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It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism [Hardcover]

Thomas E. Mann , Norman J. Ornstein
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

May 1 2012
 

Acrimony and hyperpartisanship have seeped into every part of the political process. Congress is deadlocked and its approval ratings are at record lows. America's two main political parties have given up their traditions of compromise, endangering our very system of constitutional democracy. And one of these parties has taken on the role of insurgent outlier; the Republicans have become ideologically extreme, scornful of compromise, and ardently opposed to the established social and economic policy regime.   In 'It's Even Worse Than It Looks', congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein identify two overriding problems that have led Congress-and the United States-to the brink of institutional collapse. The first is the serious mismatch between our political parties, which have become as vehemently adversarial as parliamentary parties, and a governing system that, unlike a parliamentary democracy, makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act. Second, while both parties participate in tribal warfare,both sides are not equally culpable. The political system faces what the authors call "asymmetric polarization," with the Republican Party implacably refusing to allow anything that might help the Democrats politically, no matter the cost.   With dysfunction rooted in long-term political trends, a coarsened political culture and a new partisan media, the authors conclude that there is no "silver bullet" reform that can solve everything. But they offer a panoply of useful ideas and reforms, endorsing some solutions, like greater public participation and institutional restructuring of the House and Senate, while debunking others, like independent or third-party candidates. Above all, they call on the media as well asthe public at large to focus on the true causes of dysfunction rather than just throwing the bums out every election cycle. Until voters learn to act strategically to reward problem solving and punish obstruction, American democracy will remain in serious danger.   

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Paul A. Volcker, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve
“More than anytime in my lifetime, the United States is challenged at home and so is our place in the world. When Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein get together to sound a loud alarm about the way our political system is being torn apart, it’s time to listen—and listen hard. Then the tough part—how do we restore some sense of common purpose, of working together to make our government work? Mann and Ornstein set out ways to rebuild political bridges, beginning right now. We better get to work.” Chuck Hagel, U.S. Senator (1997–2009), Distinguished Professor, Georgetown University
“This is an exceptionally important and cogent analysis of America’s breakdown in self-governance. It is an urgent warning of the consequences of our intolerant politics and governing paralysis, and ways to fix it.” Tom Daschle, former Senate Majority Leader
“One doesn't have to agree with every one of Mann and Ornstein’s proposals to appreciate the extraordinary contribution to improving governance that they make in this important book. We could do no better than to use it as a compelling blueprint for urgently needed reform. If every member of Congress would read just one book on the subject, my wish is that it would be this one.”

E. J. Dionne, author of Our Divided Political Heart
“The phrase ‘essential reading’ does not begin to get at the importance of this passionate warning by two of our very best political scientists about our nation’s capacity to govern itself. Mann and Ornstein sweep aside the timid conventional wisdom to inform Americans that our problems are even worse than we think they are. It is absolutely vital that this book’s findings and message enter the consciousness and consciences of journalists, politicians and citizens who care about the future of our republic.”

William Jefferson Clinton, 42nd President of the United States of America“In It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, Mann and Ornstein diagnose the roots of our nation’s new legislative order. In doing so, they draw attention to the forces holding back America’s future and the changes we must make in order to overcome them.” Robert G. Kaiser, Washington Post “Reading this book is a little like quaffing a double espresso on an empty stomach — it’s a jolt. For this reader it was a welcome jolt. . . .  Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein have been Washington fixtures for three decades. They are two of the brightest, best informed and most scholarly students of our politics. . . . [As] Mann and Ornstein document so vividly, at a time when only good government could help us rediscover our footing as a nation, our Grand Old Party defines itself as the party of anti-government. This is why the title of this book is so good: Our situation really is even worse than it looks.” Paul Krugman, New York Times“The Congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have been making waves with a new book acknowledging a truth that, until now, was unmentionable in polite circles. They say our political dysfunction is largely because of the transformation of the Republican Party into an extremist force that is “dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” You can’t get cooperation to serve the national interest when one side of the divide sees no distinction between the national interest and its own partisan triumph.” Timothy Egan, New York Times“[It] is encouraging to see two longtime Washington wise men — Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, sensible, nonpartisan scholars and impeccably credentialed authors of good advice that no one ever follows — come out with a full-blown polemic against the Republicans who have steered Congress off a cliff.” The Economist“What happens to a two-party political system when one party goes mad? That is the question posed in a powerful and angry new book by two scholars at two respected think-tanks, Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.” The Economist, Lexington Notebook Blog“Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of Brookings are highly respected analysts. . . . Coming from them, the claim that the American system is even worse than it looks deserves to be taken with the utmost seriousness. . . . Mann and Ornstein provide one of the most careful, forensic accounts so far of how Congress has worked in these conditions. They are also astonishingly frank about what they think of the Republican Party – and about the media.” Eric Alterman, TheNation.com“Written by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, two long-time Congressional scholars, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks fillets the traditional media for perpetuating a principle of false equivalence in its coverage of the two parties, the effect of which, they say, has merely masked the GOP’s unalloyed march toward the fringes of the right wing. . . . Insightful.” Juan Williams, The Hill“We now have history’s first draft of the story of this Congress. There is so much political fog right now that it is hard to get a clear view of the reason for the dysfunction on Capitol Hill. But three new books take a step back to get a clear look at the fray, and all three conclude that no-holds-barred, right-wing politics is to be blamed. . . . Mann and Ornstein paint sad pictures of a House Republican Conference that is ‘more loyal to party than to country’ and intentionally crippling Congress ‘at a time when the country faces unusually serious problems and grave threats.’” R. Garrett Mitchell, The Mitchell Report“[A] compelling analysis of the gridlock that characterizes America’s domestic politics.” Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, MSNBC“[W]hat we have here is a group of respected, credible, inside-the-beltway establishment types who are now willing to acknowledge what is plainly true: Republican extremism has no modern precedent, and it making governing and policymaking nearly impossible, even during times of crises – despite the demands that Very Serious People agree that “both sides” are always to blame for everything in all instances. Indeed, they’re making these pronouncements in a surprising, matter-of-fact sort of way. Here’s hoping other respected, credible, inside-the-beltway establishment types feel emboldened to be equally candid about reality.” The Daily Kos“[An] excellent book that… may have an impact on the 2012 campaign. . . . [It] should be read by every progressive.  It’s not going to change many progressive minds, but it deepens our perspective on the history of this and the political science perspectives involved. . . . That is one of the keys to the brilliance of this book…Buy the book. Pass it around.  Spread the word.  Our nation has a crisis in Congress worse than anything we’ve seen in 150 years.  The sooner more of us recognize that, the sooner we can get to work on solutions that are appropriate to the problem.”  Bonnie Erbe, Scripps Howard News Service“Two of the most sage politics watchers of our time are congressional scholars Norm Ornstein of the (mainly conservative) American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of the (more Democratic than not) Brookings Institution. Together they've written and just released a book called “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” It is about our broken, dysfunctional, nonfunctioning partisan political system. . . . When and if voters learn to think strategically and reward problem solving, the American impasse might end. If they punish rather than reward obstruction, the blood of American democracy might start flowing once more.” Catherine Poe, Washington Times Ad Lib Blog
“Something awful happened on the way to the 21st Century. This should have been the new American century, but by the time the Republican Party got through with us, we were a country, battered, on its knees, reeling from the body blows. . . . Just out and stirring up debate… [It’s Even Worse Than It Looks] confronts our uniquely American problem head on.” Tom Moran, New Jersey Star Ledger
“[T]wo respected centrist scholars, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, have written a book that moves past the bland and lazy conventional wisdom. They argue, with a truckload of evidence, that the blame in Washington lies overwhelmingly with Republicans. . . . .Our national politics has turned a strange corner. And it is a cop-out to say that both parties are equally to blame. Strained attempts to be even-handed distort the reality we face. . . . The book is titled It’s Even Worse Than It Looks and it is both fascinating and alarming." Michael Brissenden, Australian Broadcasting Corporation “[‘It’s Even Worse Than It Looks’ has] blown the lid off the usually staid and predictable world of political punditry.” Barrie Dunsmor, Barre-Montpelier Times Argus (Barre-Montpelier, VT)“Mann and Ornstein are among the brightest and best informed political scientists in the country. . . . [T]his book really is a must read for anyone who cares about what is happening to this country.” Ed Luce, Financial Times“[T]he authors know what they are talking about, lay it out clearly and are right to broadcast their concern about the health of US democracy. They are also correct – and brave – to emphasise the asymmetric nature of America’s polari...

About the Author

Thomas E. Mann is the W. Averell Harriman Chair and senior fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution. He is a former executive director of the American Political Science Association. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.   Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of a weekly column for 'Roll Call', called "Congress Inside Out." He lives in Washington, D.C. Both are fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.   They are coauthors of 'The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track'.

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Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a political treatise on the polarization of the parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, in Washington D.C. It is a work that is co-authored by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. Thomas E. Mann is a noted congressional scholar. Tom Mann writes and speaks widely on American politics and policymaking, including campaigns, elections, campaign finance reform and the effectiveness of Congress. Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He writes a weekly column for Roll Call called "Congress Inside Out" and is an election eve analyst for CBS News. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. When Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein get together to sound a loud alarm about the way the United States political system is being torn apart, it's time to listen'and listen hard. Then the tough part, 'how do we restore some sense of common purpose, of Americans working together to make the government work? Mann and Ornstein set out ways to rebuild political bridges, beginning right now. American citizens better get to work. This is an exceptionally important and cogent analysis of America's breakdown in self-governance. It is an urgent warning of the consequences of intolerant politics in America and governing paralysis, and ways to fix it.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  253 reviews
532 of 583 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding work from Mann & Ornstein May 1 2012
By Johnny Na - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
What this book IS NOT is another silly polemic designed for the polarized Sunday talk shows. This is a careful, thoughtful discussion of the problems at the heart of our dysfunctional Congress.

This is a book every American should read. It discusses the problems that led to this, it discusses bromides that should be rejected and proposes thoughtful solutions that are well reasoned even if some may be difficult politically to implement.

Check out NPR's April 30 edition of Morning Edition for an interview with the authors.

The authors are political scientists who've studied Congress for 4 decades and aren't just talking head political pundits. They don't let the Democrats off the hook but they lay the chief blame for the current dysfunction in Congress upon the Republicans. Their reasoning is based based on a number of factors. High on the list are the tactics Republican Congressional leaders employed during the ceiling debt fiasco of 2011 (see update below). It is the authors' judgment that by implying to the world that Republicans preferred to have the US default on its debt rather than have a compromise with the Democrats that included revenue as part of the agreement, the Republicans took Congressional dysfunction to a new extreme.

The authors make a good case. But what makes this book really fascinating is the level of scholarship, the wealth of political science material and the long term view.

For example, there is a graph of party polarization as calculated by roll call votes. It shows that the polarization is at an all time extreme since 1879, 133 years ago. This speaks to the seriousness of what faces this country. This speaks to the desperate need for our political parties to cooperate enough to govern instead of sabotaging government. There is another graph showing the expanded use of cloture voting in the Senate.

For those who are all ready well informed about the complex and sometimes bizarre rules of Congress, this will still likely enrich one's knowledge. For those who haven't yet dived into the history and rules of Congress, this is an excellent book in one's education.

I believe this book is sure to become a political science classic. I rarely give anything 5 stars, but do so unhesitatingly for this book.

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Update June 5, 2012

This book is often on my mind and has given me a lot to chew on. I wanted to express some sympathy for those who mostly lean toward the GOP in their politics and offer a thought that might help them better tolerate this book. The authors' main targets are not GOP ideology or policies. Their motivation for writing this book stems from GOP tactics and methods of the last 1-4 years. Their claim is that it is the GOP who introduced major unprecedented and extreme tactics with the debt ceiling vote as well as excessive Senate holds and filibusters. So it can help to leave the ideology muck aside and just look at how Congress functions (or doesn't) as if one were a clinician. It is in that light that the authors say:

"Some readers may be struck by a lack of balance in our treatment of the two major political parties. We hope they understand that we do not seek to advance a personal ideological or partisan agenda. Rather, we believe that imbalance or asymmetry reflects a regrettable reality that is too often obscured in the traditional media and among serious scholars of American democracy. We want two vibrant and constructive political parties that can compete vigorously for the votes of Americans and fight hard for their views in political and policy arenas."

I've supported both Dem and GOP candidates in the past, but I think the authors make their case for our current times. There are a lot of comments among the reviews here that jump into policy or ideology debates, but IMHO that is missing the focus of this book. I also think that most Americans have a poor grasp for what the debt ceiling vote is about and what the consequences might have been if that vote had not passed.

The level of anger and inability (or refusal) to listen to each other among the polarized sides of this mess is an indicator of political cancer. I'm sick of it from both sides, but that won't stop me from continuing to learn from this terrific book.
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256 of 293 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshing Verity, Sad and Dangerous Message May 1 2012
By Donald A. Collins - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Two respected policy analysts, one from a liberal think tank, the other from a conservative one, have stated for us news junkies a verity which is obvious, yet not well understood in its implications for conducting future sane policies.

As a former Republican when moderate Republicans were uncricified in that Party, I can well appreciate their concerns as stated in their May 1, 2012 Washington Post article: "It is clear that the center of gravity in the Republican Party has shifted sharp0ly to the right. Its once-legendary moderate and center-right legislators in the House and the Senate---think Bob Michel, Mickey Edwards, John Danforth, Chuck Hagel--are virtually extinct."

The implications for that extremism are dramatic. Inability to compromise or to make any connections with the other party means (again from the Post piece) "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."

In short, they write, "The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in Americn politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of is political opposition."

They mention the charge reminisent of Joe McCarthy from Congressman Allen West (R-Fl) who stated that "78 to 81" Democrats in Congress are members of the Communist Party, regretting that virtually no Republican challenged that absurd comment.

This situation produced almost complete gridlock, as issues such as our obscenely huge debt, health care reform and climate change are lost in Republican embrace of ideologies which lead to no decisions.

This stark book needs wide embrace by independent voters who will determine the next election.
125 of 150 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well Thought Through, Credible May 4 2012
By Loyd E. Eskildson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The authors, Mann and Ornstein, took up residence at the Brookings Institute (Mann) and the American Enterprise Institute (Ornstein), helping ensure objectivity; usually this also ensures that any conclusions are vague and mushy. Not here - their 'bottom-line' is that today's Congressional Republicans behave like they were in a British parliamentary, winner-take-all system. The problem is that such 'ideologically polarized, internally unified, vehemently oppositional' doesn't work in our 'separation-of-powers system that makes it extremely difficulty for majorities to work their will.' (My one criticism of this book is that it didn't really explain why the English system works in England and not in America.)

Republicans are now 'more loyal to party than to country,' and the political system hobbled and unable to address serious problems and threats. They are scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of Democrats' legitimacy.

The most glaring example is how House Republicans addressed the need to raise the debt ceiling in 2011. And its going to be repeated in 2013, per Senator McConnell in a Fox News statement.

Adding to this partisan warfare is the increased role of money on our politics - the worst of any time in over a century, possibly ever.

The authors grant former Speaker Gingrich special dishonor - painting the House as elitist, corrupt and arrogant when the Democrats controlled. His strategy - convince voters the institution was so corrupt that anyone wold be better than the Democratic incumbents. Further, his partisan attacks on adversaries created a new norm in which colleagues with differing views became mortal enemies, created the permanent campaign, and prioritized electoral goals over policy. (A current example - Rep. West, Florida Republican's recent assertion that there are 78 - 81 Democrats in Congress who are members of the Communist Party - a ridiculous statement that has yet to be condemned by Republican congressional leaders or presidential candidates.)

Grover Norquist offers another example of the take-no-prisoners approach. His Taxpayer Protection Pledge binds signers to never support a tax increase or close tax loopholes - as of the end of 2011 it had been signed by 238 of 242 House Republicans and 41 of the 47 GOP senators. Other pledges have followed - eg. opposing climate change, that box in moderates and make cross-party coalitions nearly impossible. Failure to sign such pledges makes a primary challenge too likely. Loud denunciation of 'ObamaCare' has become a litmus test for anyone hoping to be called a 'conservative.'

Mike Lofgren, veteran Republican congressional staffer, ended his career last year after almost thirty years. He wrote, 'The Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party . . . and more like an apocalyptic cult, or intensely ideological authoritarian parties of earlier Europe.'

Republicans in the Senate now repeatedly abuse the confirmation process to block innumerable nominees.

The news media also don't escape criticism - for failing to cover how the Republican Party has been transformed, and simply writing stories that imply both sides are equally implicated. The authors contend the media will have to start being more objective.

Bottom-Line: "It's Even worse Than It Looks" is level-headed, and fits well with other reports - eg. Chris Mooney's analysis of Republican psychological attributes and their chronic denial of, and ignoring facts. (Republican anti-intellectualism makes it easier to believe/claim government can do no good and shouldn't get more tax money.) The book also fits well with Amazon reviewers assessment of even marginally political books - those not fitting conservative ideology are regularly and uniformly panned, as well as those that condemn works that do. Practitioners of Republican politics are now dominated by vacuous ideology.
70 of 84 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book and well referenced and cited arguments May 15 2012
By Erik Zimmerman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I rarely comment on political items. For the most part in my view politics are like shifting desert sands, ideas and politicians come and go. (That being said, taxes are like mountains, large and ever lasting)

That being said the last couple of years have really made me aggravated with how little American politics has accomplished. Watching a debate in congress is like watching two little kids in the back of a car poke at each other on a road trip. It's loud, boisterous, and not accomplishing anything. I usually vote for whomever I think will do the best job and as such don't consider myself in allegiance with any one party. It has been my observation since Gore vs Bush that the Republicans however are no longer at all interested in any sort of compromise. This is even more true since Obama became president.

This book more eloquently states that point of view and backs it up with many facts and citations throughout the book (at least in the kindle version I purchased). In brief, it shows why Mitch McConnells statement that "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president" has become the guiding principle of Republican politics and that our system is hopelessly mired in partitionship.

Its an excellent book, and frankly the fact that both a democrat and republican from two very ideologically different think tanks came together to write it shows how bad it really is in America.
265 of 330 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Insufficient explanation of political realities May 21 2012
By J. Grattan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In this only partially adequate examination of the state of national politics, the authors easily demonstrate that the Republican Party is so entirely consumed with maintaining power and ideological purity that it is willing to pursue an agenda harmful to the nation. One needs look no further than the so-called debt crisis of 2011 which the Republicans precipitated resulting in considerable financial distress to the nation. One has to look far in American history to find such irresponsibility and recklessness. As hard-hitting as this book most certainly is, the authors really do not get to the core of the problem.

This book is inadequate in understanding how the political system has become so dysfunctional. It is only mildly helpful to point to the polarizing tactics introduced by Newt Gingrich in the 1970s. American politics does not transpire in a vacuum; to greater or lesser extent, our politics does reflect the political sophistication of the public, as well as the distribution of power in American society. The public's alleged unhappiness with Washington is apparently trumped by more fundamental thinking and forces.

First, it has to be recognized that the American public has been so propagandized over the last four decades with so-called free-market ideology that big business and the rich are essentially given a free pass on their machinations, regardless of how harmful. In fact, the extent of the propaganda is seen in that the financial meltdown of 2008 is now seen in many quarters as an example of too much governmental intervention. As the authors note, Washington is awash in money, which essentially means that the rich control American politics. And that is the primary agenda of the Republican Party: do the will of the rich regardless of harm to average Americans. Unfortunately, the average Joe Blow buys into this simplistic market ideology, failing to recognize the immense harm that has been done to him under its tenets.

And then there are the so-called social conservatives, or fanatics in some quarters, who want to see their version of morality imposed on the entire nation. Such groups will cling to any party who so much as pays lip-service to their agenda. The Republican Party has become quite adept at pandering to social conservatives, while pursuing policies favorable to the rich. Much of the public is at best indifferent towards politics, or more likely simply ignorant, and is quite vulnerable to the misrepresentations and demonization that the political right excels in. The remainder of the public, knowledgeable and engaged, is simply swamped by these extremist forces.

Oddly enough, given the state of American political affairs, the authors seem fairly optimistic that their ideas for reform can work. Yet all of their changes require initiative from either the public or from within government, which contradicts the entire thrust of the book. In actuality, political and economic matters in the US are far worse than what the authors contend. Over the last few decades, to name only a couple of developments, the American economy has been hollowed out in the name of "free-trade," and the redistribution of wealth to the top one percent is unprecedented. Other than the quite small "Occupy" movement, there is scarcely any recognition that the US has entered an entirely new era. It is an era where powerful interests will control what develops in the US, and the obfuscating tactics of the Republican Party are a key part of that agenda.
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