financial markets and generated widespread uncertainty about the stability of the American system; and it severely undermined American credibility on the global stage. Indeed, in many parts of the world, observers didn't just lose respect for us, they were actually laughing at us.

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