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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Mann: Political Scientists and Scholars Must Step Up, End Denial

Thomas E. Mann calls out his profession in his Atlantic article, “Admit It, Political Scientists: Politics Really Is More Broken Than Ever: Scholars restrain themselves out of fear of being seen as partisans, but what’s happening now is different, and false equivalence is no virtue.” Mann, Brookings Institution senior fellow and co-author with Norman J. Ornstein of the much-buzzed “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism,” makes a compelling argument that his profession bears some responsibility for the political gridlock that has stalled needed efporms. As Mann explains:

The widespread public belief that our political system is dangerously broken is often met with skepticism among longtime students of American politics. “We’ve seen it all before,” “this too will pass,” “nothing can do done about it anyway” say the scholars…There are, in theory, good reasons to be skeptical of doom saying. Other democracies struggle trying to deal with similar problems; the United States has overcome similar periods of subpar performance and political dysfunction throughout our history; and our political system has adapted to new circumstances and self-corrected. There’s something else going on here, too: How would political scientists justify ourselves if we didn’t contest the conventional wisdom of mere pundits and journalists? We have a positive political science to conduct and are properly critical of half-baked diagnoses and ungrounded normative speculations on how to cure our governing maladies.
But I believe these times are strikingly different from the past, and the health and well-being of our democracy is properly a matter of great concern. 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 it’s uncomfortable to admit it.

Noting that “the 2012 electorate was the most polarized ever,” Mann continues,

…the polarization is asymmetric. Republicans have become a radical insurgency–ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of their political opposition. The evidence of this asymmetry is overwhelming.
Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal provide the strongest evidence for this asymmetry among members of Congress. They find that the ideological distance between the parties grew dramatically since the 1970s, but that it would be a mistake to equate the two parties’ roles in contemporary political polarization. The Tea Party has moved the GOP even further from the political center…
Evidence for asymmetry goes well beyond roll-call voting. Changing Republican Party positions on taxes, Keynesian economics, immigration, climate change and the environment, healthcare, science policy, and a host of cultural policies are consistent with the pattern. So too are the embrace of hardball strategies and tactics involving parliamentary-style opposition, the rise of the 60-vote Senate, government shutdowns, debt-ceiling hostage-taking, and nullification efforts not seen since the antebellum South. Historian Gregory Kabaservice in Rule and Ruin traces the key intellectual and political developments in the transformation of the GOP from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. In The Party Is Over, former Republican congressional staffer Mike Lofgren provides a rich and colorful insider’s perspective on the radicalization of the Republican party in Congress. And Norm Ornstein and I in It’s Even Worse Than It Looks document how the asymmetry developed from Newt Gingrich in the 1980s to the present. Asymmetric polarization has found its way to the public: Republican Party voters are more skewed to their ideological pole than Democratic Party voters are to theirs.

Then Mann lays a fair share of the responsibility for the political paralysis at the doorstep of his poly sci colleagues:

Yet many political scientists, like most mainstream journalists and political reformers, refuse to even acknowledge or take seriously the case for asymmetric polarization. It makes us uncomfortable because some people will characterize the idea as partisan, even if it accurately captures reality. We do the public a disservice to say less than we believe to be true and avoid research directions that might produce “unbalanced” results. Insisting on false equivalence in the media or the academy is no virtue.

Mann reviews the most frequently cited systemic “solutions” discussed by both academics and media and finds them inadequate or unrealistic for meeting the challenge of breaking the gridlock. He argues that the most plausible approaches are: 1. “One-party government seems 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…Perhaps a more reliable way of bringing the Republican Party back into the mainstream is a few more decisive presidential defeats. That might create the conditions for the emergence of new Republican ideas less detached from reality and new efforts among some coalition partners to challenge extremist forces in primary elections.”, and 2. “The second is nudging the Republican Party back into being a genuinely conservative, not radical, party …” Mann’s third recommendation, ” dampening the intense and unrelenting competition for control of Congress and the White House, which is itself an historical anomaly,” seems to contradict his first recommendation.
For those of more partisan proclivities, Mann’s suggestions translate roughly into Democratic landslides and a campaign to shame the Republicans back into sanity. President Obama has bent over backwards to secure bipartisan cooperation and has been rebuffed at every juncture. Democrats, along with moderates who just want to see some forward progress, don’t have many other options. It’s hard to see how anything short of a shellacking of historic proportions will persuade the GOP to stop groveling at the feet of the tea party, reject extremism and negotiate in good faith.

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