It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism
Thomas E. Mann
Basic Books, 2012
240 pp., $26.00
The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans
Yale University Press, 2012
232 pp., $25.00
Amy E. Black
Fair and Unbalanced?
Last summer I completed the manuscript of a book designed to encourage Christians to engage in politics with humility, grace, and reason. One publishing board rejected my manuscript, explaining that my book was reasonable, even-handed, and therefore doomed to marketing failure. Edgy political books sell, they said; readers aren't interested in a reasonable and balanced approach.
Perhaps Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein received similar feedback when pitching ideas for their latest book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. These two noted scholars of congressional politics have moved away from cogent, helpful analysis toward a one-sided tirade. In multiple places throughout the book, the authors are guilty of the same practices they decry: hyperbole, attributing the worst possible motivations, and selective use of evidence. The marketing folks are likely pleased; the book reached onto the New York Times bestseller list and garnered headlines.
Mickey Edwards' book on a similar topic, The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans, is much more balanced and reasonable than Mann and Ornstein's polemic, so it is probably doomed to sell fewer copies and capture less attention. It may be less punchy, but it is a wiser investment of the reader's time. The retired Republican Congressman agrees with Mann and Ornstein on many points; he is also deeply concerned about party tribalism and the political stalemate it fosters. But Edwards casts blame far and wide—onto Republicans, Democrats, and even at times his own actions during eight terms in Congress. Both books raise fundamental concerns about the health of our constitutional democracy, beginning with sections that diagnose the problems and concluding with suggestions for reform. The authors agree that the constitutional experiment has worked well for more than two centuries, and they argue that recent patterns threaten the stability and success of American government. Mann and Ornstein clearly explain how and why our checks and balances system is designed for incremental change, and they make a persuasive case that it functions best with two broad-based parties that work together to forge compromise. Edwards points to the Founding Fathers' concerns about the dangers of faction and offers contemporary examples of ways that rigid partisanship hinders democratic representation.
In the first part of their book, Mann and Ornstein diagnose two central problems with contemporary politics: adversarial and ideological parties that don't function well in our constitutional democracy, and the Republicans. Or, to be more precise, the "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" Republicans. Just in case a reader might overlook it, the authors repeat this screed in two different chapters.
I share the Mann and Ornstein's concerns about political stalemate, and I agree that the Republicans deserve plenty of blame. But the Democrats are not relatively innocent bystanders in the political game. Mann and Ornstein act as if the Republicans are the primary source of the problems in Washington, and they offer scores of examples to demonstrate their points. They make it clear that they will not offer a balanced approach, in large part, they claim, because so doing would ignore the facts. In their zeal to paint the GOP as Public Enemy Number One, however, they repeatedly ascribe the worst possible motives for Republican actions even as they ignore some of the most egregious instances of Democratic leaders in hyperpartisan mode.
Consider a couple of illustrative examples. Mann and Ornstein note that some Republican members "[e]schewed a Washington residence and slept in their offices, as a mark of their determination not to be captured by the evil Capitol culture." I can't speak for every one of the members who bunk in their offices and shower in the Capitol gym, but the one I know personally did so for a very different reason: He couldn't afford to pay his mortgage back home, put his kids through college, and pay rent in DC.
Elsewhere, the authors offer some insightful critiques of rapidly changing campaign finance law and practice, but they make little attempt to shed light on organizations aligned with both parties that are manipulating the system to promote their candidates and ideals. When they raise concerns about groups using their 501(c)4 non-profit status for political ends, for example, they only criticize Republican-leaning organizations and ignore similar practices by many groups firmly in the Democratic camp.