It’s Even Worse Than It Looks

“We know the Republicans are evil! We’ve known it for years.”

That line was not a slip of the tongue, nor was it fortuitously overheard by a passingWorse 1 graduate student. It was a frequently-used assessment by one of the professors in the Department of Political Science at the University of Oregon when I was there in the early 1970s. It was more like a tag line. Anyone could quote it and count on everyone else knowing who had said it. [1]

An assessment very much like it has been published recently by two long time congressional scholars, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. The title of the book is It’s Even Worse Than It Looks and it carries the less catchy subtitle, “How the American Constitutional system collided with the new politics of extremism.” You can’t actually click to look inside unless you go to the website. This essay is not about the book, although I will begin with the authors’ assessment.

Here it is.

“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.”

But wait. Our situation is even worse than that.

“…many in the traditional media…took issue with our criticism of their even-handed treatment of the decidedly uneven behavior of the two major parties.

worse 5Here Mann and Ornstein are claiming that what the media understand as a commitment to professionalism is a major part of the problem. The parties behave “unevenly” and professional journalism would be required to report that unevenness. They would be required to report, borrowing from the language of the condemnation earlier, that the Republican party is extreme and the Democratic party is not. They use the term—in their defense, I will say they use it sparingly—“asymmetric polarization” to describe this reality. The Democratic party, is not extreme, this means, but the Republican party is.”

The media problem Mann and Ornstein point to is that the media don’t regard that as compatible with their professional responsibilities. Our job, the media professionals say, is to report the news “evenly;” sometimes they say “fairly.” That means that they are required to say both parties are, or neither party is, at fault even when they know that one party is at fault and the other is not. It is not (watch carefully here and don’t lose track of which shell the pea is under) “professional” for them to tell what they all know to be true. [2]

I don’t want to lose track of those two aspects of the issue, but neither of them is what I want to think about today. I want to try to imagine a small group of people some of whom are Democrats and some Republicans who could seriously consider the argument this book makes and then come back together the next day as friends.

I’m having trouble imagining it. I’ve had a lot of conversations with friends who used to be Republicans, back when Republicans were a policy-oriented party. They mourn the demise of the old moderate Republican party, with its progressive and conservative wings. They say they would join that party in a minute if it still existed, but add, sadly, that it does not.
Those aren’t the people I’m talking about.

I’ve had a lot of arguments of the “you’re as bad as we are” sort. Saying “Your party is worse 3extremist and irresponsible and mine is not” is like saying your daughter is ugly and mine is not. It gets a very predictable response from the aggrieved parent. As a parent, I am angry that you said that; I deny that it is true; I retaliate as I am able. In my anger, I entirely pass by the question of whether it is true. [3] The easy thing is for me to say something bad about your daughter and it doesn’t much matter what I choose. You hit me (by your attack on my child) so I will hit you (in whatever way I think will hurt the most.

So “Democrats are extreme too!” is the common and easy out. Here’s an example of that tactic as it was expressed in an online response to the book ten months ago.

If you believe there is only extremism on one side, then you have already lost the battle.

But Mann and Ornstein argue that the parties are not symmetrically extreme. One is and one isn’t. I am taking their observations as completely accurate just for the purposes of this essay. I am accepting the Mann/Ornstein thesis so I can ask this question. What will make a conversation possible which includes Republicans who want to continue being Republicans, but who want the current political gridlock stopped and who think that the Republican party is the agent of gridlock?

worse 6I can think of one way. It isn’t much. It requires drawing a line and saying that crossing the line means you are out of bounds. The line gets drawn so that House Speaker John Boehner is inside it and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Senate President Mitch McConnell are outside it. Cantor and McConnell are out of bounds. “Out of bounds” means that as a Republican, I withdraw my support from them. Being a Republican means being willing to go as far as Speaker Boehner goes, but not as far as Cantor and McConnell go.

Let me pause here and deal with another objection. The objection is that Cantor and McConnell are just the tip of the iceberg. The metaphor makes the point, of course, so I propose a different metaphor. This is a missile guidance metaphor. Mission Control needs for the thrusters on the left side and the right side of the craft to fire. All the ones on the right side that will fire will be left in place; the ones that won’t will be replaced for the good of the mission. That’ s my metaphor. [4] There’s nothing wrong with having thrusters on the right side. We need thrusters on the right side. But they need to fire when necessary to save the mission.

worse 7The difficulty facing any such resolution of the problem is HUGE! At the bottom, we see conservative candidates who are worried about extremely conservative challengers in the primary elections and not worried about moderate Democrats in the general election. Elections are supposed to keep the candidates moderate, which is “where most of the voters are.” But that is not where the voters are in Republican primaries. Conservative members of Congress can lose the primary election if they can be shown to have colluded with the enemy in Congress. What they call “colluding with the enemy” used to be called “bipartisan cooperation” or “the politics of legislation is the politics of compromise: or “half a loaf is better than none.” Now, in local politics in conservative districts, it’s more like treason.

There are media outlets that reflect and enforce that view. There are extremist millionaires who demand that view as a condition for campaign contributions. There is a substantial part of the Republican membership in Congress, larger in the House than in the Senate, which is hospitable to this “politics of purity.” That includes Mitch McConnell in the Senate and Eric Cantor in the House. By this analysis, it does not include John Boehner, the Speaker.

The national media perpetuate this by their “each party is equally wrong” coverage of outrageous acts against the viability of an American government—any American government. So the “hotheads” in Congress are one part of the problem and the cool and balanced news media are the other part.

Now, I have gotten down to my own project of trying to imagine a conversation including Republican friends that will accept the Mann/Ornstein argument and still keep the conversation going. How will this conversation go? Maybe like this.

I say the Republican Party has to be stopped before it destroys us all.

You say the “game” needs to be kept within bounds, certainly, but we need both parties to make good policy. I agree.

I say that the McConnell—Cantor axis [5] is out of bounds and that if only the Republican party could be mobilized to support Boehner, we would be OK.

You say you thought I didn’t like Boehner.

I say that I don’t like his policy values, but in terms of procedure, he makes a deal and does everything he can to do his part to fulfill it. I like that. I say that the other side, the out of bounds side, the McConnell—Cantor Axis make commitments and then reneged on them. That’s really bad. No one can govern that way.  Furthermore, I say that a Boehner-led Republican party would be open to compromises that would be well within the public’s acceptance and that would solve real problems, such as, for instance, maintaining the country’s credit rating.

You say that you want it to be possible for the two parties to agree at least on avoiding disaster, even if they cannot agree on how to make progress.

You say you would like a program that would systematically repair federal highways and bridges. I say that would cost a lot of money. You say it is clearly money that needs to be spent.

I say the Republican party needs to be much more aggressive in taking on “Tea Party” and “outlier” candidates, so that it can control its own program and its caucus.

You say you want that too because only the Republican program offers any real long term hope for America.

I say that my view is that real hope for American lies in the direction of reducing the inequality of incomes.

You say that is a bunch of socialist nonsense and we part friends, agreeing to meet again next week.

It is discussions like this one that give me hope. It is well short of the political discussions I think we should be having, but it does pave the way for large scale compromises at the federal level—compromises between parties that can deliver their membership when they promise to do so.

If we can do that, I think it will be better than it looks.

[1] To provide a small element of context, the professor who used that line was also the chair of the Lane County Democratic Party. He was known to play both roles in class.
[2] I am highlighting the media issue by framing the issue this way. I am not claiming it is true (although I think it is) because there is something else I want to talk about.
[3] I am not proposing that if it were true, that it should be said out loud or said in asides to others. I am looking only at the unlikelihood of examining the truth of the question when it is put that way.
[4] Someone will point out that politics is run by majority voting, where Mission Control is a rigidly elitist system. True. That’s why the missiles get to where they are going and the policies do not. But elitism isn’t any way to run a country.
[5] Probably meaningful only to old audiences and historians. The bad guys in World War II were referred to by the American media as “The Axis Powers” and the use of “axis” in joining McConnell and Cantor would be the hope that the bad taste that word acquired in World War II would carry over.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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