It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: The Sources of Washington’s Current Problems

Posted in: Book Reviews

I seldom recommend books, but I just finished one that is absolutely must reading for anyone interested in understanding the current problems in Washington, in which our government has become paralyzed with inaction, notwithstanding a troubled economy. Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein have written a wonderful primer on the topic: It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.  They have peeled open our national government, layer by layer, like an onion, in order to show why it is in serious trouble.

Mann and Ornstein are seasoned, professional government observers.  They are truly the antithesis of political partisans.  Both are established and respected scholars, who have spent over four decades studying the U.S. Congress.  In writing their brutally candid examination of contemporary Washington, they are merely reporting what they have found. This, of course, has been troubling to those responsible, for they name names.

What makes their work extraordinary is that political scientists like Mann and Ornstein have no interest in trying to score political points by finger-pointing.  To the contrary, they need the good will of both Democrats and Republicans in order to do their studies.  But given what has occurred in Washington since the 2010 takeover of the House of Representative by the Republicans, Mann and Ornstein could not honestly write about Washington by taking the common journalistic approach—which typically claims that both sides are responsible, and there’s plenty of blame to go around—to explain the remarkable gridlock that had made our national government dangerously dysfunctional.

A Very Important Book, Particularly for Republicans

Mann and Ornstein announced the publication of their work in an April 27, 2012 Op-Ed in the Washington Post, where they provided a summary of their findings.  They described there how the Republican Party has moved to the radical right, and in doing so, has adopted a governing strategy of killing or obstructing any and all Democratic proposals or policies that are inconsistent with their own thinking, which basically calls for cutting taxes, cutting non-defense spending, cutting government regulations, and furthering the GOP’s social agenda that focuses on human reproduction.

Mann and Ornstein open by reporting how the GOP now takes hostage issues like the government’s debt ceiling, and uses what have always been routinely and easily passed measures, as a tool to extort concessions from Democrats, typically making demands that are unreasonable.  They show how GOP members of Congress have no hesitation whatsoever to put the U.S. Government’s credit rating, if not its very ability to operate, at risk in order to score political points and political advantage.  It is a devastating portrait of Republicans in action, and it tells the story of how it all started, with Newt Gingrich’s arrival in the nation’s capital.  The authors, fortunately, close with suggested remedies.

The book has been reviewed widely, and approvingly. With the exception of a few Republicans, everyone has been impressed with the honesty of the authors, and the overwhelming evidence supporting their reporting.  To signal the book’s importance, several Washington luminaries provided blurbs for the book’s jacket:  Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve (for Carter and Reagan); former U.S. Senator (1997–2009) Chuck Hagel (R. NB), and former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Since publication, others such as Paul Krugman, New York Times columnist, and former President Bill Clinton have also called attention to the work—to mention just a few.

Not surprisingly, but sadly, some Republicans have sought to discredit Mann and Ornstein and their book, although the GOP has mostly just ignored it—as they do most all facts that conflict with their worldview.  Typical of the GOP effort to minimize the book is the review by The American Spectator, a leading self-proclaimed conservative voice.  Contrary to Mann and Ornstein’s resumes (both men have PhDs and forty years of scholarly work), TAS calls them “two Washington insiders masquerading as ‘scholars’.”  As for their book, TAS says (without citing a single “widely known” fact to support its statement): “This is a bad book in every way that a book can be bad. It is misleading, simplistic in its interpretation, and ignorant of widely known facts that contradict its partisan thesis.”


The TAS review is symptomatic of the problem.  Republicans have their own “facts,” and they are not even willing to discuss the world as others see it.  If you live in an alternative universe, as Republicans do now, needless to say it is all but impossible to solve problems rationally. Unfortunately, unless voters figure out that something has gone seriously amiss with Republicans and thus vote them out of power, nothing is likely to change any time soon.

To the contrary, with the debt-ceiling cliff ahead once again, the situation has greater potential to get even worse, for this is a hostage again waiting to be taken by the GOP.

Contemporary Mainstream Journalism Is Part of the Problem

Most reviews of, and reports on, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks have chosen not to discuss what I believe is a relatively easy and fixable problem: the remarkable failure of American journalism to report on the extremism and governing intransigence of the Republican Party.  As Mann and Ornstein state, “It is traditional that those in the American media intent on showing their lack of bias frequently report to their viewers and readers that both sides are equally guilty of this partisan behavior.  Journalistic traditions notwithstanding, reality is very different.” It appears that the journalistic mainstream fears being cast as partisan for simply being honest.

This is a problem because today’s “media” is highly fractured and just as partisan as the rest of society.  For example, there are the polarizing partisan cable news media, which are increasingly following the very successful Fox News business model, as described by Mann and Ornstein: “The Fox business model is based on securing and maintaining a loyal audience of conservatives eager to hear the same message presented in different ways by different hosts over and over again.”  But there are also blogs, newsletters, and websites that reinforce our polarization.  Sensationalism, extremism, and an attitude of anything-to-get-attention is the dominant form of political reporting.

Nonetheless, there still is a “mainstream news media,” which is operated by traditional news organizations, such as, ABC, CBS, and NBC News, The Associated Press, Reuters, and the like.  It is to these organizations that Mann and Ornstein have addressed several suggestions. While the suggestions themselves are positive, they all address conspicuous shortcomings in political coverage, which I have distilled and stated here in my own words:

  • Help readers, listeners, and viewers recognize and understand the impact of asymmetric political polarization, where the refusal to compromise can have serious consequences for the nation’s well-being, and the functioning of our government.
  • Stop giving balanced treatment to unbalanced tactics and strategies, in situations where Republicans clearly rely on such homogenized news coverage to hide their obstinacy and obstructionism, not to mention their radical policies.
  • Fact-check and report the fact-checking results prominently, and then become increasingly critical toward politicians who repeat falsehoods.
  • Do not give legitimacy to government procedures that are clearly used for obstructionism, like the Senate filibuster.
  • Clearly explain to readers and listeners the difference between how Republicans and Democrats govern, for they are significant; the parties’ approaches are very different indeed.

Just these few basic reporting changes by the giants of the news media could seriously lessen the impact of our political polarization.  Yet, these salutary changes are not likely to happen, because most mainstream news media journalists, editors, and producers—and their corporate overlords—worry more about offending viewers, than about telling the audience what is really happening.

What is disquieting about mainstream journalism now is that the journalists know full well what is going on, but they fear being called partisan for simply accurately and fully describing this situation.  And they are right:  That is exactly what will happen.  Just as TAS falsely accused Mann and Ornstein, conservatives will attack any news organization that calls them on their game.

News is a business, so I expect that traditional news organization will continue to aid and abet Republicans in their effort to maintain the dysfunctional status quo. While this may give these folks some limited protection, when the GOP destroys our system of government, it will not make much difference to anyone what they did or did not do.

Posted in: Book Reviews, Politics