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The Trouble with Mann & Ornstein’s “The Republicans Are the Problem” Frame

Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute have a must-read essay in today’s Washington Post titled “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem.” At the core of their argument is that Republicans in Congress have veered so far to the right, that the GOP deserves the majority of the blame for Washington’s dysfunction.

I agree with much of their analysis, and if you follow politics, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of their new book detailing their argument. Congressional Democrats today as they put it, might be on the 25 yard line ideologically, but Republicans are on the goal line, and Tea Party members are out of the end zone.  I also share their conclusion that where there is strong expert agreement on issues — such as the human causes of climate change — journalists should steer clear of false balance. And I agree that when it comes to characterizing the party most responsible for gridlock, media analysts should emphasize the role of the GOP.

But I think the biggest weakness in their argument is their overall frame. It’s not that Republicans shouldn’t be deservedly blamed for America’s political dysfunction, it’s what the “us versus the radical fringe” narrative enables.

In short, if as liberals and moderates we focus all of our analysis and anger on the “other,” it’s too easy to overlook our own contributions to polarization and paralysis, even when they are less severe than our conservative opponents.  More importantly, its liberals and moderates who are the most capable of investing in what is needed to repair our political culture, but we need to think systematically about what this would mean, and devote the resources. Going on 15 years, we have yet to do so, but the post-election period offers the opportunity.

Starting in the early 2000s, liberals built their own billionaire donor networks, their own self-styled “left wing conspiracy” and “liberal message machine,” pouring vast resources into the creation of purposively created echo chambers.  In elections, they adopted and advanced many of the same base mobilization strategies pioneered by Karl Rove and the Bush team.

The result is a civic culture dominated by two financial Goliaths devoting billions to an ideological arms race, with each election cycle promising more spending, ever more advanced “my side” communication strategies, and ever more extreme rhetoric.

Polarization is not like the stock market, something that is going to right itself in a year or two.  Like climate change, it’s a massively complex problem that we need to manage through a variety of approaches.  The strategy of liberals to invest almost exclusively in an ideological arms race with conservatives runs counter to this reality, amplifying polarization rather than mitigating it.

I will have more on what it would mean post-2012 to invest in rebuilding our civic culture and political system in later posts.


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