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Norm Ornstein warns politicial parties have moved beyond polarization

Norman Ornstein
Peter Holden/Basic BooksNorman Ornstein

In their 2012 book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” political scientists Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann argued that growing Republican extremism in Congress threatened to undermine basic elements of the U.S. political culture and render the government dysfunctional.

In light of the recent shutdown/debt-limit imbroglio, Ornstein cracked in a talk Thursday at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey school, he’d like to rename the new edition of the book “It’s Even Worse Than It Was.”

The growing political polarization is so bad that Ornstein called it “a threat to the overall fabric of American democracy and society.”

“Our long national nightmare is over – for two months,” Ornstein cracked at the beginning of his talk. In fact, Ornstein opened his talk with dark comedy routine based on the imbroglio (or does one mean “brouhaha”), and I’ll save the bottom of this post for several of his one-liners, which we can use about now.

Ornstein’s serious analysis was not much different from the book. The parties have become polarized, and have moved beyond polarization — where there is simply strong, uncompromising disagreement about how to run the country — to “tribalism,” which Ornstein said translates to an attitude of “if you’re for it, I’m against it, even if I was for it yesterday.”

Most movement on GOP side

But most of the movement toward the poles has occurred on the Republican side. Washington works best when the two parties are set up on opposing 40 yard lines, arguing over conflicting ideas that are all pretty close to midfield. Democrats may have moved to their 25-yard line, but “Republicans have backed up to behind their own goal line,” he said.

The Republican Party used to be a coalition of conservatives and moderates, but it is now a coalition of “conservatives and radicals,” he said. The furthest-right Republicans increasingly blind themselves to any benefit of anything government does and seemingly would be “perfectly happy to have government just disappear.”

On the Republican side in Congress, those who feel vulnerable to primary challenges, and those who seek higher office, feel they have to move farther and farther right. He noted that when the bill finally passed Wednesday to raise the debt limit and restore basic government funding, many Republicans voted for it, but every vulnerable Republican senator and every potential Republican presidential candidate voted no.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale joined Ornstein (who is, by the way, a native of St. Louis Park) during a panel after Ornstein’s opening remarks. Mondale talked mostly about his own years in Washington when, he said, there were obviously big partisan and ideological differences, but members of Congress remained able to compromise and come together for the greater good.

The funny part

Now the jokes, all from Ornstein’s opening:

  • Approval of Congress is down to about 8 percent. John McCain is fond of saying that those who approve are down to “blood relatives and paid staff.”
  • Ornstein said he watched much of Sen. Ted Cruz’ 21-hour filibuster on the Senate floor recently, and “about 19 hours into it, I thought a government shutdown looked pretty good.”
  • Ornstein said that House Speaker John Boehner had complained about President Obama constantly claiming that Republican tactics amounted to holding the government hostage. “That’s just completely wrong,” Boehner said (according to Ornstein’s joke), and that just shows that the president “obviously hadn’t accurately read our latest ransom note.”
  • Because of the shutdown, Ornstein said, the White House had to furlough Obama’s teleprompters, and when the staff told him this, “the president was speechless.”
  • Things got so bad for Obama during the shutdown that “Jimmy Carter went on national television and compared him to Jimmy Carter.”
  • The early stages of the crisis coincided with the last episode of the TV series “Breaking Bad,” which is about a high school chemistry teacher who gets cancer and, in order to pay for his treatments, sets up a meth lab — or, Ornstein cracked, “as some of us call it, the Republican alternative to Obamacare.”

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Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Paul Linnee on 10/18/2013 - 11:30 am.

    Ornstein not a native of St. Louis Park


    As a St. Louis Park native, I am just as inclined as the next guy to claim all persons famous and smart as natives of and beneficiaries of the fumes/water of the old creosote plant in SLP (Friedman, The Coens, etc.), but, alas, Ornstein was born in Grand Rapids, MN. But he did GROW UP in St. Louis park, so I guess some of those old creosote fumes might have impacted him after all.

    The source for this info is none other than the SLP Historical Society.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/18/2013 - 12:07 pm.

    The really funny part

    is that with all the talk about “extremists” and “far-right radicals” etc., when you honestly boil it all down, the disagreement is between people who want to reel in government spending that has resulted in a $17 trillion debt, and people who want to spend even more than that, and raise taxes to do it.

    Now, who are the extremists again?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/18/2013 - 01:21 pm.

      Or let’s say

      return taxes to more historically typical levels when the economy was healthier.
      And note: Federal spending has decreased dramatically. The biggest increase has been municipal spending; partly to make up for the cuts in federal spending.

      As I’ve noted before, the current deficits are in large part an artifact of depressed employment levels, which in turn put a drain on local social services while decreasing tax revenues.

      And of course the biggest source of government spending that should be cut are ‘defense’ boondoggles such as the F-35 which even the military doesn’t want.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/18/2013 - 01:49 pm.


        is it an “extremist” position to suggest that we should live within our means? Is it “extremist” to suggest that $17 trillion is an outrageous sum to leave to our descendants? Because, you and I won’t be paying for it. The irony is, the young people who will pay for it with smaller paychecks and more government control over their lives seem to be the least aware and/or concerned. We have raised a generation of sheep.

        • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 10/21/2013 - 08:10 am.

          republican deficits

          It is true that deficits are a problem, but where did they start? I think Carter’s deficits were still under 100B a year. The deficit really started to explode as a result of the tax cuts under the mathematically faulty system of Reaganomics and the absurd idea that reducing taxes would raise revenues. Then just when the centrist democrats and Clinton got a handle on the deficits, the republicans started the unfunded Iraq war. Bush, deciding that wasn’t enough to wreck the economy and make his friends rich, pushed for deregulation of banks and other financial entities, creating the recent recession and the cuts in revenues due to that and further tax cuts.

          The basic “conservative” republican plan seems to be: cut taxes, then complain about the deficit that causes, then demand spending cuts to social programs and further tax cuts to encourage the “job creators”. Thanks for pointing out the disaster of republican policies.

    • Submitted by Tom Lynch on 10/18/2013 - 05:38 pm.

      It’s amazing

      That Republicans complain about the terrible debt but never acknowledge that 80% of it was run up under the last 3 GOP presidents and their policies. We’re still paying off debts from the Reagan administration. It’s almost as if they ran up the debt on purpose?? Starve the beast, anyone?

      The only two presidents to lower the deficit in the past 30 years were named Clinton and Obama. Save your “concern” about the debt and deficit.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/18/2013 - 09:46 pm.


        Bush left office with an $8 trillion national debt. After 5 years of Obama it’s now $17 trillion.

        Newt Gingrich shut down the government to force Clinton to sign the first of four balanced budgets. Now Clinton and his defenders are actually taking credit for balancing the budget.


        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/19/2013 - 02:53 pm.

          That’s because

          he was conducting two wars ‘off budget’ — that is, hiding the cost from the American public. When the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan were made part of the official budget, the deficit increased correspondingly.
          But of course you know that.

        • Submitted by Tom Lynch on 10/19/2013 - 04:33 pm.

          Try $11 trillion

          That’s a more accurate amount of the debt that Bush left us. After inheritng an economy that was running 4 straight budget surpluses.

          And the disastrous effects of his and GOP congresses actions didn’t magically end on Jan. 20, 2009. The tax cuts, unpaid for wars, unpaid for Medicare drug program, and especially the Bush Near Depression continued(and continue) into the Obama administration. And are the main driver of any debt that has risen over the past 4.5 years. Obama policies, other than a needed but too small $800 billion stimulus, have had a very small part of any debt increase as the deficit has fallen faster than any time since WWII. A bad thing with over 7% unemployment.

          The debt and deficit are hardly this country’s main problem.

  3. Submitted by Stephen Dent on 10/18/2013 - 01:00 pm.

    Thanks, Eric…

    a great read. And what is it about St. Louis Park? So many intelligence, articulate, funny people from there…Franken, Coen Brothers, Friedman, and my friends Jerrold Gershoen and Chuck Johnston…to name a few. I want to be from St. Louis Park!

  4. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 10/18/2013 - 02:31 pm.

    There’s actually research on this…

    …by Keith Poole of the Univ. of Georgia and Howard Rosenthal of NYU. They’ve “spent decades charting the ideological shifts and polarization of the political parties in Congress from the 18th century until now to get the view of how the political landscape has changed from 30,000 feet up. What they have found is that the Republican Party is the most conservative it has been a century.”

    Poole says,

    “…the Republicans have moved further to the right than the Democrats have moved to the left. That’s absolutely true.

    “On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be much impetus on the part of the leadership of either political party to really do something serious about our budget crisis. I doubt very seriously we’ll see much improvement.”

    The Democrats are not on the 25 yard line. In fact, they’ve barely budged from the 40. The Republicans have been taken over by religious crazies, market fundamentalists and neoconfederate bigots, and are now spinning footballs on their heads in the end zone.

    I’ll never understand–or perhaps I understand all too well–the curious and frequently criticized media habit of finding “balance” where none exists. There is no controversy over evolution, or that smoking can cause cancer, or that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, not a few thousand, or that climate change is largely human-caused and is a serious problem. Nor can it be credibly claimed that the Democrats are anywhere near as extreme–they aren’t extreme at all on really anything–as the Republicans.

  5. Submitted by jason myron on 10/18/2013 - 05:58 pm.


    please get off the myth that Republicans are more fiscally responsible. The only time they care about spending is when there’s a Dem in the White House. Reagan exploded the debt and you people revere him like a God….and where was your Tea Party when Bush spent money like a drunken sailor? Blissfully dozing on the couch apparently. All you people have left is bumper sticker rhetoric, school yard taunts like “low information voter” and conspiracy theories to try and rationalize your plunging popularity Eventually, you’ll need to come out of the bunker and join the rest of the country in working towards moving society forward…. that means compromise.

  6. Submitted by Barbara Gilbertson on 10/19/2013 - 09:28 am.

    (NOTE: I lived in St. Louis Park for eleven years — four of those across the street from the Coen brothers. Ergo, I am marginally intelligent and moderately amusing, likely via osmosis.)

    This from a New Yorker article:

    “Tea Party extremism is not, as this implies, a betrayal of the party’s belief system. It is, instead, a crystallization, a highly potent concentrate, of the party’s belief system…But it cannot be expelled, because in this case the parasite is a creation—in some ways a perfection—of the host organism itself.”

    Now I am going to go all Friedman on you (Edwin, not Thomas, one with no roots in SLP, far as I know).

    In my Eaganish opinion, what this all boils down to is systemic dysfunction of the highest magnitude. Systemic rot, if you will. And one of the primary goals of a dysfunctional system is to keep up appearances at all costs. “We’re poster people for a normal, seamlessly operating family, organization, church, government.”

    Once the core of the dysfunction is outed, all hell breaks loose. Not only the rotting core but the whole darn system. Shame, blame, chaos ensues.

    What follows then is intervention (sometimes). Big challenge wrt GOP, because the whole org is infected. And if one believes the premise of the NYorker article (I do), the larger org did not “catch” this from the current batch of radical zealots. No. It incubated it.

    Blah, blah, blah.

    So now what? The elephant in the corner has been fully exposed for what it is. It is neither docile nor contrite. It’s snorting and stomping. It’s cornered in its corner.

    Overworked metaphor.

    And so I say again, “Now what?” Seriously. Next concrete steps. My inner genius is tapped out.

  7. Submitted by John Clark on 10/19/2013 - 06:03 pm.

    Does any party really practice “living within our means”?

    I would have to agree with your observation, Dennis, about the national debt being a burden for future generations, especially with the current trajectory it is on. And “living within our means” is certainly a very noble goal. But BOTH parties, especially the Republican Party, have violated this principle.

    When looking at the debt as a percentage of the total GDP, a low of about 30 % occurred at the end of the Carter administration. This contrasts to an all time high of about 120% in 1946. But the debts biggest single jump after the war occurred after Reagan’s policy of Supply Side Economics, or “Voodoo Economics” as Bush Sr. put it, where it more than doubled to over 60%.

    Recent liberal policies have probably done little to actively address the worsening debt situation. I believe this is especially true of policies that follow the advice of Paul Krugman, who advocates letting the debt rise until after a full recovery. But conservative’s blind adherence to the no new tax mantra, which is part of the standard supply side rhetoric, creates huge obstacles in resolving the debt problem.

    Somehow, the notion of compromise (yes, that does mean MORE taxes, and less spending) must enter the vocabulary, or the slope of the trajectory will continue in the wrong direction, with unpredictable consequences. And an aging population, together with an aging infrastructure, that are both going to need upkeep (read money!), are going to make reaching a REAL solution even more imperative.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/20/2013 - 09:05 am.

      With an effective corporate

      tax rate of about 6%, our means are currently a lot higher than our standard of living.
      That’s why our infrastructure is in a bad state of decay.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/20/2013 - 09:56 am.

      Voodoo economics

      is nothing more than free market capitalism. George Bush had no idea how it worked because he had spent his entire life as a federal bureaucrat dealing in foreign policy.

      The idea is to grow the economy, by reducing taxes and regulation to encourage the formation of new business enterprise and the expansion of existing ones. This creates jobs and generates tax revenue from those new taxpayers.

      “Supply side economics” simply means “build it and they will come.” Apple computer’s products weren’t the result of consumer demand, they were the result of invention, innovation and knowing who your potential customers are. Google stock is now selling for $1000 a share and is employing tens of thousands of people with a product that virtually no consumers were demanding.

      Keynesians would have you believe that the way to grow the economy is to take money out of the hands of the people and have the government decide the best way to “invest” it for the people and that only consumer demand for existing products and services can expand an economy. That’s because no Keynesians ever invented anything and so they don’t get it.

      The point is, the people in charge of the economy haven’t seen it grow for 5 years because they don’t understand how it works. They don’t even realize that tax revenue is best increased through a growing, expanding economy, not by raising taxes on the people who create jobs. And listening to academics who get paid from the government isn’t going to change matters.

      The only hope that the American people have is that somebody will try to minimize the damage that this administration is causing. And fortunately for us, we have patriots who are position to make that happen.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/20/2013 - 08:31 pm.

        Which George Bush are you referring to?

        Your description does not match either George W or George H W., unless a naval aviator serving in combat is a federal bureaucrat. After that he was in the oil business, earning the money that bought his son Texas. Then he was elected to Congress. It was later in his career that he directed federal agencies.

        And the economics describe as ‘voodoo’ (tax cuts to increase revenue) tanked the economy when Reagan applied them at the beginning of his first term. He quickly reversed course and the economy recovered.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/20/2013 - 08:49 pm.

        Speaking of Laffer

        there’s a nice graph in his recent article at

        showing when the recent increase in federal spending occurred.
        (hint: it was under the regime of the former owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team; a private business).

        • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/23/2013 - 04:34 pm.

          Reagan Taxes

          Actually the Reagan administration constructed one of the biggest tax increases in history. They decreased the tax RATE, which is what everyone remembers today. But at the same time they eliminated a lot of loopholes and deductions in the tax code, which made the tax restructuring revenue positive for the federal government. It still wasn’t enough to offset the massive increase in defense spending though, which is why the deficit increased.

          Incidentally, Reagan’s defense spending increases amounted to a huge stimulus plan. All those ships, tanks, and planes were built here in the U.S., which put a lot of people back to work.

          The part where Reaganomics fell apart was at some point the taxes were supposed to be increased, thereby capturing additional revenue from all the new economic activity. That never happened, so the deficit simply mushroomed out of control and Republicans tried to cover it up by saying “deficits don’t matter anymore.” Hey, if you can’t solve a problem, pretend the problem is irrelevant!

          Now when it suits their purpose, Republicans again claim that deficits are a horrible monster that needs to be controlled immediately. Once we get another Republican in office they’ll either decide deficits don’t matter anymore or they need to pare it down by putting the cuts on the backs of the poor.

          Wash, rinse, buy another aircraft carrier, and repeat.

  8. Submitted by John Clark on 10/20/2013 - 07:41 pm.

    Voodoo economics isn’t goint to balance the budget

    I don’t want to get bogged down here, Dennis, in a debate about the pros and cons of supply side economics vs. demand side economics. There certainly are a wide range of opinions on these ideologies, and this discussion would be about as futile as trying to objectively discuss the pros and cons of different theologies (or atheologies!). The main point I was trying to make is that, if one is genuinely concerned about lowering the national debt, and living with our means, then perhaps, a REALISTIC approach is what is needed. This simply means LESS spending, and you may not like to hear this, MORE taxes. And “voodoo economics” isn’t going to get us there.

    The reason Bush Sr. called Reagan’s economic philosophies “voodoo economics” is that Bush did not believe that the national coffers would be overflowing with money if we simply gave wealthy individuals huge tax breaks. And of course, voodoo economics said we could continue to increase spending on the military at the same time, with no negative consequences on balancing the budget. This strategy simply did not work! After WWII, the biggest increase in the budget deficit, percentagewise, was accrued during the Reagan administration, using this political dogma.

    Perhaps no one sums up what happened better than the main architect of Reagan’s economic philosophy, David Stockman. He says: “This debt explosion has resulted not from big spending by the Democrats, but instead the Republican Party’s embrace, about three decades ago, of the insidious doctrine that deficits don’t matter if they result from tax cuts.

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