FLORIDA, August 7, 2012 — When it comes to politics in this country, things are pretty nasty out there. They are getting nastier by the day, let alone election cycle.
This stark reality is the subject of the bestseller, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. Written by Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, it pulls no punches in analyzing our era of rabid partisanship and low esteem for public officeholders.
Dr. Ornstein spoke with me about how and why America’s political atmosphere has become so toxic. He also shared his thoughts about Occupy, the Tea Party, and the imminent threat of radicalism to our nation’s future.
There is every probability that those on the political fringes will not care for Ornstein’s analyses. That makes it even more important for the rest of us to consider his opinions very seriously.
Joseph F. Cotto: This is a very polarized time in American politics. Why do you think that moderate policies and politicians have become so maligned?
Dr. Norman Ornstein: Two things: First, politics have become so tribal that anyone who works with the other side is viewed by many partisans as a traitor, akin to sleeping with the enemy. Second, the disgust with the way our politics have operated in recent years means that anyone associated with Washington is viewed as evil or wrongheaded, and anyone who says I am not like those politicians gets traction.
Cotto: You have stated that hardline politics is more prevalent on the right than the left. How has rightism become more radical in comparison to years past?
Dr. Ornstein: Just a few years ago, the debate over climate change was about whether to do a command and control set of regulations, a cap-and-trade system (a conservative idea) or a carbon tax. Now, if you do not start by saying global warming is a hoax, you are not in the conservative mainstream. The same is true of immigration and health policy (all the core ideas in the Affordable Care Act were Republican in origin). Also, pre-the Norquist pledge, fiscal discipline trumped tax cuts at any cost.
Cotto: Why do you think that many of those on the right have become attracted to extreme ideologies?
Dr. Ornstein: The growing tribalism matters. So does the amplification that comes from talk radio and social media. People hear and read the same things over and over, and believe them even if they are not true. That, of course, is a hazard on both sides, but the breadth and reach is much greater on the right.
Cotto: For many rightists, religion plays a tremendous role in political philosophy. Generally speaking, do you find that this lends to radicalism?
Dr. Ornstein: I don’t believe that religion per se leads to radicalism. Most religious values are good values. But fundamentalism of any sort, the belief that things are black and white, move away from the kind of compromise that is essential in the American political system, and can lead more to defining people on the other side as the enemy instead of simply adversaries.
Cotto: From your experience, does the emerging right place great emphasis on reason or objective facts? Is rightism becoming more emotionalist in nature?
Dr. Ornstein: Traditional conservatism is rooted in reason, in preserving values and traditions from the past, with reverence for facts. Radical rightism is much more rooted in emotionalism, is anti-science and disdainful of facts and plays to emotion.
Cotto: Over the last several years, mass movements such as Occupy and the Tea Party have made quite an impact on the political process. Each is largely a result of the recession and popular anger at government malfeasance. Comprehensively speaking, are these movements as different from one another as pundits tend to claim?
Dr. Ornstein: No, these movements have a lot in common. As you say, they are rooted in a populist reaction against an establishment and leadership they view as corrupt and untrustworthy— and that means not just a political establishment, but a financial one. Of course, they have different policy agendas, but not as different as conventional wisdom suggests.
A key difference is that the Tea Party Movement, even though it is not a top down one, has organized through the political process, recruiting candidates and getting many elected to office (while helping throw out many they disdain.) The Occupy movement has not done any of that. It just protests and occupies. It has had an impact on framing the dialogue— the 1 percent vs the 99 percent. But no impact on politics.
Cotto: How do you believe that an increasingly fundamentalist right-wing will impact the Republican Party during the years ahead? Might extremist factions take over the GOP, or can a third party actually form?
Dr. Ornstein: For moderate republicans and traditional conservatives, there are hard times ahead. They are not much attracted to the Democratic Party, but find the Republican Party of today is leaving them behind. Whether there is a course correction in the next few years— and whether Democrats can adjust to the middle to win some over - are key questions. But we are far away from a third party of significance.
Cotto: In your opinion, is extremism a growing problem on the left?
Dr. Ornstein: I worry about a more extreme reaction on the left to the extremism on the right. It is not inconceivable that centrists and center-leftists on the Democratic side could find themselves on the defensive if their approach of compromising continues to fail.
Cotto: Do you think that moderate politics might make a comeback during the years ahead? Are there any solid indications that this could happen?
Dr. Ornstein: I am hopeful about that, especially in the Senate, but the House is moving in the opposite direction.
Cotto: Many readers will wonder how you became such a prominent political scientist. Tell us a bit about your life and career.
Dr. Ornstein: I first came to Washington in 1969 as a congressional fellow, from graduate school in political science at the University of Michigan. I went off to teach after that at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy, and then came back to teach at Catholic University, where I was for thirteen years (My students included Tom Donilon, Ed Gillespie, Terry McAuliffe, Mitch Landrieu, Martin O’Malley and Brian Williams!)
In 1978, I developed a part-time association with AEI, along with Tom Mann, creating the Congress Project to track Congress and its role in American politics and policy. I quit teaching in 1984, and have been full time at AEI since. Along the way, I began to write in newspapers and magazines, along with my academic writing, and to do television commentary (starting with the public television coverage of the impeachment hearings in 1973.)
Over the years, I have mixed academic, journalistic and policy roles, being active in reform efforts but avoiding any role or characterization as a partisan or ideologue.
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