I think most of us would agree that the federal government does not work as well as it could just now. For example, if you regard 86% of Americans as “most of us,” you might be troubled by the 14% approval rating of Congress. Politicians are rascals, and the two parties vie for control of the United States government in the same way two cats vie for control of a woodpecker. Except what if—stay with me here—the parties were not precisely equal participants in villainy? What if the vying were between one admittedly inept woodpecker biologist and a cat? That is the essential contention of Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein at the Washington Post, who get to this bold statement by the third paragraph:
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 criticized 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.
It’s a heck of a read.
M&O seem to have written the editorial in support of their new book, cheerily titled “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.” They argue that the two major American parties have become as adversarial as parties in a parliamentary system, but that our constitutional system allows one to stymie the other at the expense of government. I’ll give you a hint which is doing that: it’s the one that made 60 the new 50 through constant threat of filibuster and blocks presidential appointments as a matter of course. It’s the one whose congressmen vote against bills they themselves sponsored in order to deny the White House a perceived victory.
I started to sound biased there, didn’t I? When you read that bitter description of the Republican Party, it becomes obvious that I am a liberal and therefore not seeing clearly. But Lamar Alexander really did that: he co-sponsored the bill to create a Senate debt-reduction panel, and then he voted against it because it would advance the President’s agenda. That is not the balance of powers that the framers imagined, wherein one branch of government spends its time trying to destroy the other. But that is the government we have now.
So from an epistemological standpoint, it is okay to say, as Mann and Ornstein do, that one party is “scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” That is true. Being unbiased does not mean speaking in the same tones about both parties no matter what they do, as a parent does; a parent is not unbiased. An objective observer might note that Allen West claiming that a third of House Democrats are communists is irresponsible and delegitimizing, and he does not have to add that “many Democrats have also made unsupported claims” to keep speaking accurately. Objectivity means presenting facts and minimizing opinion. It is a fact that the Republican Party been hysterical in discourse and obstinate in government since the election of Barack Obama.
But what is the advantage of being right in this situation? We all enjoy truth-telling, but it’s not as if “Republicans are the problem” were actionable information. One of the two major American political parties has, for the purposes of governance, become a sort of apocalyptic cult. They insist that the federal government can’t do anything right and that it is hurtling toward bankruptcy; on these grounds, they obstruct it from functioning. So what? We cannot punish the Republican Party, nor can we effectively keep it out of the pool. We just have to convince it to stop peeing in there, and to do that we must lure it into comity.
As of this writing, I cannot think how to do that. Probably Mann and Ornstein will be dismissed with a wave of “liberal bias,” as pretty much every argument critical of or even contradictory to Republican orthodoxy is. And yes, Democrats do the same thing when faced with criticism and inconvenient facts. They just do it way, way less often. No one on the Democratic side of the aisle said 80 Republican lawmakers were members of the Communist Party this year. They just didn’t. It’s time to acknowledge that and admit that we, the American people who run the American government, have a problem. Any effective intervention starts that way.