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Is our divided political heart even worse than it looks?

Date Published: 06/28/2012

Author: Dane Smith, President


As a St. Paul City Hall newspaper reporter in the early 1980s, I chronicled a stiff resistance by a virtually all-white and all-male fire department against reforms that would allow women and more non-white applicants to have some of those jobs.

Like most mainstream journalists, I tried to give equal space and fair coverage to both sides, on that issue and others. My editors and I strived always to provide balance, even if one side was more intransigent, or inarticulate and lacking in factual foundation, or perhaps even bigoted.

Efforts to weigh the arguments from all sides of every issue should be a first rule of public policymaking and news reporting. And the worsening failure to reach compromise in our federal and state political systems truly is a problem for both Democrats and Republicans. But the tendency of the media and many pundits to declare an equal pox on both houses for chronic deadlock is increasingly off-base, and the extreme right has become the bigger problem.

That’s the blunt and inconvenient verdict from three nationally prominent voices, known for their evenhanded fairness, in two powerfully important new books: “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” and “Our Divided Political Heart.” All three authors, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann in the former case, and E.J. Dionne in the latter, were in Minnesota this month to talk about their work.

Here’s a blockbuster declaration by scholars Ornstein and Mann:

“The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.”

That’s a crucially important statement because Ornstein and Mann are well-known for their centrist and even conservative anchoring. Ornstein works for the American Enterprise Institute, one of the more responsible conservative think tanks. Mann works for the more centrist Brookings Institution and is a former director of the American Political Science Association. Each has a solid reputation for tough independence and fair umpiring in analyzing Congress and the national debate. Both have long been favorites of mainstream national news media that seek credible nonpartisan analysis.

Both acknowledge that they’ve taken considerable risk to their reputations by calling the current situation exactly as they see it. They wrote the book, Ornstein said at a presentation at the University of Minnesota, knowing it “would change our standing and image forever.” But both said they felt they had a responsibility to describe one emperor’s comparative lack of clothing, and to levy more blame for the failure to compromise on the side whose leaders actually often say they are proud of their refusal to compromise.

On the great overriding crisis of budgets and debt, Ornstein and Mann note, one side repeatedly announces that all the tools are on the table, and the other is bound by “no-new-taxes” pledges that remove one of the most important tools from the table.

Ornstein and Mann heaped praise on Republicans and conservatives in the recent past, from former Minnesota Sen. Dave Durenberger, to President Ronald Reagan, to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, for governing effectively and pushing through workable conservative policies, for solving problems and reaching agreements that sometimes involved tax increases. And they noted that Jeb Bush has essentially said the same thing they are saying about extremist control of his party.

Their problem-solving attitude has gone out of fashion with the rise of hyper-partisans such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and anti-government zealot Grover Norquist, Ornstein and Mann said, and now the leaders of the intractable far right are open about wanting the nation and the economy to fail, if that’s what it takes to win.

“Our Divided Political Heart” is highly respectful of conservative thought and provides a sweeping and historical view of the tension between liberty and equality, between individualism and communitarian ideals. Author Dionne describes a personal “affection for the brands of conservatism that emphasize the importance of the social bonds created by tradition, religion, family, and a devotion to place and locality.”

And although he says nice things about the insurgent Tea Party’s efforts to examine the Constitution and American history, Dionne offers a brilliant and balanced reading of that history. With meticulous parsing of the original documents and events, Dionne shows that our national leaders and heroes from the beginning valued not just individual interests, but also national purpose, common good and practical problem-solving.

Dionne warns that “our country has witnessed the rise of a radical form of individualism that simultaneously denigrates the role of government and the importance most Americans attach to the quest for community” while the leaders of the new uncompromising right believe that individuals ought to be “as unencumbered as possible by civic duties and social obligations.”

He further worries about what will replace the century of the “Long Consensus,” begun with Republican President Theodore Roosevelt and progressives and populists who “wrote the social contract for shared prosperity. In the hundred years after [Roosevelt] assumed the presidency in 1901, government grew — but so did individual liberty.”

All three authors recommend a variety of moderating process reforms to address the frightening divide and to move the nation back toward consensus. Some of the reforms, such as campaign finance overhauls and changing the Senate’s filibuster rules, are familiar. Others, such as a national lottery to encourage voter participation, are new.

But all three of these sages urge the news media to somehow do a better job of explaining this “asymmetric polarization” and the revolutionary aspects of an ever harder and more extreme right.

Ornstein and Mann put it this way:

“‘Both sides do it’ or ‘there is plenty of blame to go around’ are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias,” but the larger truth is that “a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is a distortion of reality and a disservice to [their] consumers.”


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, June 28, 2012.

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