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Extremism In Congress: 'Even Worse Than It Looks'?

Congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein are no strangers to D.C. politics. The two of them have been in Washington for more than 40 years — and they're renowned for their carefully nonpartisan positions.

But now, they say, Congress is more dysfunctional than it has been since the Civil War, and they aren't hesitating to point a finger at who they think is to blame.

"One of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier — 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," they write in their new book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks.

Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, join Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep to talk about the book, which comes out this week.

Mann and Ornstein posit that democracy in America is being endangered by extreme politics. From the first day of the Obama administration, Ornstein says, our constitutional system hasn't been allowed to work.

You know, maybe we are better than we were in the period leading up to the Civil War, but that left us with a virtual fracture in our society.
Norm Ornstein

"When we did get action, half the political process viewed it as illegitimate, tried to undermine its implementation and moved to repeal it," Ornstein says.

The authors make no secret of whom they blame for most of the dysfunction in Congress — the Republican Party. And Ornstein says some of his colleagues at AEI, which is known as a conservative-leaning think tank, "are going to be quite uncomfortable" with his position.

"We didn't come to this conclusion lightly," he says. He points out that he and Mann have been highly critical of both parties in previous works. For example, they called the Democrats "arrogant, condescending [and] complacent" after Democrats had been in the majority for 40 consecutive years up to 1994.

"But for Republicans currently inside Congress, you have a new set of litmus tests and a new outlook that leads them in directions where you can't say that there is such a thing as climate change, you take positions on things like immigration that are simply off the rails, and if you compromise, you are basically defiling what the party stands for," Ornstein says.

"We're not exactly neutral or balanced, are we?" says Mann. But a central message of their book, he says, is that norms of nonpartisanship in the media and elsewhere sometimes do "a disservice to the reality."

"It disarms the electorate in a democracy when you really need an ideological outlier to be reined in by an active, informed public," Mann says.

Mann and Ornstein recognize that many people will likely be skeptical of the argument that things in Congress today are so much worse than they used to be.

Last year, Ornstein wrote a piece for Foreign Policy magazine about the 112th Congress titled "Worst. Congress. Ever." He says a lot of people wrote to him and said, "Oh, come on, what about the period right before the Civil War?"

"And I said, 'I'll grant you that. Do you really want to be compared to the period right before the Civil War?' You know, maybe we are better than we were in the period leading up to the Civil War, but that left us with a virtual fracture in our society. We don't want to see that happen," Ornstein says.

Some might argue, however, that a politics of extremes is necessary at times. Solutions are not necessarily to be found in the middle — sometimes we may have to go to the edges to solve our problems.

"I think that's a reasonable argument," Mann says. "I don't believe in a golden mean; I don't believe you find policy wisdom between two polar points. I don't dismiss that possibility, but I look at the platform that's so ideologically based, that's so dismissive of facts, of evidence, of science, and it's frankly hard to take seriously."

Ornstein adds: "We're not against conservatives. Some of our heroes are very, very strong conservatives here. We're not against strong liberals, either. ... The problem is not one that is resolved by just turning it over to one side to do simplistic solutions that are based on more wishful thinking than reality. It's finding that hard reality."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The two men we'll hear from next have been observing the U.S. Congress for more than 40 years. Six years ago, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein declared Congress broken, and they say it was better then than it is now.

How bad is it, really?

THOMAS MANN: This is really bad.

INSKEEP: So bad, they've called their new book, "It's Even Worse Than it Looks." Mann, of the Brookings Institution, and Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, say that political parties now engage in no-holds-barred battles, much like in the British parliamentary system. The problem is that in Britain, the rules still allow the majority to govern.

MANN: Our system has the separation of powers. So you can have the worst-case scenario, which is a minority party that always votes against, but that has a piece of the majority so it can block actions that can lead to gridlock. And that's really, essentially, where we are now.

INSKEEP: Let me remind you that plenty of people will dismiss this argument that things are so bad today or so much worse than they used to be. And it is easy to turn on television or read in a newspaper that there was nasty media in Thomas Jefferson's time, that in the years before the Civil War, a senator was actually caned almost to death on the floor of the Senate by a member of the House of Representatives. They will say, oh, come on. It's not that bad.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You can certainly make the case that there have been other times in our history when things were really bad. I actually - I wrote a piece in Foreign Policy magazine last year about the 112th Congress, which was titled "Worst. Congress. Ever."

INSKEEP: I remember that.

ORNSTEIN: A lot of people wrote to me and said, oh, come on. What about the period right before the Civil War? And I said, I'll grant you that. Do you really want to be compared to the period right before the Civil War? You know, maybe we are better than we were in the period leading up to the Civil War, but that left us with a virtual fracture in our society. We don't want to have to see that happen.

INSKEEP: Thomas Mann, you've written a paragraph here in which you assign blame for who is most responsible for this. And I wonder if I can get you to read this passage to me.

MANN: (Reading) However awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become a resurgent outlier, ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise, un-persuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

INSKEEP: That's pretty brutal, gentlemen.

MANN: We're not exactly neutral or balanced, are we? That's perhaps the central message of our book, that as norms operate and your business, in our business, press, nonpartisan groups of all sorts, we have to be even-handed. We have to be fair-minded. That does a great disservice to the reality, and it feeds a public belief that they're all corrupt, they're all ineffective, the system is what's at work. It disarms the electorate in a democracy when you really need an ideological outlier to be reined in by an active, informed public.

INSKEEP: Norm Ornstein, you're with the American Enterprise Institute, which if it's known as anything, it's known as more of a conservative or Republican-leaning think-tank. Are your colleagues all comfortable with you signing onto that statement, that the Republican Party is most at fault here?

ORNSTEIN: I think some of my colleagues are going to be quite uncomfortable with that. We didn't come to this conclusion lightly. And in previous works that we've done, we hit both parties, and we've hit both of them hard in instances where either, for example, when the Democrats were in the majority for 40 consecutive years, leading up to 1994, they became arrogant, condescending, complacent, and there was a significant amount of corruption that comes with accumulated power.

But for Republicans currently inside Congress, you have a new set of litmus tests and a new outlook that leads them in directions where you can't say that there is such a thing as climate change. You take positions on things like immigration that are simply off the rails. And if you compromise, you are basically defiling what the party stands for.

And when you have Mitch McConnell saying, after the first two years of the Obama administration, in effect, well, of course we wouldn't cooperate with him because if our fingerprints were on any of those policies, and they were popular, he'd get credit for them. There's not a hint in that of, well, the first thing we got to do is solve the problems facing the country. There's a contrast here, and Democrats bashed Bush plenty, used rhetoric at times, referring to him as a war criminal. They're not saints, here. But we're really dealing with a different phenomenon now with the Republicans.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you about one other thing. You mentioned the pre-Civil War period, when this country was being torn apart by a debate over slavery. There are Republicans who will argue that this is a moment like that, that this is a moment where the country is in danger of going in a radically different direction and an irrevocable direction, and that they must fight back in any way that they can.

MANN: But it flies in the face of a reality that the Democrats have become, in some respects, the party of the status quo, while it's the Republicans who are the true insurgents who want the radical change, returning to a pre-New Deal era of - more like the gilded age and pretending the last 100 years of history didn't happen.

INSKEEP: You're arguing against the politics of extremes. What about the argument that has been made by many on the right - some also on the left - that the solutions are not necessarily in the middle? You may have to go to the edges to find the solutions to our problems.

ORNSTEIN: I think that's a reasonable argument. I don't believe in a golden mean. I don't believe you find policy, wisdom between two polar points. I don't dismiss that possibility, but I look at the platform that's so ideologically based, that's so dismissive of facts, of evidence of science, and it's frankly hard to take seriously.

MANN: We're not against conservatives. Some of our heroes are very, very strong conservatives, here. We're not against strong liberals, either. But what we found is, whether it's a Reagan presidency that did move the country like an ocean liner a few degrees to the right - Reagan understood, however, that you looked at facts and reality, and when you saw that your policies of trying to cut spending significantly enough that you could radically reduce government working and that we were leading to larger deficits, he understood that you needed to find some compromises. Let's get some revenues, but let's do it in the best possible way.

Now that's gone, and the problem is not one that is resolved by just turning it over to one side to do simplistic solutions that are based on more wishful thinking than reality. It's finding that hard reality.

INSKEEP: The book is called "It's Even Worse Than it Looks." The authors are Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. Thanks to you both.

ORNSTEIN: Thank you, Steve.

MANN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Thanks for joining us on this local public radio station. You can also follow MORNING EDITION on Facebook and on Twitter. Our Twitter handles include @MORNINGEDITION and @NPRInskeep. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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