Breaking ranks: The sidelining of two establishment giants

Two prominent figures in the American establishment break away from the mould and chastise the GOP – but is it enough?

No outrage was registered at all when Republican Allen West claimed there were "78 to 81" Democrats in Congress who were members of the Communist Party [GALLO/GETTY]

San Pedro, CA – A few weeks ago, Florida Republican Allen West claimed there are “78 to 81” Democrats in Congress who are members of the Communist Party. Despite the outrageous nature of West’s accusation, his comments caused barely a ripple in Washington politics. There was no wave of outrage, no gnashing of teeth, no Republican leaders were pressured – much less forced – to condemn him. Indeed, in today’s atmosphere, where a majority of GOP voters still doubt or deny that President Obama was born in America, West’s remarks barely seemed to register at all.

At the same time, it goes without saying that no Democrat in Congress ever said there are “78 to 81” Republicans who are members of the Nazi Party. And if, by wild improbable chance, anyone did say that, the result would be an immediate firestorm. It would be all across FOX News, of course, but they would hardly be alone. As with Hilary Rosen’s poorly-chosen words about Ann Romney’s lack of workplace experience, we would expect leading Democrats to quickly condemn any such remarks, even before Republicans could prepare the press releases pressuring them to do so.  It’s even quite conceivable that one or both houses of Congress might officially condemn such remarks, with large numbers of Democrats joining in – as happened when was condemned in 2007.

In short, even the possibility of a Democratic Allen West is utterly inconceivable in America today. And yet, according to sacred Washington myth, “both sides” are equally polarised, equally dogmatic, equally detached from reality, equally responsible for the broken state of America’s politics today. How strong is that myth in the face of evidence to the contrary? About as strong as any religious dogma you can think of. At the highest levels, it is, quite literally, simply beyond question.

Breaking ranks

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Consider this stunning piece of evidence: On April 27, two pillars of the American political establishment – Thomas E Mann and Norman J Ornstein, two of the most-quoted men in America – dared to break ranks with that dogma in a Washington Post op-ed, based on a book they’ve just published, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. Although the online response was unprecedented, generating more interest than for any other book they have written, the two have been entirely shut out of the Sunday talk show circuit and almost completely shut out of the top five national print outlets as well.  The establishment they have been keystone members of, for going on four decades, has suddenly forgotten that they ever even exist.

The op-ed was titled bluntly, “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem“. Mann and Ornstein took West’s outrageous claim as a point of departure – not because of West himself, but because of the ho-hum attitude of the GOP as a whole: “It’s not that the GOP leadership agrees with West,” they wrote, “it is that such extreme remarks and views are now taken for granted.”

In three key paragraphs, they admit that they, too, have long held both sides responsible for political dysfunction, but that such an analysis simply no longer makes sense:

“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 criticised 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.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.”

Although this message has proved too hot for the rest of the Washington establishment, Mann and Ornstein remain thoroughly entrenched in it; their critique must be seen as still quite limited as well as extremely late in the game. First of all, there is nothing really new about the GOP’s insurgent outlier status, or any of the rest of what the pair have to say about it. Has the GOP grown dramatically more extreme since Obama took office? Without a doubt. But the same could be said about the GOP in the first 3.5 years of Bush’s tenure in office, or the four-year period of Newt Gingrich’s Speakership in the 1990s, or the six-year period from Ronald Reagan’s inauguration through the belated exposure of the Iran/Contra scandal in November 1986.

Secondly, Mann and Ornstein significantly understate the problem here. It’s not simply how far the GOP has moved from the mainstream – a matter of conceptual distance – although that captures a significant part of what’s been happening since at least 1980, as reflected in the lopsided increase of polarisation measured by Congressional roll-call votes in the comprehensive DW-Nominate database, which Mann and Ornstein refer to in making their argument. But conceptual distance alone implies an underlying continuum of policy positions that rational deliberations could straightforwardly resolve, given sufficient goodwill. Such a conception utterly fails to account for radical ruptures in attitude which make such deliberations impossible. Such ruptures include open hostility towards compromise, collegiality and co-operation – all of which the GOP now regards as signs of weakness at best, and outright betrayal, even treason, at worst. This was clearly demonstrated during the GOP presidential debates, for example, when the candidates were asked if they would accept a “balance” of $1 in tax increases for every $10 in spending cuts. Every single candidate rejected the idea outright – no tax increases whatsoever were acceptable, no matter how large the size of spending cuts they were paired with.

Popular resonance and elite disdain

I’ll have more to say about Mann and Ornstein’s argument below. But first a bit more on the clash with the both-sides-do-it myth. Greg Sargent, in the Washington Post‘s Plum Line blog, put it like this:

[T]hese are among the most quoted people in Washington – yet suddenly this latest topic is too hot for the talkers, or not deemed relevant at all.

I ran this thesis by Ornstein himself, and he confirmed that the book’s publicity people had tried to get the authors booked on the Sunday shows, with no success.

‘Not a single one of the Sunday shows has indicated an interest, and I do find it curious,’ Ornstein told me, adding that the op-ed had well over 200,000 Facebook recommends and has been viral for weeks. ‘This is a level of attention for a book that we haven’t received before. You would think it would attract some attention from the Sunday shows’.”

Just to be clear, Mann and Ornstein have authored dozens of books about Congress and the political process, such as Congress, the Press, and the Public (1994), The Permanent Campaign and Its Future(2000), and The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track (2008) – blurbed by no less than Newt Gingrich, who called it “a serious step toward strengthening the Congress”. As pioneering political blogger Bob Somerby noted recently in the longest-running blog on the web, Ornstein was dubbed the “King of Quotes” by the Washington Monthly way back in 1986 “as the expert you couldn’t escape”. A decade later, Somerby notes, Ornstein was dethroned… by his co-author, Thomas E Mann.

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With Mann housed at the centrist Brookings Institute, and Ornstein at the centre-right American Enterprise Institute, their collaborations have routinely served to help define the very essence of conventional wisdom about how and why the American political system functions as it does – particularly with regard to Congress. In a piece describing how their latest work has been ignored, Media Matters for America reported that the pair had been cited or published articles in five top national print outlets a total of 35 times in the year preceding their Washington Post op-ed (with 63 per cent being news stories rather than opinion pieces) – compared to just five opinion piece mentions since then, including the op-ed itself. (The five outlets are  the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post). But Media Matters’ count actually significantly over-stated the degree of elite attention to Mann and Ornstein’s break with conventional wisdom. Aside from the original op-ed itself, and a Washington Post book review, the only story to actually appear in print was by Ezra Klein. The other two stories were blog posts by Greg Sargent (see above), and Paul Krugman, both calling attention to the fact that Mann and Ornstein were being ignored by America’s elite media.

Broader frameworks

Krugman’s brief 3-paragraph blog post was particularly noteworthy because its concluding paragraph did a better job of framing what was going on than Mann and Ornstein themselves:

“When future historians write about the fall of the American Republic, they will of course lay primary blame on the extremists of the right, who set out deliberately to destroy it. But they will also lay heavy blame on all the centrists and Serious People who not only refused to admit what was happening, but ostracised and silenced anyone who tried to point it out.”

Mann and Ornstein are institutionalists, who have devoted their lives to studying Congress as an institution. No doubt Congress is a vital part of the American Republic, but the republic is much vaster than Congress alone, and it’s Krugman’s concern for the republic as a whole that helps provide him with both a starker and clearer picture of what is going on.

Indeed, some have argued that the “empire vs republic” framework is far more significant than the partisan framework that still shapes Mann and Ornstein’s framework, even as they now reject treating both parties equally. But the “empire vs republic” frame has its own problems as well – most notably, the Ron Paul/Pat Buchanan/militia movement/Tea Party types, whose version of the republic is an authoritarian herrenvolk democracy, with liberty and justice reserved for Sarah Palin’s “real Americans”, and no one else.

The crucial point here is that from its beginning, the American Republic was also a liberal democracy – a democracy in which certain inalienable rights were set aside as universal and beyond the reach of popular opinion, a universalist conception diametrically opposed to that of herrenvolkdemocracy. Although America has failed repeatedly to live up to the full meaning of this ideal, it has, at its best, failed in a way playwright Samuel Beckett described, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

What’s more – also cross-cutting the “empire vs republic” frame – even constructive critics of empire have advanced frameworks of understanding which are less entangled in the partisan underbrush that Mann and Ornstein still struggle with. Before explaining what I mean about “constructive critics of empire”, let’s take a closer look at that partisan underbrush. Significantly, the two write:

Democrats are hardly blameless, and they have their own extreme wing and their own predilection for hardball politics. But these tendencies do not routinely veer outside the normal bounds of robust politics. If anything, under the presidencies of Clinton and Obama, the Democrats have become more of a status-quo party. They are centrist protectors of government, reluctantly willing to revamp programmes and trim retirement and health benefits to maintain its central commitments in the face of fiscal pressures.”

In this view, extremist Democrats are still bad, centrist, status quo ones are good, it’s just that centrists comfortably have the upper hand. Philosophically, Mann and Ornstein really haven’t changed their basic view of things one iota. It’s only their empirical view of today’s Republican Party that has changed.

But are the Democrats’ “extreme wing” even theoretically a problem? Or do they represent a last remaining shred of sanity? Is it, rather, the “sensible”, compromise-oriented Democrats who are the problem? Not in Mann and Ornstein’s world, it seems. Such a possibility remains philosophically inconceivable to them. But are they just still half-trapped in the worldview they are criticising?

Consider another perspective, grounded in specific legislative acts. In 2008, Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald put together a telling list of Senate votes in which more centrist and conservative Democrats joined with near unanimous Republican majorities to produce a solid “bipartisan” of support for Bush-era policies, including items such as the Authorisation to Use Military Force in Iraq, the renewal of the Patriot Act, and the cloture vote on Sam Alito confirmation to the Supreme Court. At the conclusion of the list, Greenwald wrote, “On virtually every major controversial issue – particularly, though not only, ones involving national security and terrorism – the Republicans (including their vaunted mythical moderates and mavericks) vote in almost complete lockstep in favour of the President, the Democratic caucus splits, and the Republicans then get their way on every issue thanks to ‘bipartisan’ support. That’s what ‘bipartisanship’ in Washington means.”

And, by implication, it also defines what “Democratic extremist” means as well – something much closer to the Founding Fathers’ vision of America than Mann and Ornstein seem to realise, at least so far.

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Imperial decline

This is not just a matter of imperialist vs anti-imperialist sentiment, as some might conclude from Greenwald’s orientation. To see why, let’s contrast Mann and Ornstein’s viewpoint with that of another prominent insider, who unlike them got enormous amounts of attention, only to see his message get lost and forgotten as a result of being proven spectacularly prescient. 

I am speaking of Paul Kennedy, and his 1987/88 bestseller, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500 to 2000. Kennedy traced out a recurrent pattern of rising and falling military power based on domestic economic power, which in turn involved complex interactions of social, cultural and geographic factors. While his book represented a masterful integration of nearly half a millennium of history, what arguably drew most particular attention was what he had to say about the then-dominant dual superpowers of the USSR and the USA. Entirely consistent with his whole historical approach, he warned that the decline of both was inevitable, though the US had considerable options available.

At the time Kennedy wrote, signs of Soviet decline were already widely noted – but also widely denied as well. His warning of imminent Soviet decline – even over a period of two decades – seemed controversial at first, but when first the Soviet Bloc, and then the Soviet Union itself fell apart much more rapidly than Kennedy had predicted, his stock effectively plummeted. Rather than making people take his warnings about the US more seriously, fantasies abounded about a “unipolar world”.

And yet, Kennedy’s warning remained: “The task facing American statesmen over the next decades, therefore, is to recognise that broad trends are under way, and that there is a need to ‘manage’ affairs so that the relative erosion of the United States’ position takes place slowly and smoothly, and is not accelerated by policies which bring merely short-term advantage but longer-term disadvantage.”

The Bush era’s reckless disregard for Kennedy’s warning is nothing less than stunning. The only ones who seemed to have any long-term concern for the preservation of American power as Kennedy described it were precisely those in the “extreme wing” of the Democratic Party.

Yet, if Mann and Ornstein are mistaken to fetishise consensus, that doesn’t invalidate everything they have to say. It merely underscores the relatively modest, conceptually conservative nature of their critique. The fact that such a modest criticism is too much for America’s political elites to handle speaks volumes about the depth of intellectual decay at the heart of the modern world empire.

Press prescriptions

Despite the limitations of their analysis, there is still value in their proposals, particularly with regard to the press. On this, they write,

“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.

Our advice to the press: 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.

Look ahead to the likely consequences of voters’ choices in the November elections. How would the candidates govern? What could they accomplish? What differences can people expect from a unified Republican or Democratic government, or one divided between the parties?”

What Mann and Ornstein are calling for here is really nothing more than a shift toward reality-based reporting, as opposed to convention-bound reporting. This alone is enough to constitute a revolutionary shift, if properly pursued. Think what it would mean, for example, if the current lionisation of Paul Ryan were replaced by continual fact-based reporting… that his budget plan would cut Federal Medicaid funding by roughly one-third by 2022, increase millionaires’ incomes by 12.5 per cent, focus 62 per cent of its cuts on programmes serving low-income communities, and increase federal spending by 35 per cent over ten years. Such a shift from received wisdom to empirical reality could be earth-shattering. Indeed, if reporters do take this advice, it won’t be long before many of them start reporting a world that looks more like Glenn Greenwald’s or Paul Kennedy’s than Mann and Ornstein’s.

Heck, it might even look more like Occupy Wall Street’s. Imagine that! Reporting that makes sense to the 99 per cent! Benjamin Franklin and Tom Paine would be so proud.

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

You can follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg