Reflections on Mann and Ornstein’s Quest for Democratic Accountability

Liberals Should Lead on Rebuilding Our Civic Culture

Earlier this year, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein published It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. As they detail, to the extent that both parties have become more ideologically consistent in their makeup, hyperpartisanship in Congress has collided with a Constitutional system that depends on compromise and collaboration to get things done. But as they also argue, things are made much worse by an asymmetry in American politics, as the Republican party has veered far to the right relative to a Democratic party that has moved more modestly to the left.

Yet as valuable as Mann and Ornstein's book is to understanding the nature of today's gridlocked politics, the weakness in their argument is their overall frame. It’s not that Republicans shouldn’t be deservedly blamed for America’s political dysfunction, it’s what the “us versus the radical fringe” narrative enables. In short, if as liberals and moderates we focus all of our analysis and anger on the “other,” it’s too easy to overlook our own contributions to polarization and paralysis, even when they are less severe than our conservative opponents. More importantly, it's liberals and moderates who are the most capable of investing in what is needed to repair our political culture, but we need to think systematically about what this would mean, and devote the resources.

In our essay in the Breakthrough Journal, "The Polarization Paradox," Dietram Scheufele and I discuss the important insights of Mann and Ornstein, focusing particularly on the influence of movement conservatives led by Newt Gingrich and Gover Nordquist. Gingrich pursued ethics charges and exploited scandals that provoked Democrats “into overreactions that enraged Republicans and united them to vote against Democratic initiatives,” Mann and Ornstein write. Norquist turned anti-tax pledges into a powerful weapon for maintaining party discipline, limiting the ability of Republican moderates and others to work across party lines. As we discuss, adding to these dysfunctional strategies was Karl Rove who used the George W. Bush presidency to sharpen ideological differences between the parties, perfecting the strategy of attacking the legitimacy of opponents.

Yet there is also plenty of blame to go around. Over the past decade, liberals have become more like conservatives, adopting a win-at-all-costs commitment to policy debates and elections. In doing so, liberals have built their own message machine comprised of think tanks, media watchdogs, mega-donor networks, and purposively designed echo chambers that rally strong partisans while demonizing the other side. The "paradox" -- as we detail -- is that as the party of progressive government, hyperpartisanship has backfired, risking Democrats' electoral chances and policy ambitions.

Instead of going to war against the Right, following the election, liberals would better serve their social and political objectives by waging a war on polarization. And this is where our recommendations to conclude the the essay share strong overlap with Mann and Ornstein. In an article this month in Democracy Journal, the two succintly lay out their thesis and then focus on paths forward. Below I discuss each of their broad proposals in the context of our own conclusions.

It Starts with the Media...

Mann and Ornstein write:

First and perhaps most important will be for key opinion leaders in important institutions to step up and inform Americans about the nature of the problem and the policy consequences of continuing obstruction. By doing so, they can actually create political consequences for obstructionists and change their behavior. This starts with the media. The new media environment created by the demise of traditional business models and the proliferation of journalistic outlets with strategies designed to attract niche audiences has intensified a focus on sensationalism and extremism and reinforced the tribal divisions between the parties.

Mann and Ornstein are very much on target with their criticism. As we discuss, the ideological balkanization of cable news and the related "outrage industry" at blogs and among cable news personalities has not only reinforced tribalism, but also led to a spiral of polarization where the most intense partisans become ever more motivated to become involved politically. In contrast, moderates and those less interested in politics are at risk of a spiral of demobilization, increasingly opting out of attention to politics and news altogether.

In the "The Polarization Paradox," we suggest that one needed investment is in new models for regional and state-level news, institutions that help citizens recognize common community and local interests, rather than be constantly reminded of national tribal divisions. These news organizations would also serve the vital function of explanatory and accountability journalism, providing regionally relevant news on complex public issues and providing actionable information to be used in judging Congressional representatives and other political leaders.

Mann and Ornstein also suggest that:

The intense partisan environment, with media-watchdog groups on the left and right, has made editors and producers gun-shy when confronting a story such as asymmetric polarization. How do you help readers, listeners, and viewers recognize and understand this important and consequential development without appearing to have a partisan bias?

We agree. But the reason we wrote "The Polarization Paradox" is that there hasn't also been enough attention to just how intensely liberals have sought to replicate conservative strategies. The missing story is the full scale of the ideological arms race that has taken place over the past decade, as each election cycle one side has sought the upper hand in spending while pursuing ever more advanced strategies for mobilizing their base constituencies. This similarly has led to the predominance of an outrage industry that promotes among liberals and conservatives the belief that the other side is not just illegitimate but also craven, completely devoid of ideas, motives, or leaders able to to better the country.

And among liberals, efforts to emulate conservatives have also seeded division. As we write:

...By defining almost everything in politics as “us versus the radical fringe” and centralizing resources within a handful of organizations, liberals have institutionalized a bunker mentality that rewards groupthink and substantially reduces opportunities for developing innovative ideas and practical approaches to governing. Liberals who break with conventional perspectives or attempt to cross the fault lines that polarization has etched into our political culture are too often “debunked” as misinformers, labeled contrarians, or accused of aiding the enemy.

Leadership from problem-solving conservatives....

Mann and Ornstein also call upon pragmatic conservatives to step forward arguing for changes in the Republican party. As they write:

Another key group of opinion leaders who need to intervene is problem-solving conservatives in and out of politics—specifically, to put a dagger into the heart of Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge. This holy grail of the contemporary Republican Party—based on a deeply flawed and empirically discredited “starve the beast” strategy—has done more to erode the GOP’s commitment to fiscal probity and remove it from playing any constructive role in putting the country’s finances in order than any other single factor.

But these conservatives also need partners among liberals, their efforts and ideas taken seriously and encouraged when merited. As we write, to promote cross-talk and cooperation between liberals and problem-solving conservatives, we need to work to promote greater ideological diversity within academia and across our greater intellectual forums -- from film and book festivals to thought-leader retreats and TED conferences. As an example, the Breakthrough Dialogue is a model to build upon and replicate.

Expanding Participation Within the Electorate

Mann and Ornstein also argue for changes that would boost voter participation, thereby creating the reward and punish system that would force elected officials to cooperate. They remark on the compulsory voting system in Australia, though conclude implementing the same in the U.S. would be unlikely. Instead they propose the novel idea of a lottery system that would create the incentive for citizenst to turn out, in the hope of a big cash payout. They also point to changing our primary system.

We are fully aware that mandatory attendance at the polls has little chance of being enacted in the United States in the near or medium term; Americans rebel viscerally against the idea of forcing people to vote, or even imposing a modest penalty if they don’t. But there are other ways to boost turnout. One is to expand the electorate using incentives instead of disincentives; we are very attracted to the idea of a Mega Millions lottery, where one’s lottery ticket is the voting stub. The lure of a major prize could and would motivate people to vote the same way the multi-million dollar Mega Millions prize motivated many to stay in line all night for a chance to purchase a lottery ticket. Another is to build much more citizen-friendly, comprehensive, and accurate voter-registration files, so that voters who are in fact registered are not wrongly turned away from the polls or forced to vote provisionally.

In addition we support the kind of open primaries that have been implemented in California and will be on the ballot in Arizona. Open primaries reduce the impact of fringe ideologues and would be even better if they were combined with preference voting. They are no panacea, but they show promise in encouraging the candidacies of more mainstream lawmakers, and protecting incumbents threatened with primary battles if they do not hew to ideological orthodoxy.

In "The Polarization Paradox," we also focus on the need to boost voter participation and to carefully consider open primaries, thereby shifting power away from strongly ideological voters and donor networks in both parties. We also suggest that more attention should be focused on the possibility of online voting, a method that would further decrease the motivational and time barriers to turn out. The goal is to make it possible for more moderates and bridge-builders to run for and win office.

In the end, though our concern, analysis, and recommendations share much with Mann and Ornstein, ultimately its the frame of reference where we diverge. Our chief concern is to understand who and what can be the catalysts for change. In this regard, we believe that change must start with liberals.

And as we argue the fundamental shift needs to be in outlook. Clinton's success facing a Republican-controlled Congress and Obama's victories during his first term all emanate from their willingess to compromise and to blend together liberal and conservative ideas to achieve Democratic ends. As we write, matching fire with fire in a relentless ideological confrontation with conservatives is simply not sustainable. Not only does this strategy risk liberal electoral and policy ambitions, but the very posture and strategies involved cut against liberal values emphasizing cooperation, tolerance, diversity, respect, and civility. Here's how we end the essay, once again drawing on Mann and Ornstein:

In the end, the various policies and other actions we might adopt to address polarization are probably less important than our own posture toward the problem. In questioning the liberal reaction to our increasingly polarized politics, we offer no defense of conservative leaders who appear to be deliberately stoking the partisan fires in order to paralyze our political process and discourage engagement by young people and minorities, thereby boosting the influence of a mostly white Republican base.

But for better or worse, as the party of government, liberals have greater incentive than conservatives to reach across the aisle and pursue pragmatic solutions to America’s problems. But liberals need not do so passively. Compromise and reasonableness can be every bit as potent a weapon for liberals as polarization has been for conservatives. Liberals need to reach out to conservatives by addressing legitimate issues with current liberal policy preferences and programs. This also means collaborating on pathways toward achieving legitimate conservative policy objectives. Yet as we do so, we must also sig­ni­ficantly raise the political costs of obstructionism.

In this, liberals would do well to consider the lessons that the United States, like other powers before it, has learned when challenged by foes in asymmetrical conflicts. By this we mean that while conservatives have great resources to expend on behalf of their political objectives, they still must fight an uphill battle. Conservatism’s central political project has arguably been to delegitimize the welfare state, in the face of a public that still, even after forty years of guerrilla warfare and efforts to “starve the beast,” remains deeply supportive of it.

When political scientists Mann and Ornstein identify the beginnings of our dysfunctional politics and government with Gingrich, they are describing a classic asymmetrical strategy. Gingrich’s objective was to delegitimize the Democratic leadership that had controlled the House for almost fifty years, and in the process delegitimize the government and welfare state they presided over. Where once Gingrich was a marginal player in the Republican caucus, conservatives in the brand of Gingrich now control the GOP and often the government.85 Yet they have still proved themselves unable to dismantle the welfare state, even when they have controlled all three branches of government.

If liberals respond to the provocations of the Right with rigidity, vitriol, outrage, and a growing unwillingness to compromise, they only strengthen the hand of their opponents, contribute to the gridlock of our political institutions, provide Republicans with an easy justification for obstruction, and ultimately make the unthinkable -- the dismantling of the postwar welfare state -- thinkable. Conservatives, in this sense, are playing a long game, happy to starve the beast and delighted by dysfunction, even when they control the government. For this reason, as liberals unwittingly conspire to turn American politics into a zero-sum game, conservatives win even when they lose.

Top photo credit: Gage Skidmore.