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Norm Ornstein warns politicial parties have moved beyond polarization

In a talk at the University of Minnesota, Ornstein says the political climate is a “threat to the overall fabric of American democracy and society.”

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.

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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.”