Acrimony and hyperpartisanship have seeped into every part of the political process. Congress is deadlocked and its approval ratings are at record lows. America’s two main political parties have given up their traditions of compromise, endangering our very system of constitutional democracy. And one of these parties has taken on the role of insurgent outlier; the Republicans have become ideologically extreme, scornful of compromise, and ardently opposed to the established social and economic policy regime.
In It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein identify two overriding problems that have led Congress—and the United States—to the brink of institutional collapse. The first is the serious mismatch between our political parties, which have become as vehemently adversarial as parliamentary parties, and a governing system that, unlike a parliamentary democracy, makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act. Second, while both parties participate in tribal warfare, both sides are not equally culpable. The political system faces what the authors call “asymmetric polarization,” with the Republican Party implacably refusing to allow anything that might help the Democrats politically, no matter the cost.
With dysfunction rooted in long-term political trends, a coarsened political culture and a new partisan media, the authors conclude that there is no “silver bullet” reform that can solve everything. But they offer a panoply of useful ideas and reforms, endorsing some solutions, like greater public participation and institutional restructuring of the House and Senate, while debunking others, like independent or third-party candidates. Above all, they call on the media as well as the public at large to focus on the true causes of dysfunction rather than just throwing the bums out every election cycle. Until voters learn to act strategically to reward problem solving and punish obstruction, American democracy will remain in serious danger.