Mann and Ornstein say the Thing That Is

Two respected political scientists, one of them at the American Enterprise Institute, see the political world the way I do: the Republican Party has gone completely round the bend, and unless the press reports that fact and the voters punish it American politics will get worse before it gets better.

Thomas Mann (Brookings) and Norm Ornstein (AEI) writing in the Washington Post. Sounds like a formula for Inside-the-Beltway even-handedness between the firefighters and the fire, doesn’t it? But not at all. They have some frank observations:

We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

The GOP 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.

They have some advice for the press:

“Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.


We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?


Also, stop lending legitimacy to Senate filibusters by treating a 60-vote hurdle as routine. The framers certainly didn’t intend it to be. Report individual senators’ abusive use of holds and identify every time the minority party uses a filibuster to kill a bill or nomination with majority support.

They name names: Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist.

And they have some advice for the voters, too:

If our democracy is to regain its health and vitality, the culture and ideological center of the Republican Party must change. In the short run, without a massive (and unlikely) across-the-board rejection of the GOP at the polls, that will not happen …. it is up to voters to decide. If they can punish ideological extremism at the polls and look skeptically upon candidates who profess to reject all dialogue and bargaining with opponents, then an insurgent outlier party will have some impetus to return to the center. Otherwise, our politics will get worse before it gets better.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

20 thoughts on “Mann and Ornstein say the Thing That Is”

  1. “…If they can punish ideological extremism at the polls and look skeptically upon candidates who profess to reject all dialogue and bargaining with opponents..” Well, that doesn’t look too different from what has happened, to me. The Reeps have nominated their least worst candidate, if elected, he will likely bring in the most moderate people he dares. My hope is a resurrection of the Main Street Reeps. Who knows?

  2. This article points the way to correct the problem. It is simply this: The Obama campaign cannot be a campaign merely against Romney or in favor of the policies of the President. Rather, the campaign can pivot around the following: There is a nasty radicalism about in the land and that radicalism is centered in the Republican Party, a party that has lost its way. Vote for centrism. Vote Democratic.

    1. Naming and campaigning against a problem =/= fixing it. See: The 2008 presidential campaign and the biasing role of moneyed interests in policy-making.

    2. Oh if he would only do that. I fear that Obama is going to blow this whole thing by going soft on Romney. I can see debates where there is no fire, no conflict, no real debate and people come away thinking that Romney looks pretty good. Obama needs to tie Romney to the teabaggers………I imagine a commercial with Romney espousing one of his moderate positions from back in the day and then a teabag comes out of nowhere, slaps him in the head, and you see him now espousing the extreme conservative version of the earlier position. But we all know Obama won’t do this.

  3. Vote the Rascals out is yet again the slogan of the hour!

    Mann and Ornstein have provided all the media need to rightfully frame the 2012 campaign – not only in their presidential coverage, but in all down ballot races (remember ALEC?)!

  4. The insane wrongness of the Republican fevered doesn’t make the conviction-less centrism of the Democrats right. Centrism has become co-dependent with this radicalism, to the point of needing to nurture the crazy in order to justify its own corruption and irresponsibility.

    1. What’s your alternative? You can work within the system for a better outcome, or you can throw up your hands because you’re too good to sully yourself. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, there’s no better alternative to the existing Democratic party – which, in case you hadn’t noticed, is much freer than it used to be of demagogues and racists.

      1. There is no alternative. Almost by design.* That’s sort of my point. The radicalism of the Republicans has co-evolved with the centrism of the Democratic Obama Administration, to exclude any kind of credible alternative, or responsible policy. This state of affairs doesn’t serve the country well at all, but it has served well those in the Administration and among the Senate’s “moderates” of both Parties, who want to pursue an authoritarian right-of-center policy agenda on behalf of the plutocracy.

        In general, I think the American elite — the people, who run things from leadership and executive roles, particularly the heads of large business corporations — feel less and less an attachment to, or a dependence upon, let alone a responsibility for, the mass of ordinary people. They feel less and less constrained by law or ethics. A surprising number have adopted libertarian or even Christian dominionist pseudo-philosophies, which help to rationalize the odd combination of power and unscrupulous irresponsibility. The kind of mass membership organizations and social identities that promoted some vertical sense of solidarity have declined in importance, even as the for-profit corporate global giants have dampened the horizontal rivalries and competitions, among the elite class, through “networks” and conglomerations. The looting by the burgeoning financial sector, the obscene “compensation” drawn by many CEOs, the cynical neoliberalism and neo-feudal libertarianism of policy entrepreneurs, the trivial “moral” obsessions of elite pundits — it all comes together in an elimination of productive and informative conflict, and with it, consideration of mass interests. Corruption is a forest on fire in this country, and that fire is being fed by a profound loss of respect for the legitimacy of the country’s institutions, a loss well-earned by those in power.

        I don’t know what to do about it.

        1. I wish I could tweet your response, Bruce.

          I’m with you 1000%!

          Wish you were running for office. I’d vote for you if I could.


          The looting by the burgeoning financial sector, the obscene “compensation” drawn by many CEOs, the cynical neoliberalism and neo-feudal libertarianism of policy entrepreneurs, the trivial “moral” obsessions of elite pundits — it all comes together in an elimination of productive and informative conflict, and with it, consideration of mass interests.

  5. Mann and Ornstein have it exactly backwards. The Republicans in Congress are actually doing what their supporters want. It’s the elected Democrats who are failing. Bruce’s on the money, centrists are just enablers for whoever pushes the hardest.

    1. The hard core of their supporters likely do want absolutism from their representatives: no compromise, thier way or nothing, utter nihilism. But I doubt that’s a majority of the folks who vote for them in the general election; certainly, it’s a minority of the total electorate that is committed to strict partisan doctrine rather than to Getting Things Done, preferably along or more strongly influenced by certain philosophies.

  6. Of course even in this opinion piece criticizing both-sides-do-it journalism, Mann and Ornstein engage in both-sides-do-it journalism:

    “While the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post.”

    No, the Democrats have not moved from center-left to left, thereby helping create a greater partisan divide. The Democrats have moved from center-left to center-right. And, of course, it would actually be a good thing if the Democrats had moved a bit left–being correct matters, screw the partisan divide.

  7. “The Democrats have moved from center-left to center-right.”

    Exactly. From their 40 to the R 40. At least. It’s almost as if their constant shifts to the right *oblige* the R’s to move further right to stay sufficiently right of the D’s.

    1. What started as compromise to reach a workable consencus has evolved into the target position. Liberal Democratic leaders are to the right of Ronald Reagan.
      Meanwhile the idealists in the base are getting fed up and walking away. Customers will only take bait and switch so many times before they just won’t come back.

  8. I never understand why Democrats can’t make hay out of the fact that their Republican opponents have typically signed a pledge to a Washington lobbyist. Seems like easy pickings to me.

  9. Believing everyone who disagrees with you must be mad and/or evil must be really comforting, but do you think parading about this belief helps persuade anybody who hasn’t already drank your brand of koolaid?

    1. I doubt anyone expects the coolaid drinkers on the Right to be persuaded by this. Indeed, few if any expect them to be persuaded by anything.

      This is aimed at lazy/timid journolists, first off. Second, to the extent anyone else is persuaded by this sort of thing, it’s the moderate low-info type. The person who doesn’t really pay much attention but assumes “both sides do it,” equally.

      That said, the thing that is needed is a revitalization of the left wing of the Democratic Party… the folks who mainstream Dems usually take pains to kick in the nuts. The folks I, personally, will largely find annoying and embarrasing. I’ve come around on this. If you take two parties, and shut down the wingnuts on one side, what happens? Comity? If only. Distinctions must exist in politics, and thus if there is concensus, it cannot last. Result: the party that didn’t shut out its wingnuts moves in their direction, if for no other reason than to provide an actual choice (instead of election after election between two centrist of slightly different flavors). What ensues is a tug-of-war between Center and Right.

      Shorter me: if policy is decided by splitting the difference between, say, Brett Bellmore and Rob in CT, then policy moves to the Right.

      1. And hey, think of the upside! If the Left gets its groove back, then wingnuts screeching about Socialists in our midst will be grounded in reality again.

    2. is your reading comprehension poor or selective? if your takeaway from the editorial cited above boils down to labeling the current republican party as either mad or evil then either you read a completely different editorial than i did, you don’t understand english prose, or you see only what you want to see.

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