The radicalization of the Republican Party is most responsible for America’s dysfunctional politics and government, according to Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution in a recent keynote address at the School of Public Affairs.
“Republicans have become a radical insurgency—ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by the conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition,” he said. “The evidence of this asymmetry is overwhelming.”
Mann, the W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings, presented his remarks at a conference on “American Gridlock: Causes, Characteristics, and Consequences of Polarization” on May 9. The conference, hosted by the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, featured academic experts from across the country.
He said the parties in Congress, as well as most state legislatures, are as polarized—internally unified and distinctive from one another – as any time in history. Under divided government and split chamber control, he argues, the current Congress has ceased to operate as an effective legislative body.
“Deliberation and compromise are scarce commodities, not the coin of the realm,” he said. “Parties are the key actors and they respond more to their activist bases than to the median voter.”
The GOP drift to the extreme right began in the 1970s, he said, and its move from the political center is accentuated by the rise of the Tea Party. The party’s radicalization has been evident by its nonnegotiable opposition to raising taxes, rejection of Keynesian economics, opposition to immigration reform, denial of climate change, hostility toward environmental regulations, rejection of science and insistence on the repeal of Obamacare.
“The embrace of hard-ball strategies and tactics involving parliamentary-like opposition, the rise of the 60-vote Senate, government shutdowns and debt ceiling hostage-taking, and nullification efforts not seen since the antebellum South,” he said.
Mann said many political scientists, like most mainstream journalists and political reformers, refuse to even acknowledge or take seriously that one political party is responsible for gridlock and dysfunction in American politics.
“We, as well as mainstream media, do the public a disservice to say less than we believe to be true and avoid research directions that might produce ‘unbalanced, results,” said Mann. “Insisting on false equivalence in the media or the academy is no virtue.”
He said partisan polarization reflects more than sincere ideological differences. The rough parity between the parties fuels an intense competition for control of the White House and Congress. The stakes for control, he said, are particularly high because the ideological differences and policy demands between the vast party networks are large and the chances of gaining or maintaining control are realistic because of the competitiveness of the parties. This leads to strategic agenda-setting and voting, what Frances Lee calls partisan team play, even on issues with little or no ideological content, an expansion of the permanent campaign into an institutionalized partisan messaging war in Congress, and a tribalism that is now such a prominent feature of American politics.
Mann cited Austin Ranney’s dissent from a famous 1950 American Political Science Association report, “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System,” for his argument that more ideologically coherent, internally unified and adversarial parties in the fashion of Westminster-style parliamentary democracy would be a disaster within the American constitutional system, given the separation of powers, separately elected institutions and constraints on majority rule that favor cross-party coalitions and compromise.
He addressed his colleagues’ discomfort with and reluctance to take seriously the widespread public views that the American political system is “dangerously broken.”
“I believe these times are strikingly different from what we have seen in the past. The health and well-being of our democracy is properly a matter of great concern,” he said. “We owe it to ourselves and our country to reconsider our priors and at least entertain the possibility that these concerns are justified, even if for us uncomfortably so.”
Mann said the solution to political gridlock is elusive. He suggested that unified party government may be an essential first step, one that can sustain itself in office long enough to put in place and begin to implement a credible governing program.
“I don’t know what the answer is, or even if there is one,” he said. “But I do know that in spite of a lot of terrific research, we still have work to do to fully diagnose our strikingly dysfunctional government and speaking forthrightly in the public what we believe to be true.”