DICK MILLER: Hi. I'm Dick Miller. I teach in the philosophy department. And I'm director of the program in ethics in public life. This is the first in a series of six public lectures this semester on the topic "After the American Century, Fears and Hopes for America's Future." And I find that when I mention that topic to people, I don't have to say much in explaining why fears come before hopes. People are really worried that there is a new normal condition of the United States that's going to stifle aspirations that seemed perfectly realistic in the past. Those are the vital worries that our six speakers are going to address.
After today's public lecture, in two weeks-- the visits will be space two weeks apart-- Marilyn Young, who's an historian at NYU, will talk about the causes, nature, and future of American wars and the exercise of American power abroad. She's a distinguished historian of the Vietnam War who looks to the present and the future, perhaps the future becoming the present, as in the case of Syria, which you'd very much like to discuss.
Then on October 7, Richard Freeman, who's a distinguished economist at Harvard, will come and talk about the impact on American labor of the current course of global development. On October 21, Daniel Rodgers, an historian at Princeton, will come to discuss the recent history and the prospects for change of the moral presupposition of American politics. On November 4, Lisa Lynch, a distinguished economist at Brandeis, will talk about economic security and the search for good jobs. Will there ever be a time again where unemployment is not a pressing worry in the United States? Where will the good jobs come from?
And finally, on November 16, Madawi Al-Rasheed will come from the Middle Eastern sector of the London School of Economics to talk about American power and democratic aspirations in the Middle East. What happens in the Arab Spring? Is the United States a force for democracy in the Middle East? When one sorts through one's fears for the United States in this century, I expect most of us find that one of our most acute fears is that bitter polarization and the political paralysis that seems to go with it will continue indefinitely. That's the topic of today's public lecture.
Our speaker is Thomas Mann, he's the W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. His many distinguished and influential writings include this book. I'm holding up a paperback edition that's just out. I'm bringing it up today. It's on sale in the campus store. Written by Norman Ornstein, It's Even Worse Than It Looks, How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.
This is a book that's had a very curious fate. Social scientists put it at the center of their intellectual agenda. At the same time, it's a focus of political commentators and political leaders. And it made the New York Times' bestsellers list. To tell you more about Tom Mann, Suzanne Mettler of the government department will continue the introductions. And then he will talk about party polarization and dysfunctional politics. Suzanne?
SUZANNE METTLER: Hello, and welcome. It is my great pleasure to introduce you to Thomas Mann. Dr. Mann possesses a rare combination of talents. He has an in-depth and intimate understanding of real-world politics gleaned from a career that began in Washington DC in 1969 when he was a congressional fellow in the Senate office of Philip Hart and for Representative James O'Hara. Over the years, he has closely observed Congress and gotten to know generations of US senators and representatives.
He is simultaneously a serious political scientist ensconced in debates about how Congress operates, as well as campaign finance, elections, policy making, the presidency, and party politics. This combination has enabled him to put theories to the test through up-close observations of government in action. The result has bee a career full of books. And by my count, there are 15 in total, including solo authored, co-authored, and edited volumes, and numerous scholarly articles, op eds, lectures and media appearances that have tremendously enhanced our understanding of how American politics and government is working or, as the case may be, is not working and what can be done about it.
In addition, Mann has served for many years as the Director of Governmental Studies at Brookings. And before that, he was the Executive Director of the American Political Science Association. He's taught at numerous universities, conducted polls for congressional candidates, chaired the Board of Overseers of the National Election Studies, and served as an expert witness in the constitutional defense of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Council in Foreign Relations. And he has won two prestigious awards at the American Political Science Association, the Goodnow and Merriam Awards.
After writing this most recent book with Norm Ornstein, It's Even Worse Than It Looks, they were named by Foreign Policy Magazine as among the 100 top global thinkers of 2012 for diagnosing America's political dysfunction. The book was also named the best book of 2012 by the Washington Post's Wonkblog team. In fact, it was termed the Wonky Book of the Year. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Mann.
THOMAS MANN: Wow. What a wonderful welcome. Dick, thank you so much. I'm delighted to kick off what looks to me as a fascinating and deeply relevant series. And Suzanne, that was just lovely. And coming from you, it means a lot. The rest of you are just going to be deeply disappointed in the next hour, so get used to it.
First of all, you notice something there, right? No PowerPoint. I am the last hold out. I have never given a PowerPoint presentation. And I think I've gone so far. Why change now? Right? So we have a mic on a podium. And you're there, and I'm here. And we have a chance to talk to one another.
This is my first serious visit to Cornell. My wife and I brought our daughter here for a visit when she was looking for colleges. But alas, she said she would never attend a college her mother went to. Her mother is a political scientist, and that's the last thing she wanted to be. Sheila, my wife, is also a political scientist, an alum of Cornell.
She was here and often regales me with the inspiring and brilliant lectures of one Mario Einaudi. I see there's a center named after him here. She would tell me tales of sneaking into Nabokov's class. And of course, she was here for Ted Lowi's inaugural lecture in the intro American government course.
The series focuses on fears and hopes. These days, I seem to specialize in fears. There's no getting away from that. My topic is party polarization and dysfunctional politics. As Suzanne said and Dick, Norm and I published a book last May, the beginning of May with that funny name, "It's Even Worse Than It Looks."
We had an extraordinary experience with it. About three or four days before it was to be published, we wrote a piece developed from it for the Washington Post Outlook section. It was put on their website on, I think, Thursday afternoon. And Carlos Lozada, the editor, being very clever, never told us what the title would be. In fact, people who write articles for newspapers and op-eds never know what the title would be. But it said, "Let's just say it. The Republicans are the problem," a nice, neutral--
--nonpartisan, objective statement. Now if this is a book written by Mr. Axelrod or Mr. Carville, it wouldn't have gotten a bit of attention. But Norm and I have spent 43 years in Washington doing our damnedest both to understand the American constitutional system as evident from that vantage point and to try to explain and defend the first branch of government, the Congress. We had worked together with Democrats and Republicans over the years. No one ever accused us of ideological zealotry or partisan bias.
So when we came out and said something with that title, it struck a chord. Someone had explained to me at the time what going viral means. What going viral means is that we hit the maximum number of comments of 5,000 within 48 hours. We had 4,400 tweets. I think it was 276,000 Facebook likes.
And in the end, the piece was the most accessed, if not read, opinion piece on the washingtonpost.com site for the entire year last year. It just blew him away. Carlos was riding high at Outlook for a while. And it went on from there. It just got caught up in a conversation.
Now we were making observations and arguments that were not entirely unfamiliar. But the context was different. It was who we were and what kind of work we did and what people were used to seeing and hearing from us and reading from us. I think that made a difference. But it was also a matter of the timing.
This is not a book of original scholarship. Think of it as an essay, an extended essay. I hope it's intellectual. It's certainly meant to be readable. And what we were trying to do was make sense out of this inchoate mess that had so depressed the body politic in America. We made some sharp observations. We stepped on some toes. The reactions were interesting.
I think the ones we appreciated the most were the scores of emails from self identified Republicans, including many former Republican members of Congress thanking us and elaborating on our arguments. But the most amusing was from one Mitch McConnell on the floor of the Senate in August. We had spoken at the invitation of the Democratic leadership to the Senate Democratic Caucus and the House Democratic Caucus and had put out feelers to do the same with the Republicans.
We knew previous leaders well, like Newt Gingrich. We could be tough on Newt, and he'd still appreciate us. But not a word. And a few critical reviews came from conservative journals. But not a single elected Republican official had said anything when it was just being talked about a lot.
You know what did it for Mitch? Harry Reid one time read from the book on the floor. He did it a second time. But the third time was McConnell's breaking point. And he said, Mann and Ornstein! Mann and Ornstein! I've heard enough of this! Those ultra liberals, we would never believe anything they said. And there was an audible laugh in the chamber. There were actually a few senators around.
So it got under their skin. And it was fun. If anything I think though, the more uncomfortable response was from two groups of people. One were sort of mainstream, traditional, first-rate reporters, print and broadcast, not in the partisan media, who had fallen into a pattern of what Jim Fallows called a false equivalence. In the face of some inequalities and asymmetries, they found it very difficult to speak about a reality they observed without appearing to be biased. It's very hard.
And I want you to know the other group that felt uncomfortable with it was political science professors addressing their classes. It's very tough to make the argument of this book and not be charged with having some kind of ideological or partisan bias. So it's a difficult thing. "The Republicans are the problem," is not the language we're used to seeing in the American Political Science Review or at our scholarly conferences and meetings.
But Norm and I, after all those years and decades, had come to the conclusion that Washington was more out of kilter than ever during our observations. And looking back in history, we knew the difficult periods, deeply partisan periods around the War of 1812, pre-Civil War, the Gilded Age, the post-Reconstruction period. We know we've been through somewhat similar periods. We know how rough and tumble our politics has been, physically dangerous at times.
We knew all that. We knew Congress and the whole policy making process was supposed to be time consuming and really messy and suboptimal almost all the time in the kind of resolutions of differences they reach. So we weren't naive goo-goos about this. We really had sympathies for it. But those began to diminish as we viewed what was transpiring in our politics at a historically challenging and difficult period which led us to writing the book.
I can't remember whether I mentioned it makes a perfect holiday gift.
Even good for bar mitzvahs, you know, or whatever. In any case, that is the nature of the situation in which I visit with you today. We wrote another Outlook piece for the paperback edition. The title is "Our fantasy, a Congress that gets stuff done." The last sentence reads, "American politics is not just worse than it looks. It's even worse than we thought."
So what you're going to realize here is that much of what I will have to say is downbeat. We really are in a very difficult governing period. But to cycle back to the title of the series and a place I hope to end with, anyone who knows me knows I am just instinctively, genetically disposed to be optimistic and that I see the flaws of the system but have always marveled at the ways in which we've managed to escape some of the most difficult times.
My lesson from American history is that one of our strengths is not the unique brilliance of our constitutional arrangements or the divine inspiration that may have, in some people's beliefs, settled down on Philadelphia. It's our capacity to acknowledge that something may be wrong and to figure out what it is and to together try to do something about it. So our belief is the first step in curing an illnesses is to get the correct diagnosis. So that's what we've been about.
But before launching into a very brief-- it's easy for me to say brief, but you're sitting there, right? I'd first like to say a few words about Syria because it's so much on our minds. It's in newspapers. The president will be giving an Oval Office speech tomorrow. On Wednesday there will be the first cloture vote in the Senate. Right now, if the vote were held, the House would certainly vote it down.
It's deeply controversial. And the press is out in sort of full colors to talk about the apocalyptic consequences of what has transpired. My view on all of this is this is an exception to the dysfunctional politics I want to talk about. Bad stuff happens in the world. And sometimes the choices presented to policymakers, to leaders are not very good.
Syria must be a classic case of this. No one doubts Obama's distaste for extended military engagements. He has managed to reject many of his advisers' recommendations for striking over the last couple of years. He's not looking for another military engagement in the Middle East. I know for certain that's the case.
But he's come to a conclusion that in the face of the sort of transcendental threat of the weapons of mass destruction, norms are important. The law is complicated because of who signed a treaty and who hasn't and how it's to be implemented. But the fact is this is a big deal. And it's appropriate for the United States, which remains an indispensable nation, to take it very seriously.
You might say, well, why did he ask Congress for authorization? He must've known, given all the troubles of getting things through, that that would be difficult. Why didn't he just do it, get it done 48, 72 hours, and then watch all of those members rush up in support of the great victory if it was or to blame him if it wasn't?
I think he did so partly reflecting his ambivalence and uncertainty about the step itself, I think recognizing, in spite of what his White House counsel says, the questionable legality of it with respect to international law as well as his own powers under the Constitution and the War Powers Act and the precedent set by the past use of military force by presidents, and finally recognizing the country is so war weary. They don't want to do it.
It almost reminds you of the 1940s and the lead up to World War II. The country has been going through difficult economic times. And we've had two decade-long wars with very ambiguous results, but heavy costs and blood and injury and treasure. Under those circumstances, it seemed prudent to ask Congress. He also could do it because unlike the entire domestic economic agenda, it isn't automatically polarized. That is to say there is not automatic unified Republican opposition to this just because of the history and recent statements of a number of Republicans.
This a case where fragmentation within parties, especially in this case the opposition parties, create opportunities-- opportunities for real debate and engagement and ultimate support. Sure polarization is a factor. But at that level, it's always true. When a Republican is in the White House on a difficult foreign policy decision, Democrats will mainly vote against and vice versa. It's like we used to do the debt ceiling increase. You know, you play with the politics. But in the end, the votes are there when they really need to be.
But in this case, it really is much more complicated. Republicans versus Republicans. Senate versus House, and with a public opposition. My own view is that we will survive as a nation if the Congress votes down this authorization. There's a cost to Obama. It's very embarrassing. Does that mean he can't do anything on foreign policy for the last three years of his presidency? Well, of course not. The world will change. Syria could change in six months. Might be back to Congress.
The world keeps throwing up difficult problems. And whoever's President of the United States is going to be in the middle of it. But won't this hurt his domestic agenda and drain his political capital? I say, say what? Political capital? That's a nifty term that journalists use because it seemed to matter after landslide elections for at least a year and a half and then fritters away. It's a silly concept. And there's not much evidence of that.
We have some terrible confrontations coming up between the President and the Congress over the sequester, the funding this next fiscal year, and the debt ceiling which has to be raised. We're seeing brinksmanship, blackmail, hostage taking politics again. And frankly, I don't see any translation from one to the other, from Libya to domestic policy.
So it'll be embarrassing for the US. Will we become irrelevant in international affairs? Nonsense. Nonsense. The benefits of it is, in the end as we talk this through, hey, maybe it's not the right move now. Maybe some other developments are happening. The Russians are probably trying to snooker us by announcing today that they've called on Assad to transfer all of this chemical weapons to them, and they will hole them in safety. And so there's no need to worry about-- that's a nifty way of sort of delaying things and complicating things. But maybe there's a start of some diplomatic possibility.
But I think one thing it does around the world is send a message that we really believe in the rule of law, that we have a constitution, that it was appropriate for Congress which was given the power to declare wars and have enormous say in our military arrangements, though not the commander-in-chief, to be a party to this debate, especially with the public sentiment. So if it's a no vote, it's not the end of the world. It's not a great thing. And maybe something positive will come from it.
The cost of a yes vote certainly exists. We may, in fact, in spite of the limitations put on the effort, we may be unleashing something, setting in motion a process that we will come to regret. But that's a very crab, pessimistic view. Simple analogies with Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems to me a great nation ought to have the capacity to talk those things through. And frankly, that is the real benefit of it.
The benefit is the language of the resolution, the limitations put in place, and the fact that members of Congress can't play the continuous game they've been playing for years now. Mind you they always love-- and I know this. And I'm a Congress guy. They love to demand the President come to Congress for approval. But they don't want him to do it because then they would have to take responsibility for it and could be in big trouble. It's much better to demand it, and then he doesn't do it. And then raise hell about it.
You can also be certain that even if he comes, it's a yes vote, the members who vote yes will attack him if it doesn't go well. So it's not buying immunity. All in all, it's a formula for more information, better debate, potentially wiser policy. It's a respite from our dysfunctional politics even though it's difficult and messy and complex. And I think we should see the upside of what's going on here.
OK, what's this talk about dysfunctional politics? The searches on Google must be just unbelievable. Everybody talks about dysfunctional politics. Is it really that bad? Come on. What are we talking about? Well, we're talking about a absolute lack of public support for the primary institutions of our government. Congress, of course, always had low ratings. But reaching single digits really took some work. People are amazed. How could Congress be approved by only 9% of the public? My answer is who are the 9%?
What are they happy about? John McCain thinks they're down to blood relatives and staffers.
In any case, it's not just support, but it's confidence. It's a belief that the public sees some real problems, but they have no confidence that they are acting through voting and contributing and participating in various ways would end up leading to some desirable outcome and with good reason, given the record of the last several years.
OK, we have a permanent campaign. Political scientists have talked about that for decades. It's the blurring of campaigning and governing and the use of governing to win campaigns. But it's changed. It's gone from a campaign to a war. It's an all-out war, and it's a tribal war. It's vicious, and it's focused on two things, one, just practical politics of winning power. The other is beliefs about the adversary, and not adversary overseas. But we're talking about other Americans. That's what's turned this into a war, something we are not used to.
Then, of course, there's the legislative gridlock on pressing matters that have been so frustrating in these very difficult times. You can count the number of important pieces of legislation, as opposed to naming courthouses. And the last Congress and the current one are historic in their lack of productivity. But much more important are the things that need doing sooner rather than later that just don't get done it at all.
But you can see it in the failure to do the routine business of Congress, to pass budgets, to get appropriations bills through the normal process of committee and moving to the floor, both chambers, conference committees and action. We don't pass appropriations bills anymore. We have continuing resolutions that throws everything together, sets an overall ceiling. And the bureaucracy be damned in trying to manage the work of government. Authorizations go for years undone.
The farm bill-- a farm bill. We had a bargain, right, between the farmers and those in urban districts sort of supporting poor people. And that was food stamps and-- well, that deal wasn't enough this time. And they simply refused to pass it. So we're coming up against a deadline. But same thing is true of transportation where we desperately need additional funding for our transportation systems, for our sewer and water, for our energy grids, and the like. It's an embarrassment.
And when it comes to confirmations of appointees to the courts and to the executive branch, it's become a joke. It's a game where you filibuster for months and months with a hold, and then the nominee passes unanimously or with 98 or 97 votes. But some, of course, are denied confirmation because if they're in office, they would work to implement laws that the opposition doesn't like.
The demise of regular order in the House and in the Senate-- in the House now, with these polarized parties, it's a majoritarian institution. But the norm is the majority leader doesn't move anything forward unless he has support of a majority of his party, in the case of Democrats, her party. It's called the Hastert Rule. It isn't a rule. It's a norm. But given the situation now, we have issue after issue in which there's a majority of members of the House who would support action on some of the central issues confronting the country, but they can't get it to the floor. Republicans who would vote for the bill are fearful of defecting on the rule because that's heresy and would mean great damage.
In the Senate, just think filibuster and holds. It's a long story. We could spend the rest of the time I have here on it. Obviously, we can't. But it's a massive sign of political dysfunction. Self-inflicted crises, the sequester is damaging the country. And it just begun. There's nine years more coming, folks. And it's cumulative. It's pointless. It was done as a threat to force the parties to come together. It didn't work. It didn't work, and now it's doing great harm to the country.
But we've had government shutdowns and threats of them. And the worst of all, of course, is using the debt ceiling to demand action on legislation that does not have the support of the Senate or the President. The idea being, well, we have the house, and damn it, we're going to govern from there.
I mention two other things. I talked about the confirmation problem. It's something I've called the new nullification. Listen, federalism is an important dimension of American government. And it's perfectly appropriate for governors and state legislatures to reject offers that are made to them by the federal government like Medicaid. They can do that. That appropriately plays out within their own state. They can fight to resist mandates of the various kinds.
But this is different. This is different. This is not accepting the legitimacy of an act, a public law, an act of Congress signed by the President. And keeping up a campaign to use every means, including legitimate funds available to implement the Affordable Care Act within states that have their systems set up and ready to go. It goes well beyond that. But it really reminds me of the pre-Civil War nullification days. And it's very destructive phenomena.
Finally, just extreme partisanship in almost every respect, of views, of agendas, of rhetoric, of trust, all these contribute to a dysfunctional politics that we argue is different than before. It's different in kind as well as in quantity. Now, yes, governing is difficult and frustrating all the time. And other countries are having a tough time. We've had a global financial crisis. We've had a deep economic recession. We're facing high unemployment, stagnant wages, inequality of income, wealth, and opportunity. We've got deficits and debt issues. We have huge social tensions, race, ethnicity, religion, values. I mean, it's bound to be tough.
But here's the argument. The argument is the fear side of it, that despite our many advantages as a country-- and we have huge advantages. That's a topic for another lecture in this series. But I think they're really quite substantial. The fear we have is that our political system is holding us back and will keep us from realizing that potential.
OK, here's the argument in summary that we make. We've got a mismatch. We've got a problem. We have political parties today. And as you know, parties weren't anticipated by the framers. Although they began almost instantaneously and have been around for a long time. But the way the system was set up, it really required bargaining and negotiation across lines, of branches, of houses, of parties. But our parties are parliamentary-like now.
That is to say they're ideologically coherent and quite distant from one another. They are internally unified. We can talk about differences on some matters. But for the most part, we've had extraordinary party unity voting. And they're vehemently adversarial as a style of governing. Now those parties would work just fine in a parliamentary system. Doesn't mean they always win, as we saw with Prime Minister Cameron on the vote on Syria.
But you put together a majority coalition. And in general, you can put your program through. We have a separation of power system. And it makes it extremely difficult for majorities to form, to retain their status, and to act on the basis of their campaign and their agenda. So in general, we have two parties that are deeply polarized. One sees it in evidence in voting within the Congress, in the House, and the Senate.
Historically, over more than a century of time, we're back to the period of the Gilded Age, the last-- and we've really exceeded it. And the level of polarization in state legislatures is, in many cases, greater than it is in Washington. So this is not just a phenomenon of Washington. We'll set aside, for the moment, what's underlying that polarization, where it comes from.
But just realize in that governing setting, they're in a system that almost invariably produces divided party government so that you have an opposition party and the majority in a position, if it's not willing to negotiate but only to engage in blackmail to cause all kinds of problems. We have a bicameral system. So we can have a different party controlling the House and the Senate. We have the Senate filibuster. We have the presidential veto. All of those things really require some flexibility in the system.
It doesn't mean you don't want parties. Parties are essential. It doesn't mean you don't want parties with meaning and differences and beliefs and energies and incentives. You need all of that. But trying to operate with these kind of parties in our constitutional system is a formula for gridlock in action and political war, not policy making.
OK, second factor is the rough parity between the parties. We had times where Democrats had huge majorities. They were in the majority for 40 straight years in the House. Members thought it was a birthright to be in the majority. It was probably written on their birth certificate. That's not good. But now we find that a shift of a few seats can make all the difference. And therefore every piece of legislation, every amendment, every action can potentially decide who is in the majority. And with the greater differences between the parties, there's much higher stakes and a greater chance of a change of party control.
That's the second, mismatch, parties, governing system. Second, the parity between the parties which intensifies the calculations and the stakes. And the third is the asymmetry of the polarization, what I alluded to before, that one of our political parties, the Republican Party, has become a radical insurgent in our politics. Now the most quoted sentence from our book reads, "The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier, ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime."
Going back to Roosevelt, and by that I mean Teddy, not Franklin. It goes far back, rejecting the whole set of institutions as well as social policies developed. "Scornful of compromise"-- it's principal that matters-- "unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science"-- struck a cord there, didn't I? "And dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition." The last may be the most significant of all.
We thought we settled that in the election of 1800, peaceful transfer of power after a very difficult election. But now we're in the business of saying who's a real American and who isn't. It's the new form of identity politics in many respects. And it's really quite dangerous to a democracy.
OK, I have 10 minutes more to say something about the causes and what to do. And then we're going to have questions. So I'm obviously going to run through this. I won't justify my arguments about the Republican Party as outlier. We supported it here. There's much to be said about that.
The causes of party polarization are multiple. They have multiple roots that are deep and intertwined. There's no single cause such as gerrymandering of legislative districts or money in campaigns or the new media. It's all Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. All of those are relevant, but they're not the primary driver of what we have.
It's a complicated story. Scholars have two ways of thinking about that. One is they try to put together a historical narrative of what happened over a period of time with many forces operating into a sort of coherent story. And then the second, which should be complimentary to the first, is to then begin to parse individual factors and try to see what purchase they can get on individual factors.
But the bottom line, if you'll accept this egregiously brief narrative, is it really began in the '60s with the breakup of the New Deal Democratic Coalition and the emergence of conservative insurgents and a Dwight Eisenhower presidency and a Republican Party dominated by a lot of important moderates from the Northeast, the counterculture movement, the reaction to it, the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Act, and most importantly the Voting Rights Act that set in motion a profound change in the alignments of the two parties in the South in particular, Roe v. Wade and the emergence of the right to life movement, and of a mobilized conservative religious movement that had heretofore divided the support between the two parties.
So you suddenly started getting people-- first of all, Dixie Democrats lost, changed parties, retired, replaced, mainly by minorities, Democrats who were liberals. And the Republican Party became very strong in the South. It became the base for national politics in the rural South which was very conservative. Carry it forward with Prop 13 in California, supply-side economics, no new taxes. So you align the economic agenda and the social agenda and reacting to the opposition, the war in Vietnam, a kind of neoconservative foreign policy, and you began to have much more distinctiveness.
You study the party platforms, and they really quite become much more different from one another than they had been before. You look at the kind of members interested in moving into office. Suddenly the democratic caucus is looking pretty unified as opposed having 30% conservative Southern Democrats. They say let's give power to our leaders to try to impose an agenda and get something done. And Republicans bring new to Congress. And he outlines a guerrilla war that is predicated on delegitimizing Congress as an institution.
All of these things are taking place. The parties are becoming more coherent within national politics. But you can see it happening in state politics as well. But it's reflected then in the electorate as people begin to sort themselves into the party that's consistent with their values and overall political ideology. Some of the shift is just purely mental. Some of it is geographical as people begin to select communities with those sharing values of their own.
The party leaders have more power. The party becomes a more significant player. The agenda is clearer. This keeps developing. Democrats in a defensive position defending the programs of the last decades are looking to preserve. With Bill Clinton, they become more pragmatic and looking to get by. Republicans as the outsiders feel aggrieved, have the energy. And that's what's driving them to be the more conservative force.
Carry it all the way through to Obama's election, the reaction to that, the formation of the Tea Party which is really an extreme populist movement of the right, and you begin to see how this has happened. Now there are many, many individual questions about, hey, what is this? Is it a polarized electorate producing a polarized set of political elites governing us? Or is it just the opposite? Is it a series of wayward elites who are ignoring a centrist moderate public frustrated by the choices that are offered them?
Those are the kind of debates political scientists have about this stuff. In the workshop we're having tomorrow, we're going to be parsing that. But the bottom line is it's a dynamic process as you would expect. Its factors, events, happenings, strategies begin to produce different cues coming out of Washington, sending signals back. Interest groups stop aligning themselves with both parties and bet on one or the other. New media develop around the parties. The money system begins to change.
Southern realignment is part of it. Gerrymandering is a minor part. And I don't have time to talk about it. Polarization was not caused by primary elections, but the nature of our low turnout. Primaries with more ideologically extreme voters has contributed to it. And what's been most important is the threat to members who aren't hoeing to the party line from ideological groups and partisan medias outside.
There are internal factors as well. The teamsmanship that developed, we see it especially under Obama after he was elected. Because if it were just ideological, then all Obama has to do is take one of their old ideas and give it to them, and they'd say, yay! That was the Affordable Care Act. They didn't say, yay. It has Republican fingerprints and heritage fingerprints all over it.
There were so many instances where Obama was offering proposals that were rejected. And admittedly so because he was for them. If he's for them, I'm against them. That's the kind of tribalism that developed the teamsmanship. The strategic disagreement was all part of that which, in turn, encouraged the breakdown of any kind of partisan norms or patterns of friendship and camaraderie that made bargaining irrelevant.
One of my greatest beefs with the world of journalism is Bob Woodward stenography. He gets inside an issue, and he interviews everyone. And he gives us a moment-by-moment account without any context, without any sense of the institutional political forces. He believes Lyndon Johnson's persuasion is what led to the Voting Rights Act and much of the Great Society legislation. He believes it's all presidential style and engagement. Nothing could be further from the truth.
OK, I have 30 seconds. We'll talk about these. But so what do we do with this mess? OK, first, you can say, nah, not to worry. It's not really a problem. We've been through these times before. Just relax, and we'll get through it. I think complacency is not advisable at this time.
Second, we can launch major constitutional reform. That is not advisable in these times, given the kind of int-- I don't think we can reproduce the erudition and wisdom of the framers in Philadelphia. And it's worrisome of what might actually emerge from that system if it came from the bottom up. We try to fix the party system so that the parties aren't as polarized. That means expanding the vote, thinking creatively about the way we change votes into seats, maybe even multi-member districts and some other things, and the way in which we finance elections.
On the other hand, we can look at the institutional side and try to reform our political institutions to give majorities a little help in trying to get through this system. And filibuster reform is a piece of it. But-- and here's where I end only a minute over-- my belief is the most important thing to dealing with our dysfunctional politics is to bring the Republican Party back into the political mainstream. We need two parties, different, a conservative one, a liberal one, certainly different, different aspirations, but one that accepts the legitimacy of the other and understand what politics is about.
I cut something out that I have to read to you. For those of you Nietzsche fans, I figured this would-- I thought Dick would really be impressed if I brought this along. OK, so saith Nietzsche, "Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies." "Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truths than lies." I even had a Leo Strauss one here, too, that's in defense of moderation.
The point is we don't do well with ideologically based, non-negotiable demands in our political system. It doesn't work. How's that going to happen? Republicans are going to get beaten up in some elections. And out of pierced desire to avoid the way of the Whigs of the 19th century, they're going to allow other voices and forces to come forward and wait for Democrats to overplay their hand. Or maybe shorter, forces will emerge within the Republican Party, different groups looking over primaries, mobilizing a business community that has interest in immigration reform and on no mucking around with the debt ceiling and government shutdowns and playing hardball instead of these "let's make nice and form a grand bipartisan coalition."
All that stuff has been pointless. We need some hard politics in the short term to try to restore our politics. And I don't have an immediate root for you. But I think that's the direction in which the country would best move. Thank you very much.
DICK MILLER: [INAUDIBLE]?
THOMAS MANN: I'd be happy to. Sure.
DICK MILLER: OK, so Dr. Mann is [INAUDIBLE] questions. And just one thing would be very helpful. Would you stand up and say it loud? It's hard for people to hear one another.
THOMAS MANN: Yes, sir. Right here.
SPEAKER 1: So [INAUDIBLE] Democratic Party change [INAUDIBLE] Barack Obama presidency [INAUDIBLE]?
THOMAS MANN: Is that a leading question? That's a leading question. And I don't know that I can do anything with it. You obviously believe that. I think the objective evidence would challenge you on almost all of those in terms of productivity and the like. And people differ about the issue of privacy and secrecy. These are important issues. And there have been some real failures. But I would argue those first two years probably produced the most productive presidency in decades in spite of people feeling awful about it. Yeah.
SPEAKER 2: You mentioned tribalism toward the end and how that fueled the Tea Party. But in the case of Syria, how can the Tea Party, which has often put their tribalism first in opposing the issues by President Obama are not clearly opposing as they have with the debt ceiling and such. Why is Syria so different, especially for the Tea Party?
THOMAS MANN: I don't think the Tea Party is coherent enough to have a view on this. I mean there are people, self proclaimed leaders of the Tea Party. This is a joining together of the libertarian right and the sort of liberal dovish left. It's not unusual to have coalitions like this in our politics. In some way, it offers some possibility of movement and discussion and change.
Most of the strong sentiments Sarah Palin accepted on the part of the Tea Partiers really go very much to a conception of the Constitution and what it means to be Americans and personal responsibility and the undeserving takers at the bottom of the income scale, and for most of them, religious conservatism as well. And I think that Syria doesn't fit comfortably within this. Remember we have conservative religious groups deeply engaged in campaigns for climate change.
So on other issues, you get a little more diversity going. So I think the answer to that is I'm not surprised. And part of it is happening, too, because other leaders, both elected leaders and well known policy advisers to them, realize that if George Bush were in office, all the Republicans, save a few really strong, strong libertarians, would vote yes. So there really is some possibility of movement here, and that's a good thing. Yes.
SPEAKER 3: You mentioned about the identity and about each saying what makes someone more American. I was wondering what arguments did each side say about making somebody more American or not American.
THOMAS MANN: Yeah, I think this comes from a segment of the Republican Party. And it really tends to be more associated with the Tea Party. Very strong views on, first of all, the religious inspiration behind the Constitution. Clement Skousen has laid all this out originally for the John Birch Society back in the '50s and early '60s. It's a belief that we are all about individual freedom in that sense and that real Americans look like real Americans, whatever that is now.
So it puts them on the side of being somewhat anti-immigrant and very skeptical of someone who might be a Muslim. I'm not saying all Tea Party supporters feel that way. But there's also a sort of conspiratorial apocalyptic orientation of self being caught up in the nation. And if the nation isn't going the way I live and believe, then something is terribly amiss. I think Democrats believe we're very different, and it's a matter of tolerance.
Now maybe Democrats can be criticized for, you could argue on this score, playing too much to characteristics of individuals and their race and ethnicity and gender and developing everything around that one perspective which certainly is a source of anxiety to those on the other side. But I guess right now, there's been enough change within the Democratic Party as sort of a comfort level across groups that most of these identity concerns are on the political right. Yes, sir. Right behind.
SPEAKER 4: When you recommended against Constitutional [INAUDIBLE], if you could personally author your amendment to the Constitution, what would it be?
THOMAS MANN: Nah, I don't trust myself. I'm just not anywhere near as smart as other people. Part of it goes to-- one of the great flaws in the system is the basis of Senate representation. It's the absolute departure from one person, one vote. But it was the agreement that made a constitution possible with states. But it's one of the most peculiar aspects of the system. So I would deal with that.
I would happily live with our own version of a parliamentary system. I did I could imagine a different form of representation. Certainly, I'd replace the electoral college with something that fits our times and our politics. But if the question is would any of those change the basic dynamics of the system, I think no. To do that, you really have to change to some parliamentary regime. With separate institutions, with mid-term elections, you're bound to run into these problems. So I think it takes a much more radical restructuring of the Constitution. And before we can get that done, I bet you we figure out how to adjust our parties so we can live within these arrangements. Yes.
SPEAKER 5: Do you think that [INAUDIBLE] in the popularity of third-party candidates could change or enhance these deep polarizations?
THOMAS MANN: I do no. Third parties have the deck stacked against them in our system. The rules make it very difficult for them to get any traction. But the main problem is I think they're-- like Americans elect last time around and others-- it's based on a specious view of American politics. The view is that we have two extreme parties, one on the left, one on the right. Most Americans are moderate, centrist, pragmatic, reasonable. And all we need is a candidate who's like that who could appeal to them, and that would transform the system.
I don't think that's what we have. I think Americans who participate, who vote have been pulled to one party or the other. And they really have different views. And they don't like the views of the other party. And that's a real reality. And the people left in the middle are mainly people who don't pay much attention to politics, have little information, little interest, little kind of coherence. That doesn't mean there aren't any people who fit the model of the vital center. But in general, it doesn't well describe American politics.
I think we now have one centrist party, and one extreme party. We have a center left party, and we have an extreme right party that's driven further by a core set of extremists who've got a tremendous leverage on the Republican Party. And so if there's any space in the political system, it may be libertarians will break out if they're unhappy with what they get and try to attract some Democrats to them. But in general, I think we're likely to stick with the two parties we have for awhile. Yes, sir. All the way in the back.
SPEAKER 6: You had mentioned that suffering a series of electoral defeats like the one that recently occurred with the Republicans that you imagined that one way the Republicans could avoid going the way of the Whigs and going to obscurity is to somehow realign themselves with the political mainstream. Currently, do you see any elements within the Republican Party at this stage that are shifting more forward this direction? Or what kind of electorate base would you imagine that would support these kind of elements in your opinion?
THOMAS MANN: They're hiding if they're there. It's really difficult for-- I used to go every year and speak to the mainstream, Main Street Republicans and spoke to other groups of Republicans who were conservative but pragmatic, looking to get something done and the rest. But it's just very dangerous these days to think and act like that. Jon Huntsman did it a little bit, and he got blown away very quickly. I think it's got to come-- I mean there have to be some alternative groups within the Republican constituency, our own form of a different kind of alternative social movement, that's encouraging different candidates to get in and creating the resources.
For example, we're now in a big money game. Why not-- and Rove is actually doing this in some individual states where the Tea Party is trying to defeat Republicans who said they won't shut down government or breach the debt ceiling in order to try to defund Obamacare. So he's using crossroads to try to support those. But imagine other groups seeing an incentive. I mean I could make a case for elements of the business community doing this, given the real needs they have in infrastructure and immigration, in energy, electricity grids, and a whole host of things, of trying to change that dynamic from within.
It's going to take resources. It's going to take some energy. And frankly, it's going to take something that excites people. I mean give credit to the libertarians and Rand Paul. I mean Ron was sort of a little nutty. But his son, I mean they were off to eliminate the Fed and go back on the gold standard and do a lot of things. Rand Paul believes most of that, but he's a much better politician and has handled himself very well.
And I've been interested to see the extent to which some of the millennials have been attracted to libertarian ideas, economic. And of course the social moderation is something that all Democrats accept and libertarian Republicans sort of accept, where they can survive by taking those positions. So it's going to take something. I could imagine trying to turn the libertarian movement into something other than ideological zealotry and Ayn Rand and more into pragmatic program, feasible program for governing that would have appeal.
There are different ways of doing it. I don't think you're going to reestablish the Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits wing of the party. I spoke to former Senator Danforth last week. He called. I spent an hour talking to him. He's trying to write about this and think about how to bring his party back. And it's tough because you can't go back.
But see libertarians have a problem in the Republican Party because the biggest constituency are the religious fundamentalists. And the Republican Party, to turn away from them is to quickly move them into minority status. So it's not going to be easy. But I think some creative thinking about party coalitions and some insistence. For those of you who are attracted to this, remember that statement I said, dismissive of conventional understandings of evidence, of facts, of science.
I am embarrassed to see the quality of the arguments made on, say, fiscal policy and budgets, supposedly libertarian arguments that really don't add up the wrong. We had some discussions of some of this in the book. And so as well educated people, get them thinking straight. Let's all deal from same deck of cards. Let's make sure we have facts. Let's not go off in some imagined world because we say that's the way it is. It must be. There's too much of that in our politics now. Yeah. No, I called on you. Let's take someone else. Yeah. Forgive me.
SPEAKER 7: [INAUDIBLE].
THOMAS MANN: Yeah, I certainly wouldn't say it's worse than the Civil War era.
I'm not recommending a parallel between the two. There are some-- Suzanne is much better on this than I am. But there are some interesting parallels with the last decade of the 19th century and the first of the 20th. We went through a long period of regular divided party government and coalitions polarized on one side or the other and difficult times governing. And in that case, it eventually broke up by a party which had become more dominant dividing with the formation of the progressives which altered our politics for a couple of decades.
You could say it was deep party polarization that got us into the questionable War of 1812. That was pretty bad, too. So I'm not excusing or saying-- I'm saying we've been through difficult periods before. Sometimes we've gotten through them without huge damage. Sometimes we have. I think the times are pretty serious and going to the theme of the broader series.
As I say, we have enormous advantages as a country. We're growing. We have higher fertility rates. We're not aging at the same rates as many other countries. We have a lot of immigrants. We have big, healthy, growing urban areas where there's lots of social interaction and innovation. We have metropolitan areas that are trying to get around the dysfunctional politics. Sometimes it's helped because it's all controlled by one party. But they pull together, universities and businesses and labor unions and non-profits, and they become players in the global economy as well.
It's easier to innovate in this country than most others and to form a business. We've got a really good higher education system that's threatened. I gather I'm going to learn more about that by reading a new book. But yeah, you can flip that around and say we're just so complacent. We talk about American exceptionalism, and politicians are drawn to that. Obama is as bad as any other presidential candidate. It's required because if you don't believe in American exceptionalism, then you don't believe in America. And therefore, you're not an American.
We have a dreadful health service for the dollar invested. We have pockets of social disintegration. We have some lousy schools, and wages are amazingly low, relative to other countries and inequality, not just in income but in wealth, which is so significant to try to grab a hold of the traditional opportunities in American society. But I think Australia just turned right and is probably going to repeal its carbon tax. The optimal policy solutions to climate change have dreadful politics.
But I bet you at the end of Obama's two terms, we will have made substantial progress, largely through the regulatory process in dealing with it. And we have possibilities with new energy discoveries and shale and, yes, problems associated with it that have to be solved. But those are the kind of things we do. So I'm not Pollyannish. I just think our politics is really lousy right down. And at the very least, get out of the way. Don't create new problems with financial crises around the world. And let's fight for a few things, whether it's a national infrastructure, bank, or something else.
So I said I would end on a positive note of hope. I really do feel that way. I have two kids, and I now have a grandchild. His name is Leo, Leonardo. And he's just adorable. And I think a lot about the future. And I'm not terrified, discouraged, or fearful. But if we don't do our part now, then we're not preparing the way for the future to work as well as it has for our generation. Thanks a lot.
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The Cornell Program on Ethics and Public Life is hosting a semester-long series with visiting scholars, "After the American Century: Fears and Hopes for America's Future," that addresses widely prevalent worries that the new normal condition of the United States stifles important aspirations that were viable in the past.
The first lecture of the series, focusing on the causes, nature and future of polarization in American politics, is provided by Thomas Mann, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.