LSA on Politics: In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, our four-part series takes a look at the different ways LSA scholars and alumni are engaged in the political landscape and informing the debates of our time.
On April 27, 2012, the Washington Post published an explosive op-ed that challenged the political status quo, the national political media, and citizens across the country to reconsider their perspective toward Congressional gridlock.
“Let’s just say it,” the headline read, “The Republicans are the problem.”
The authors, Thomas E. Mann (Ph.D. ’77) and Norman J. Ornstein (Ph.D. ’72), presented the case for an “asymmetric polarization” of the major American political parties. Polarization had affected both parties, Mann and Ornstein argued, pulling them toward their respective sides and further from the political center; however, the op-ed authors believed the process had pulled the Republicans substantially further to the right than it had drawn the Democrats to the left. And because Mann and Ornstein reside on both sides of the aisle—Mann is a senior fellow at the liberal-minded Brookings Institution and Ornstein is a resident scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute—they were uniquely qualified to speak truth to power when making their argument.
The pair expanded their case into a book in 2012: It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. The book was re-released earlier this year with an expanded foreword and a new title: It’s Even Worse Than It Was.
LSA caught up with Mann and Ornstein to get their takes on this tumultuous election year and on what the outcomes—good, bad, and grisly—might be after November 8.
LSA: This has been—by all accounts—a surprising, occasionally shocking, primary and election year. What issues from this year are you surprised that people haven’t spent more time talking about?
Norman J. Ornstein: Other than immigration, trade and—to a degree—ISIS, there has not been much talk about issues. And this is despite Hillary Clinton's best efforts via thousands and thousands of pages of policy recommendations and plans on her website in areas like mental illness, disabilities, infrastructure, climate change, and criminal justice. Press coverage of Clinton has been relentlessly focused on emails, the Clinton Foundation, her fundraising, and her health. For Trump, it has been more about his tactics: whether he is using a teleprompter to show he is now “disciplined,” or whether he is “pivoting.” There have been exceptions, including especially David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post covering Trump’s foundation, but not much on issues. The biggest surprise to me has been the lack of discussion of how we improve the job situation, both creating more high-value jobs and making sure that working-class incomes enable people to have the basics to live decent lives.
Thomas E. Mann: The failure of the Republicans to nominate a plausible candidate for president with clear and consistent positions on most issues has made it impossible to grapple seriously about any pressing issue during the campaign. The campaign coverage mostly treated Trump as a normal candidate when he is anything but. At the same time, Clinton, who is a recognizable public official and politician, was subjected to saturation coverage of allegedly “corrupt” behavior with her email server and the Clinton Foundation. It was a dreadful campaign to watch.
LSA: Can you foresee a scenario in which, after this election, the dysfunction of the American government gets much better?
NJO: America has been through many periods before of stress and deep dysfunction, including right around 1800, the 1820s, the 1860s, the 1890s, the 1960s. Each time, when a party went off the rails, it took around 15 years or so to regain some level of equilibrium (and of course, at times, the adjustment was very damaging). We will likely recover again. It might take an extended period, where the Republican Party loses the White House repeatedly and loses majorities in Congress as well, to bring it back to the problem-solving center-right. (And we have to hope that Democrats don't respond along the way by veering sharply left.) But we do not expect this election to break the fever. It will take a good deal of time to see things improve.
TEM: Our constitutional system cannot work effectively without two constructive political parties. The radicalization of the Republican Party is at the root of our governing dysfunction. One hopes that our current experience with demagoguery and mendacity will end without lasting damage and serve as a form of civic education. That in turn might pressure the GOP to find its bearings as a responsible conservative, not radical, political party. At best, that transition will be gradual and difficult.
As of October 21, 2016, there were 93 judicial vacancies, including the vacancy on the Supreme Court. Fifty-four judicial nominees are either pending in committee or on the Senate floor.
LSA: Can you foresee a scenario in which, after this election, the dysfunction of the American government gets much worse?
NJO: Unfortunately, yes. Obviously, a Trump victory could lead to unthinkable damage. But a Clinton win will still very likely leave us with divided government, including a House where the majority party will have even more relative leverage for the take-no-prisoners Freedom Caucus radical side, weakening Speaker Paul Ryan, and making compromises even more difficult to achieve. If Democrats do not capture the Senate, we will see the continuing blockage of key executive nominations and of most judges, weakening the ability to carry out laws. If there is a Democratic majority in the Senate, it will likely last one or two years, since the 2018 midterms have three times as many Democrats up as Republicans, and the inclination of Senate Republicans will be to filibuster almost everything they can, reverting to the pattern of mass obstruction that worked in the midterms of 2010 and 2014. Brace yourselves for more ugly governance, and hope we at least get a few months of constructive action on infrastructure, criminal justice, and health policy, and movement on judicial and executive confirmations.
TEM: I agree with Norm on the near-term prospects. But, on a more upbeat note, most democracies around the world are encountering their own governing problems. We are not uniquely dysfunctional.
In spite of the many shortcomings of our political system, we have recovered from the Great Recession and retain an essential role in global security. We recognize the dangers of inequality, the uneven nature of our economic recovery, the costs of racial strife, and the advantages of a mixed economy, with markets and government each playing essential roles. We retain enormous advantages. Our future need not be a dystopian one. I hope we recognize the opportunities that exist and strive to seize them.
LSA: What was the process of writing this book like?
NJO: It was both gratifying and terrifying. We had spent our professional careers being balanced about the flaws and assets of our institutions and our politics, with friends, allies, and collaborators among lawmakers of both parties. Our reputations reflected that reality. To make some stark claims about the contemporary Republican Party meant that we were going to infuriate some people, lose some friends, and be labeled in a different way. But we both felt that the book reflected the harsh reality of our politics, and the serious threat to the robust give-and-take necessary to make our system work. Writing the book, and seeing it resonate and have some impact at least on changing the discourse, was very gratifying despite the lumps we have had to take.
TEM: It is heartening to see the high level of interest in our book and the spirited discussions that have flowed from it. Our decision to strive for accuracy at the risk of appearing unbalanced now appears, four years later, to have been fully justified. Norm and I have collaborated on projects for decades. We work very well together and managed to write this book in record time and with greatest impact.
LSA: Are there moments from your time at U-M—books, classes, conversations with professors—that you found yourself remembering or reexamining as you wrote the book?
NJO: There is no question that our careers and our point of view were shaped significantly by our experiences at U-M. Professors and mentors like Philip Converse, Warren Miller, Don Stokes, Jack Walker, and John Kingdon gave us the tools to analyze politics and governance, and a love for the way politics works and is supposed to work. Their writing, in books and seminal articles, also deeply influenced our approach and outlook.
TEM: Michigan is a great University, and its graduate program in political science is one of the very best in the country. Both of our careers took an unusual turn in Washington, but the scholarly base we were able to build in Ann Arbor has served us well throughout our careers. I often recall experiences as a graduate student that remain relevant to my work. We maintained close contact with these legendary professors and lifelong friends.
Thomas E. Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, Berkeley.
Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and the Atlantic, with a column entitled “Washington Inside Out.”
Their views are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Michigan's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, or of the University of Michigan.
LSA on Politics: Read Other Stories in the Series