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Book review: The limits of ‘sensible centrism’

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How The American Constitutional System Collided With The New Politics of Extremism.  Mann, Thomas E. and Norman J. Ornstein. New York, Basic Books, 2013, pp. 248, $16.99 (pb), ISBN 978-0-465-07473-0.

Review published in Public Administration Review in November 2014.  Also available on SSRN.

In this book, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein provide a sobering description of how politics in Washington has coarsened over the span of a generation. Today, the authors warn, “America’s capacity to govern” is under threat (Mann and Ornstein 2013, xvii). They have some practical suggestions on how to make Washington work better. But the remedies may be unequal to the underlying problem: a profound shift in the structure of American politics, and attitudes about the role of the federal government in American life.

Mann&OrnsteinFor Mann and Ornstein, the clearest sign of dysfunctionality in Washington is the inability to solve problems — evidenced by deadlock over the federal budget and debt ceiling during 2011, which resulted in a downgrading of the United States’ credit rating by Standard & Poor’s. But there are other symptoms too, such as the decline of goodwill between legislators, and the collapse of “regular order” in the legislative branch, as parties bend rules to seek short-term political advantages. Mann and Ornstein thinks that the United States is acquiring “parliamentary parties” — cohesive, highly adversarial groupings — that are ill-suited to a system in which the minority party has ample opportunity to jam up the works. They place particular blame on the Republican Party, which they describe as an “insurgent outlier” — ideologically extreme and determined to “reverse decades of economic and social policy by any means necessary” (Mann and Ornstein 2013, 132).

Mann and Ornstein lay out some of the proximate causes of this sorry state of affairs. They describe the emergence of a new conservative movement in the late 1970s, and its growth over the next thirty years. Initially formed to challenge “hegemonic Democratic control . . . of national policy making,” the core message of the movement was that national political institutions could not be trusted (Mann and Ornstein 2013, 58). The stridency of national political discourse was intensified as print and broadcast media were supplanted by talk radio, cable television, and internet-based social media. Mann and Ornstein say that we are witnessing the “return of a nineteenth century partisan press” (Mann and Ornstein 2013, xv). Added to this is the breakdown of controls over the flow of money into politics, through lobbying as well as campaign spending.

But the authors also suggest that troubles in Washington have deeper roots. In the south, conservatives fled from the Democratic to Republican party, increasing the ideological gap between the two groups. And the conservative Sunbelt states gained influence as jobs and people migrated from northern states. Mann and Ornstein suggest that conservative Southerners drew different lessons from the cultural and political tumult of the 1960s than did Northern Democrats. They are now less tolerant of secularism, threats to public order, and federal activism. Party platforms reflect this fundamental division in attitudes about the role of government in general, and the federal government in particular (Mann and Ornstein 2013, 47).

This part of the analysis is critically important but hastily done. Mann and Ornstein subscribe to the view that there are two Americas — one Red, one Blue, and divided by geography. But it is not as simple as North and South. Other studies have suggested that the real division is between urban and rural America. Democrats gain heavy support from the coastal megalopolises, and also urban centers in supposedly Red states. Republicans, mainwhile, have a disproportionate share of votes in less populated areas, not only in the South, but also in the Midwest and Northeast. “Rural and urban voters live in very different cultures,” the political scientist Seth McKee has observed, and these rural-urban differences have “contributed to massive voter polarization” in recent elections (McKee 2008, 105-106). James Gimpel and Kimberly Karnes agree: “The Democrats are not an attractive party for rural Americans, not only because of their positions on commonly understood issues of morality politics . . . but also because many rural Americans doubt whether typical Democratic economic positions fit with what they believe is true about themselves and the world” (Gimpel and Karnes 2006, 471).

It follows that the conservative Republican agenda can be regarded as an articulation of the policy preferences of a substantial part of the American population. We might well think that those preferences are unsound — but that is an argument about the substance of policy that must be addressed directly. Mann and Ornstein are not inclined to do this. On the contrary, they disavow any interest in advancing “a personal ideological or partisan agenda” (Mann and Ornstein 2013, 185). Instead, Mann and Ornstein launch a sideways assault on conservative policies, which are condemned not because they are wrong, but mainly because they diverge from the mainstream. Today’s Republican Party, Mann and Ornstein say, wants to “rewrite the social contract and the role of government developed and affirmed over a century by both major political parties” (Mann and Ornstein 2013, 216). In a sense, Mann and Ornstein are the true conservatives, but in the Burkean sense. Who are the Republican insurgents, they seem to ask, to question the judgment of history?

Mann and Ornstein present themselves as practical men, exempt from any ideological influence. To use a phrase that recurs throughout the text, they are mainly interested in “problem-solving.” Their credo is one of “sensible centrism” (Mann and Ornstein 2013, 62). They admire politicans who are “pragmatic” and “reasonable” (Mann and Ornstein 2013, 187 and 202). They endorse “the reality” that the welfare state is “here to stay” (Mann and Ornstein 2013, 189). They take it as obvious that the federal government has an obligation to manage the overall economy; invest in infrastructure and research; provide aid to the unemployed, elderly, and disabled; regulate food safety and the provision of healthcare: and protect the environment (Mann and Ornstein 2013, 101, 200, 213-214, 219). Indeed, there is a telling slip in this book: it complains about the “dysfunctionality of American politics” (Mann and Ornstein 2013, 103) but talks almost exclusively about federal politics. There is little said about the condition of state and local governance. The preeminence of the federal role is taken for granted. But this is not an “ideological” position. It is just a fact of life that conservative insurgents should accept, as all reasonable people do.

Pragmatism has its limitations as a philosophy of governance, as this book demonstrates when it considers what might be done to restore the “problem-solving” capabilities of the federal government. The task, as Mann and Ornstein define it, is to consider how institutions in Washington should be redesigned to accommodate the new realities of party politics. But pragmatists are compelled to dismiss reforms that do not meet the test of feasibility. Major constitutional changes are put aside because they are “not possible” (Mann and Ornstein 2013, 163). The odds for passage of critical voting law reforms are “slim to none” (Mann and Ornstein 2013, 142). Passing a new campaign finance law would be desirable but “next to impossible” (Mann and Ornstein 2013, 154), while congressional action to limit lobbying is “unlikely to happen” (Mann and Ornstein 2013, 160). Of course, part of the difficulty is that the very problem (polarization and dysfunctionality) precludes the adoption of many solutions. But another part of the difficulty has to do with the pragmatic mindset. The conservative insurgency is the product of almost four decades of effort, and its power comes partly because it is not hobbled by considerations of immediate practicality. L’audace, said the French revolutionary Georges Danton, Toujours l’audace!

Those reforms that Mann and Ornstein do feel are practicable also seem to be unequal to the problem they have diagnosed. There is heavy emphasis on the need for reform of Senate rules on filibustering, even though the main source of dysfunctionality is said to be the conservative rump in the House of Representatives. There is also a suggestion that Presidents can counter legislative gridlock by the use of executive discretion. Meanwhile “traditional news organizations” — a dying species, remember — are enjoined to report more frankly on Republican obstructionism (Mann and Ornstein 2013, 194-196). Similarly, opinion leaders from institutions “like the military, churches, universities, foundations, business, the media, and public life” are called on to denounce the coarsening of public discourse. But Mann and Ornstein concede that the inventory of influential opinion leaders is “dwindling” (Mann and Ornstein 2013, 180). This particular recommendation has a retro feel to it. It is something that might have been said in the late 1960s: an appeal, in the face of disorder, for the “nation’s leaders” to pull things together.

This may be indicative of the larger problem with this book. In the mid-twentieth century, several factors — included a prolonged state of actual or anticipated war, a healthy and globally-dominant economy, legal and practical restrictions on political participation, and a distinctive blend of print and broadcast communications technologies — combined to give the United States a kind of politics that it had never seen before. This form of politics was distinguished by active federal leadership, a pattern of policymaking through bargaining within well-defined policy communities (Lindblom 1965; Kingdon 2003), and a disavowal of openly “ideological” programs (Bell 2000). It is important to recognize that there was nothing inevitable about the emergence of that form of politics: its existence was a matter of historical contingency. But underlying conditions have changed in ways that are not fully explored in this book, and perhaps that is why the form of national politics is changing as well. If this is the case, then minor institutional reforms are unlikely to restore the status quo ante. It may well be that federal politics is reverting to a form that was familiar before the mid-twentieth century: more sectionalized, antagonistic, and inhospitable to bold initiatives.


Bell, Daniel (2000). The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Gimpel, James G. and Kimberly A. Karnes (2006). “The Rural Side of the Urban-Rural Gap.” PS: Political Science and Politics 39(3): 467-472.

Kingdon, John W. (2003). Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. New York, NY, Longman. 2d.

Lindblom, Charles Edward (1965). The Intelligence of Democracy: Decision Making through Mutual Adjustment. New York, Free Press.

Mann, Thomas E. and Norman J. Ornstein (2013). It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. New York, Basic Books. 1st pbk.

McKee, Seth C. (2008). “Rural Voters and the Polarization of American Presidential Elections.” PS: Political Science and Politics 41(1): 101-108.

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