It’s Even Worse than it Looks Was

How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism

Thomas E. Mann & Norman J. Ornstein (2012, rev. 2016)


Thomas E. Mann is the W. Averell Harriman Chair and a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a non-partisan DC think tank, and focuses on US elections.

Norman J. Ornstein is a political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington DC conservative think tank.

Orstein & Mann

Ornstein & Mann


What follows is a summary of his book, with only minor edits for readability.

[text in square brackets are editorial interjections or clarifications.]


Core Message

The center of gravity within the Republican Party has shifted sharply to the right. 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 – all but declaring war on the government.

The contemporary GOP, to the horror of many of its long-time stalwarts, has veered toward tolerance of extreme ideological beliefs and policies and an embrace of cynical and destructive means to advance political ends over problem-solving.

The Democrats under the presidencies of Clinton and Obama, by contrast, have become the more status-quo oriented centrist protectors of government, willing to revamp programs and trim retirement and health benefits in the face of fiscal pressures and global economic challenges. And rank-and-file Democrats (along with self-identified Independents) favor compromise to solve problems over deadlock.

More than 70% of Republicans in the electorate identify themselves as conservative or very conservative, while only 40% of rank-and-file Democrats call themselves liberal or very liberal.

In surveys of public opinion, the vast majority of Democrats support compromise to solve national problems; most Republicans support instead standing firm on principle and rejecting compromise, even if it means the problems do not get solved.



We both came to Washington in the fall of 1969 to work as congressional fellows in Capitol Hill for a year. That began a forty year immersion in American politics from inside the nation’s capitol and up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. Together and separately, we have devoted our careers not just to studying politics but trying to help our political institutions operate the way our constitutional system intended. To that end, we participated in the creation of the Office of Compliance to make sure Congress follows the laws that effect other Americans, of the independent House Office of Congressional Ethics, and of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, known popularly as McCain-Feingold. We spent our careers doing our best to be scrupulously non-partisan and pro-institutional. – Mann & Ornstein

Asymmetric Polarization: Not Your Mother’s Republican Party

The two parties are not equally to blame. The Republican Party has become extreme in terms of both policy and process. It has become so radicalized that, at critical times and on critical occasions, it will not or cannot engage constructively in the governing process anticipated by our constitutional charter. It is as if one of the many paranoid fringe movements in American political history has successfully infected a major political party.

The radicalization of the Republican Party was given impetus and sustenance by a vast talk radio, cable news, and social media – the modern hyper-charged partisan press. These outlets attract and reinforce relatively homogenous audiences with extreme views. At least as problematic is the traditional or mainstream press that routinely provides even-handed treatment of the decidedly uneven behavior of the two major parties. This pattern of false equivalence has continued unabated, depriving the American public of an accurate account of what is driving our governance problems.

The center of gravity within the Republican Party has shifted sharply to the right. 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 – all but declaring war on the government.

The Democratic Party, while no paragon of civic virtue, is more ideologically centered and diverse, protective of government’s role as it developed over the course of the last century, open to incremental changes in policy fashioned through bargaining with the Republicans, and less disposed to or adept at take-no-prisoners conflict between the parties.

The post-McGovern Democratic Party, while losing the bulk of its conservative Dixiecrat contingent, has retained a more diverse constituency base and, since the Clinton presidency, has hewed to the center-left, with an emphasis on the center.

Over the course of the last thirty years, the GOP has become the reflexive champion of lower taxes, reductions in the size and scope of the federal government, deregulation, and the public promotion of a religious and cultural conservatism.

Political historian Geoffrey Kabaservice, in his book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party, notes “movement conservatism finally succeeded in silencing, co-opting, repelling or expelling nearly every competing strain of Republicanism, to the extent that the terms ‘liberal Republican’ or ‘moderate Republican’ have practically become oxymorons.”

President Reagan ushered in the new Republican Party, but governed pragmatically. The steps he took in office, as well as those the two Bush presidents took, were so far outside the policy and procedural bounds of the contemporary GOP that none of them could likely win a Republican presidential nomination today without disavowing their own actions.

Reagan was a serial violator of Axiom One for today’s GOP: the no new taxes pledge. George W. Bush’s immigration reform violated Axiom Two, and his expansion of government in health care and education and his initiation of the bank bailout violated Axiom Three. That legacy, and Barack Obama’s election prompted the formation of a right-wing populist Tea Party movement, which the Republican establishment subsequently embraced.

The Problem is Mismatch

A fundamental problem is the mismatch between parliamentary-style political parties – ideologically polarized, internally unified, vehemently oppositional, and politically strategic – that has emerged in recent years and a separation-of-powers system that makes it extremely difficult for majorities to work their will.

Our Madisonian system is predicated on the willingness of elected officials representing highly diverse interests to engage in good faith negotiations and compromise.

Students of comparative politics have demonstrated that the American policy-making system of checks and balances and separation of powers has more structural impediments to action than any other major democracy. Now there are additional incentives to obstruction in that policy-making process.

Witness the Republican’s immense electoral success in 2010 after voting in unison against virtually every Obama initiative and priority, and making each vote and enactment contentious and excruciating, followed by major efforts to delegitimize the result.

While both parties are guilty of abuses of procedure, the GOP Congress under Clinton and, far more, under Obama, has raised parliamentary obstruction to new and unprecedented historical levels. Through the use of holds, the filibuster, cloture and extended debate on even uncontroversial and almost unanimously bi-partisan legislation, deliberate inaction on executive nominations, and holding the government and the American economy hostage to ideological intransigence – all for partisan ends – has brought government, particularly Congress, to historically low levels of public approval, with the specific strategic purpose of delegitimizing government itself in order to incite a “throw the bums out” reaction from the American electorate, thereby installing a new cadre of political leaders even less inclined to cooperate for the good of the nation.

These political pathologies provide incontrovertible evidence of people who have become more loyal to party than to country. The single-minded focus on scoring political points over solving problems, escalating over the last several decades, has reached a level of such intensity and bitterness that government seems incapable of making public decisions responsive to the existential challenges facing the country.

The asymmetries between the parties, which journalists and scholars often brush aside or whitewash in a quest for “balance”, constitutes a huge obstacle to effective governance.

The New Politics of Hostage Taking

On January 26, 2010, the Senate voted on a resolution to create an eighteen-member deficit-reduction task force with teeth, a fast-track procedure to bring a sweeping plan to solve the nation’s debt problem straight to the floor in an up-or-down vote. The resolution was co-authored by Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, and had substantial bi-partisan support, including from Republican leaders like John McCain and Mitch McConnell. The latter did not co-sponsor the resolution but had strongly defended it eight months earlier on the Senate floor, calling it “our best hope for addressing the out-of-control spending and debt levels that are threatening our nation’s fiscal future”.

But on January 26, the Senate blocked the resolution. Fifty-three senators supported it, but it could not garner the sixty needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. Among those who voted to sustain the filibuster and kill the resolution were Mitch McConnell and John McCain, who were joined in opposition by six other original co-sponsors. Never before have co-sponsors of a major bill conspired to kill their own idea. It was done because Barack Obama was for it and its passage might gain him political credit. A senior Republican Senate aide sent a memo that stated: “If he is for it, we will kill it”.

This was the result of an ongoing process of ideological polarization and extreme partisanship, the demise of regular order, the decline of genuine deliberation, a culture of corruption, the loss of institutional patriotism among members, and the weakening of the checks-and-balances system.

There appeared to be some improvement after the Democrats regained control of Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections, but the most problematic features remained. It appeared that only a major national crisis could loosen this institutional log-jam and restore functional government. But even the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression and a pretty clear signal from the voters, who elected Barack Obama by a comfortable margin and gave the Democrats substantial gains in the House and Senate, was not enough to shift the paradigm.

President Obama’s post-partisan pitch fell flat and the Tea Party movement pulled the GOP further to its ideological pole. Republicans greeted the new president, rather than with a honeymoon period, a unified strategy of opposing, obstructing, discrediting, and nullifying every one of his important initiatives.

Though Obama never-the-les managed an impressive legislative harvest in his first two years, the anemic economic recovery, caused in large part by watering down the stimulus package that the president wanted, led to yet another cry to “throw the bums out”. Democrat’s devastating setback in the 2010 mid-term elections, in which they lost six Senate seats and sixty-three in the House, produced a Republican majority in the House dominated by right-wing insurgents determined to radically reduce the size and role of government.

What followed was an appalling spectacle of hostage-taking – most importantly, the debt limit crisis – that threatened a government shutdown and public default, led to the downgrading of the country’s credit, and blocked constructive action to nurture an economic recovery or deal with looming problems of deficits and debt.

In October 2011, Congress garnered its lowest approval rating (9%) in polling history. Public trust in the government’s capacity to solve the serious problems facing the country also hit record lows. President Obama’s job approval ratings were mired in the forties, and no one expected the president or Congress to accomplish anything of consequence before the 2012 election.

Paradoxically, the public’s undifferentiated disgust with “the government” is part of the problem. The effort to defeat incumbent politicians in hard times leads to the election of a new group of people who are even less inclined to or capable of crafting compromise solutions to pressing problems.

The Seeds of Dysfunction – The Goldwater/Gingrich Revolution

The current climate of broken politics is much deeper and broader than merely the fights over debt limits and spending. The problems in relations within Congress, between Congress and the president, in campaigns, and in the coarsened, divided and tribal political culture go back to major societal shifts in the 1960s. But none of the roots have been more important than developments set in motion in the election of 1978.

A group called the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), founded three years earlier by activists John Terry Dolan, Charles Black and Roger Stone, emerged as a major force in the campaign, financing independent spending against liberal Democrats. NCPAC produced a barrage of negative ads and passed out flyers at places like churches in a successful effort to bring down their targets. Though mild by today’s standards, this campaign was the first example of what would soon become common on both ends of the political spectrum: nationalized, highly-ideological, independent-expenditure campaigns.

Freshman representative Newt Gingrich, a history professor at a small Georgia college who had twice run unsuccessfully for the House, stood out among the rest for his self-assurance and strategy, already fully articulated, for achieving a Republican majority in the House, after 24 years of Democratic control. His strategy would bring him to power but have a devastating impact on the institution he ultimately led.

His core strategy was to destroy the institution in order to save it, to so intensify public hatred of Congress that voters would buy into the notion of the need for sweeping change and throw the majority bums out. His method was to unite Republicans in refusing to cooperate with Democrats in committee or on the floor, while publicly attacking them as a permanent majority presiding over a thoroughly corrupt institution.

Most of Gingrich’s colleagues, including many Republicans, were deeply unsettled by this approach, with the exception of Dick Cheney, an establishment Republican who quickly moved up the ranks in the House. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the ranks of Gingrich’s insurgents were reinforced, opening the door for him to form the Conservative Opportunity Society (COS), which set out to create an alternative power structure to that of the GOP Minority Leader, who worked cooperatively with Speaker Tip O’Neil.

COS used politically motivated amendments and overheated, hyperbolic rhetoric to poke and agitate the Democratic leaders into over-reacting, which then radicalized even moderate Republicans.

In March 1979, just three months after Gingrich took office, and after C-SPAN launched its gavel-to-gavel coverage of the House proceedings, he began exploiting the relatively mundane “special orders” tradition of using evening hours to get minor speeches, often praising local constituents, onto the Congressional Record. Under House rules, the cameras were fixed on the speaker’s podium, and Gingrich realized that this prevented viewers from knowing that the chamber was empty.

So Gingrich and his allies began reserving evening time to engage in colloquies attacking Democrats for opposing school prayer, being soft on Communism, and being corrupt. This went on for months until O’Neil retaliated by ordering cameras to pan the chamber, and attacked Gingrich for impugning the patriotism of Democrats. On May 14, Gingrich took to the floor to accuse the Speaker of violating the rules and of using words that came “all too close to resembling a McCarthyism of the Left”, and Gingrich announced “I am now a famous person”.

In a speech to conservative activists, Gingrich said “When you give them [the media] confrontations, you get attention; when you get attention, you can educate.”

In 1988, Gingrich began attacking O’Neil’s successor, Jim Wright, with a relentless barrage of ethics charges. Then, in 1989, he attacked Wright and the Democrats for voting themselves a pay raise, even though it was a bipartisan effort, which Gingrich had supported, as well as outgoing president Reagan and incoming president Bush. This led to Wright’s ouster as Speaker, and his parting words decrying the “mindless cannibalism” that had overtaken Congress.

A group of Gingrich allies, calling themselves the Gang of Seven, whose ringleaders included Rick Santorum and John Boehner, took confrontation tactics to a new level. In a little more than two years, Gingrich had brought his goal of  causing voters to feel disgust at Congress within reach.

When the electorate, reacting to a poor economy, brought Bill Clinton to the White House in 1992, with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, Gingrich was able to convince his party to vote en masse against major Clinton initiatives, even in areas where some GOP members might have wanted to agree with the president or bargain with their Democratic colleagues. Delay and failure of Clinton’s policies, including defeat of his signature health care reform, created a deepening sense among voters of a broken political system – a feeling that Gingrich sought to cultivate.

As the 1994 midterm elections approached, Gingrich toured the country recruiting candidates to run against incumbent Democrats and gave them talking points to spread discomfort with the majority party among the electorate. The election brought Republican gains of 52 seats and its first House majority in forty years. Following the election, Gingrich, the Republican Whip, was elected Speaker of the House. it took him 16 years to achieve his objective of a House Republican majority, but his strategy of attacking adversaries and delegitimizing Congress left a lasting mark on American politics.

The 73 freshmen legislators, nearly a third of the Republican majority, were strong Gingrich loyalists and were even more disdainful of Congress than was he. Gingrich wanted to establish the House as a parallel government, challenging the president and his policy initiatives at every turn. Most of his efforts centered on issues in the Contract with America, the conservative pledge that included a balanced budget amendment, a tough crime package, pulling back on regulations, and term limits for members of Congress.

Most of the congressional challenge to Clinton came over budget-related matters, as the GOP House tried to use the threat of a breach in the debt limit and government shutdowns to bludgeon the president into accepting their demands to cut spending, regulation and taxes. The first year of Gingrich’s speakership saw two government shutdowns, which backfired on Gingrich and his party, which forced the ever-pragmatic Speaker to shift course and work with Clinton to mollify the voters.

A new, brief period of bipartisan cooperation in 1996 allowed passage of welfare and modest health reform and led to a second GOP majority, albeit with a smaller margin. But the bitterness he created led Democrats to bring a slew of ethics charges against Gingrich, including some stunningly similar to the ones he brought against Speaker Wright nine years earlier.

Gingrich hung on to his speakership with only a congressional reprimand, but was forced out two years later when, against popular opinion, he orchestrated a last-minute advertising blitz to make the impeachment of Clinton a liability for the Democratic Party. The Democrats, instead, won five seats and Gingrich quietly slipped away to build an extensive network of advocacy organizations.

But while he reigned, Gingrich crystallized the approach to crafting a cohesive, parliamentary-style minority party and using it as a battering ram to stymie and damage a president of the other party. He also undermined public trust in Congress, reducing the institution’s credibility for a long time to come. Gingrich created an atmosphere in which colleagues with different views became mortal enemies, normalized the permanent campaign in which electoral goals dominate policy ones, and the use of overheated rhetoric and a take-no-prisoners politics of confrontation and obstruction that have become the new normal.

The seeds of the partisan divide, however, were planted much earlier and its roots are deep and strong. The partisan polarization that is the central and most problematic feature of contemporary American politics, has been on a steady rise since the New Deal.

As National Journal reported in its study of rill call voting in the 111th Congress (2009-2011, following the Obama election), for the first time in modern history, in both the House and the Senate, the most conservative Democrat was slightly more liberal than the most liberal Republican. In other words, the degree of overlap in that Congress was zero. The polarization is also present in state government and among the voting public.

The reaction to the New Deal, and later to the civil rights movement, weakened the Democratic Party’s stronghold in the South. The 1964 campaign of Barry Goldwater initiated a long-term struggle among Republican activists to develop a more distinctively conservative party agenda. Though Goldwater was trounced in the election, he won five southern states for the first GOP victories since reconstruction.

The Supreme Court’s 1973 abortion decision in Roe v. Wade galvanized a pro-life movement that years later would form the core of the Republican Party’s largest and most reliable constituency – the religious conservatives.

This party realignment led to a sharp decline in the number of conservative Democrats serving in Congress – from a third in 1980 to 10% in 2011 – and an increase in the number of conservative Republicans. Redistricting and gerrymandering exacerbated this trend.

Over time, Democrats in Congress became more homogeneous and drifted left, while Republicans became more homogeneous and veered sharply right. At the same time, voters were making residential decisions that reinforced the ideological sorting already underway.

The election in 2000 of the first unified Republican government since 1952 – but with the president elected by a minority of popular votes in the most controversial election in more than a century, a 50/50 Senate, a slender majority in the House, and efforts to jam through serious policy on party lines – further hardened party divisions.

The return of a unified government with the election of Barack Obama significantly extended and intensified the war between the parties. The Republican’s smashing victory in the 2010 midterm elections, produced yet another stage for the debt ceiling fiasco that has come to exemplify the current dysfunctional politics. The extent of change toward tribalism is clear when party line voting spills over into issues with no discernible ideological content and where liberal and conservative positions are impossible to identify.

Strategy of Internal Destruction

Chuck Hagel, the former Republican Senator from Nebraska, in an August 2011 interview with the Financial Times, called his party “irresponsible” and said he was “disgusted” by the antics of the Republicans over the debt ceiling.

A veteran Republican congressional staffer, Mike Lofgen, wrote a long and anguished diatribe about why he ended his career on the Hill after nearly 30 years:

It should have been evident to any clear-eyed observers that the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe.

The only thing that can keep the Senate functioning is collegiality and good faith. During periods of political consensus, for instance the WWII and early post-war eras, the Senate was a ‘high functioning’ institution: filibusters were rare and the body was legislatively productive. Now, one can no more picture the current Senate producing the original Medicare Act than the old Supreme Soviet having legislated the Bill of Rights.

Far from being a rarity, virtually every bill, every nomination for Senate confirmation and every routine procedural motion is now subject to a Republican filibuster. Under the circumstances, it’s no wonder that Washington is gridlocked: legislating has now become war minus the shooting, something one could have observed 80 years ago in the Reichstag of the Weimar Republic. As Hannah Arendt observed, a disciplined minority of totalitarians can use the instruments of democratic government to undermine democracy itself.

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’ generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

The GOP’s nearly unanimous pledge, in writing, not to increase taxes under any circumstance is perhaps the best indicator and most consequential component of its ideological thrust. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and the man who fashioned the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge”, to which Republicans pay fealty, had become a legendary power broker in the party. At the same time, its rank-and-file voters endorse the broader strategy the party elites have adopted, eschewing compromise to solve problems and insisting on sticking to principle even if it leads to gridlock.

The Democrats under the presidencies of Clinton and Obama, by contrast, have become the more status-quo oriented centrist protectors of government, willing to revamp programs and trim retirement and health benefits in the face of fiscal pressures and global economic challenges. And rank-and-file Democrats (along with self-identified Independents) favor compromise to solve problems over deadlock.

More than 70% of Republicans in the electorate identify themselves as conservative or very conservative, while only 40% of rank-and-file Democrats call themselves liberal or very liberal. Recent elections have made the imbalance worse: nearly 80% of the freshmen Republicans in the 112th Congress [2011-2013] would have been in the right wing of the party in the previous Congress.

Paul Weyrich and other conservative activists created the Republican Study Committee (RSC) in 1973 as an informal group to pull the center-right party much further to the right; it had only 10%-20% of Republican representatives as members as recently as the 1980s, a small fringe group. In the 112th Congress, the RSC had 166 members, or nearly 70% of the caucus.

New Media and New Culture

The old media was dominated by three television networks, which captured more than 70% of Americans as a regular viewing audience. A healthy majority of Americans relied on their news divisions as their primary source of information. Without remote controls, most Americans were passive consumers of news. Second in line were newspapers, with most metropolitan areas having at least two and often more. While the editorial pages often had distinct party leanings, the news pages bent over backward to report news objectively.

With the remarkable telecommunications revolution, there has been a veritable explosion of media. In 2010, there were almost 600 cable television channels, more than 2,200 broadcast television stations, more than 13,000 over-the-air radio stations, and more than 20,000 magazines. At the end of that year, there were 255 million websites, and more than 26 million blogs, with more than 266 million internet users in North America.

This fragmentation also effects attention spans. In 1950, the average weekly usage of a TV set was just over 30 hours, and the time per channel was 12 hours. By 2005, the weekly TV set usage was up to nearly 60 hours, but time per channel was down to 3 hours. The network news shows, which used to be considered a public trust, now rank far down as people’s primary sources of information.

In 2010, Fox cable news produced more profit than the three network news divisions combined, despite the fact that its nightly news shows get only one-tenth of the viewership of the three networks combined. 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. MSNBC adopted the Fox model on the left, in a milder form, while CNN plays straight down the middle but by inviting polarized opposites to debate each other.

The Fox News model – combative, partisan and sharp-edged – is the most successful business model by far in television news. There is little doubt that Fox News is at least partly responsible for the asymmetric polarization that it now such a prominent feature of US politics.

Newspapers are struggling even more than the television networks, which has resulted in the sharply reduced oversight of political figures and policy makers. and thus fewer checks and balances on their behavior. The Forth Estate can no longer serve that vital function in America’s public life.

With more competition for eyeballs and readers, all media have become more focused on sensationalism and extremism, on infotainment over information, and, in the process, culture has coarsened. The lawmakers who get attention and airtime are the extreme and outrageous ones [this explains, more than almost any other factor, Trump’s unprecedented rise in popularity].

The impact of all this is to reinforce tribal divisions, while enhancing a climate where facts are no longer driving debate and deliberation, nor are they shard by the larger public.

Money in Politics

American elections are awash in money, politicians devote an inordinate amount of their time dialing for dollars, and campaign fund-raising is now considered a normal part of the lobbying process. The impact of money on politics, direct and indirect, from literal or near bribes and the trading of favors to the insidious corruption of the revolving door has moved from a chronic problem to an acute one. It dampened a bit after the uproar over the Jack Abramoff-Tom DeLay era that ended with Abramoff’s conviction and DeLay’s departure from Congress in 2006, but the new era of campaign finance scine the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has become shockingly worse.

One vivid example is “Newt Inc.” – the name observers of Newt Gingrich coined after he left Congress and created a web of for-profit and not-for-profit groups that garner nearly $150 million in fees from a wide array of businesses and trade associations.

The country has regulated campaign finance for more than a century, though often with weak and porous statutes and grossly inadequate means of enforcement. Prohibitions on corporate contributions in federal elections were enacted early in the 20th century, and extended to direct spending as well as contributions from unions in the 1940s. Violations of these laws by Nixon’s Campaign to Reelect the President in 1972 led to a more ambitious regulatory regime that added contribution limits, public funding of presidential campaigns and more effective public disclosure.

By the 1990s, parties found ways of raising so-called soft money – unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and individuals ostensibly used for purposes other than influencing federal elections, but often used in “issue ads” that do not explicitly say elect or defeat a candidate.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, known widely as the McCain-Feingold Act, passed in 2002, was designed to prohibit party soft money and bring electioneering communications under the contribution and disclosure restrictions of the law. The Supreme Court upheld it in the 2003 McConnell v. Federal Election Commission ruling.

That law worked until it was overwhelmed by a series of Supreme Court decisions which, in combination with lax a FEC, have pushed the boundaries of the law beyond recognition. Citizen United v. FEC, decided by a 5-4 majority in 2010, was the centerpiece of the Court’s recent deregulatory juggernaut to overturn decades of of law and precedent. In a breathtaking breach of judicial norms, the Court ruled that corporations and unions were free to make unlimited expenditures in elections for public office.

The plaintiff, a conservative group, narrowly challenged the McCain-Feingold Act to enable unlimited corporate funding for a “documentary” film called Hillary: The Movie, which was unabashedly designed to derail Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign for president. Citizens United wanted only an “as applied” exception for their documentary, which they believed did not meet the standard of “electioneering communications” in the law. They explicitly did not raise the larger question of overturning the ban on corporate spending in federal campaigns.

But Chief Justice John Roberts, with support form his allies on the Court, decided to unilaterally raise the broader issue of whether a prohibition on corporations’ independent expenditures was constitutional, and he demanded a rehearing. The 5-4 ruling, by the same narrow majority that decided the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, overturned decades of established doctrine.

This was especially stunning given John Roberts’ insistence, during his confirmation hearings, that it was his “job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat… It is not enough that you may think the prior decision was wrongly decided… The role of the judge is limited; the judge is to decide the cases before them; they’re not to legislate; they’re not to execute the laws.” A year later, at Georgetown University, Roberts said “The broader agreement among the justices, the more likely it is that the decision is on the narrowest possible ground. If it is not necessary to decide more to dispose of a case, in my view it is necessary not to decide more.”

What had changed was not the legal standards for campaign finance but the political complection of the Court after the retirement of Sandra Day O’Connor. Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the Citizens United decision, drawing on reasoning that struck pragmatic observers as bizarre. He equated money with speech and equated corporations, which have the sole goal of making money, with individual citizens. And, to make a bad opinion worse, he added “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

With the floodgates opened, operatives like Karl Rove created 501(c)4 “social welfare” organizations, that don’t require disclosure of donors, to engage in electioneering “education”. Congress tried to close this loophole in 2010 with the Disclosure Act, but with all 59 Democratic Senators voting for it, not a single Republican would provide the 60th vote to end a GOP filibuster.

A DC Appellate court decision called SpeechNow v. FEC resulted in so-called independent expenditure committees (Super PACS) that can attack or defend a candidate directly using unlimited soft money as long as they don’t directly coordinate with a campaign (though they are often created by a candidate’s closest advisors). Additionally, lobbyists are often asked for contributions or make threats that their client might spend a fortune to make anyone who does not support their issues regret it. Conversely, lobbyists might promise a job with their firm after the legislator leaves office.

Legislative Nullification

To make a terrible situation far worse, holds on legislation by single Senators and filibusters are at a historic high, with cloture votes used for non-controversial legislation merely to prolong debate and subvert the legislative agenda. Executive and judicial appointments are held hostage by similar legislative maneuvers, making it difficult and slow to fill judicial vacancies – even when the nominee is universally accepted as qualified. The confirmation rate of presidential circuit court appointments has plummeted from above 90% in the late 1970s and early 1980s to around 50% in recent years.

On Memorial Day 2002, during George W. Bush’s administration, 13 nominations were pending on the executive calendar. Eight years later, under Obama, the number was 108. [The unwillingness of the GOP Congress even to hold hearings on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee represents the nadir of this trend.]

This strategy of delay and obstruction now includes blocking presidential nominations for agency heads, even while acknowledging the competence and integrity of the nominee, to prevent the legitimate implementation of laws on the books when the opposition does not like the law. This was the strategy when Obama nominated Donald Berwick to run the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency primarily responsible for implementing the Affordable Care Act. A filibuster threat forced Obama to make a recess appointment, and continued threats from the GOP forced Berwick to resign before his recess term was up.

Similarly, Peter Diamond, a Nobel Prize-winning MIT economist was blocked by filibuster from a seat on the Federal Reserve Board, and Senate Republicans declared that they would block any nominee, no matter how distinguished or qualified, to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created by the Dodd-Frank financial regulation reform act unless the administration agreed to change the structure of the agency specified in law.

And Republicans used the threat of filibuster to block Elizabeth Warren, who was the brainchild for that agency, from consideration for the position. Obama’s second choice, though praised effusively by Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee, before making it clear that they would not confirm the nomination because they didn’t like the law. GOP leaders refused to allow the Senate to recess to prevent Obama from making an end run around their intransigence, which he did on the advice of counsel anyway.

Blocking nominations, together with repeal of just-enacted statutes, coordinated challenges to their constitutionality, and denial of funds for implementation of legislation – these are the new Nullification reminiscent of pre-Civil War actions by southern states.

These political pathologies present incontrovertible evidence that legislators, particularly of the GOP, have become more loyal to party than to country.

An Insurgent Outlier

The Republican Party has become the insurgent outlier in American politics, and as such contributes disproportionately to its dysfunction. The culture and ideological center of the Republican Party, at the congressional, presidential and, in many cases, the state levels must change if US democracy is to regain its health. The contemporary GOP, to the horror of many of its long-time stalwarts, has veered toward tolerance of extreme ideological beliefs and policies and an embrace of cynical and destructive means to advance political ends over problem-solving.

These tendencies have led to a disdain for negotiation and compromise, unless forced into them, and rejection of the legitimacy of its partisan opposition. The disdain extends as well to the traditionally conservative party establishment.

The Freedom Caucus is the group of between thirty and forty House Republicans who broke off from the long-time right-wing caucus, the Republican Study Committee, because it was not sufficiently right-wing or confrontational.

The divisions in the GOP, which makes it difficult for even a right-wing speaker such as Paul Ryan to achieve party unity, is no longer the traditional one between more progressives and conservatives, since there are no more progressive Republicans and few genuine moderates. Instead, they reflect a growing gap between highly conservative anti-establishment groups and pro-establishment mainline conservative groups. The gap between the most conservative flank and the most moderate flank of the GOP in the 113th Congress (2013-2015) was the highest ever for the modern Republican Party.

This phenomenon of intraparty GOP conflict is hardly new. It was there in 1964, building over decades in which insurgent conservative forces led by Robert Taft were repeatedly thwarted my moderates like Tom Dewey and Wendell Wilkie, until they prevailed behind the banner of Barry Goldwater.

It was present in 1976, when insurgent conservative Ronald Reagan almost knocked off Gerald Ford before prevailing in 1980 (and then governing more as a pragmatist than an ideologue). It had built up by 1994, when Newt Gingrich led a huge class of insurgents to victory in midterm elections, who then had to accept pragmatist-establishment leader Bob Dole as their presidential candidate in 1996.

And, while John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 were establishment figures, each had to veer sharply to the radical right side to win nominations; McCain, facing a possible revolt at his nominating convention if he went with his first choice for running mate, Joe Lieberman, instead bowed to the new right and picked Sara Palin. Romney adopted a more extreme position on immigration, including “self-deportation”.

But, besides the fact that intraparty conflict among Republicans no longer involves centrists or moderates, it is different than in the past, for several reasons that played out in the 2016 presidential nominating contest. First, because of the amplification of rage against the machine by social media, and the fact that Barack Obama had grown stronger and more assertive in his second term while Republican congressional leaders had become more impotent, the unhappiness with the establishment and the desire to stiff them is much stronger.

Second, the view of rank-and-file Republicans on defining issues like immigration have become more consistently extreme – a majority came to agree with virtually every element of the most extreme program, including expelling all illegal immigrants and building the supersized equivalent of the Berlin Wall across the US-Mexican border.

The desire for an insurgent, non-establishment figure is deeper and broader than in the past, with 70% support among likely voters. Anger at the establishment has itself been fueled by candidates and influential figures in the media and interest groups raising money and building support by painting an apocalyptic vision of American, one that plays into the populist unease about economic uncertainty and changing demographics.

When the normal avenues can be deemed “useless”, extreme measures become self-justifying. The corollary, which played out in the 2016 Republican campaign, is that candidates are no longer forced to justify extreme rhetorical wares. The monsters they describe are taken on faith. After all, the voters swear they’ve seen them too.

In surveys of public opinion, the vast majority of Democrats support compromise to solve national problems; most Republicans support instead standing firm on principle and rejecting compromise, even if it means the problems do not get solved.

The anti-establishment conservative movement that has given such remarkable traction to outsider presidential candidates has contempt for establishment Republican leaders and the money to go along with its beliefs. Local and national talk radio, blogs and other social media take their messages and reinforce them. The can create a reality that his little connection to facts.

In state legislatures, state party apparatuses, and state party platforms, elites regularly make statements or take positions that make all but the most extreme lawmakers in Washington seem mild. The official Texas Republican Party platform says, among other things, that the Texas legislature should “ignore, oppose, refuse, and nullify” federal laws it doesn’t like; that all federal “enforcement activities” in Texas “must be conducted under the auspices of the country sheriff with jurisdiction in that county” (which would leave the FBI, air marshals, immigration officials, DEA personnel, and so on subordinate to the Texas versions of Sheriff Joe Arpaio); that the United States withdraw from the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank; and that “no level of government shall regulate either the ownership of possession of firearms” (period, no exceptions).

Texas may be an outlier, but the Maine Republican Party, once a bastion of moderate and liberal Republicanism, adopted a platform that called for the abolition of the Federal Reserve, called global warming a myth, and demanded an investigation of “collusion between government and industry” in perpetrating that myth. It also called for resistance to “efforts to create a one world government”.

And the Benton County, Arkansas Republican Party said in its newsletter, “The 2nd Amendment means nothing unless those in power believe you would have no problem simply walking up and shooting them if they got too far out of line and stopped responding as representatives.”

David Roberts, who has focused for years on what he calls “post-truth politics”, looked at the frustration in mainstream media at its inability to call out Donald Trump for lies and misstatements during the presidential primary campaign. He emphasized the increased willingness of GOP politicians to play fast and loose with the truth; the media’s declining power to penalize politicians for lying, including it reflexive penchant for pointing out “both sides” and its reluctance to to be criticized for partisan bias; and the new response of political figures of denying lies even when presented with incontrovertible evidence they are wrong.

The sharp veer toward Know Nothing extremism (what long-time Republican Senate staffer Mike Lofgren calls “the rise of anti-knowledge”) in the conservative movement and the Republican Party is problematic enough. But the differences between Republican and Democratic partisans on core beliefs contribute to dysfunction and gridlock.

A November 2015 Pew Research poll found that Republicans “are nearly three times as likely as Democrats to say they are angry with government; and among those who vote frequently and follow politics on a regular basis, the gap is nearly four-to-one. The same poll found that, in Barack Obama’s six years as president, 13% of Republicans have said they can trust the government always or most of the time – the lowest level of average trust among either party during any administration dating back 40 years. During George W. Bush’s presidency, an average of 47% of Republicans said they could trust the government, while the share of Democrats saying they can trust the government has been virtually unchanged over the two administrations (28% Bush, 29% Obama).

Couple all this with an increase in tribal partisanship, with a genuine swing voter segment comprising just 5% of the electorate, straight-ticket voting becoming the norm, and Americans sorting themselves into communities and states according to their politics, the United States is less a political melting pot and more a collection of distinct Red and Blue states, Red and Blue counties, Red and Blue communities, with each side seeing the other as a threat to the well-being of the country.

At the same time, the parties are showing increasing racial distinctiveness. Democrats continue to lose support from White working-class voters, especially males; Republicans seem intent on driving away remaining minorities. This means one party is overwhelmingly white, and the other one consists of a majority of minorities. With America moving inexorably toward majority-minority status, the White American majority here since the beginning of the Republic will be outnumbered within a couple of decades.

Adding we layer race on top of partisan tribalism, it becomes a very combustible combination – especially as many Red states and competitive states under Red control are moving to find ways to restrict voting by minorities.

The forces that are creating deep division across society on partisan, tribal lines, and that have poisoned and corroded national discourse while enabling extreme views, will not change by either party sweeping into political control in Washington.

Finding a way to return to normality – two parties with distinct views and visions who operate with respect for political institutions, seeing the other side as worthy adversaries not enemies within, while battling tooth and nail over the nation’s direction, and finding, when problems loom, a way to get to yet – will not come easily or quickly.


The book concludes with a laundry list of proscriptions and prescriptions, including:

Bromides to Avoid, Fixing the Party System, Reforming US Political Institutions, and Navigating the Current System.



 by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes and a link to this page

For a similarly themed book summary, see Why the Right Went Wrong – E.J. Dionne

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