How the Republicans Broke Congress

Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein nail what’s broken in our politics today in an op-ed for The New York Times:

If in 2006 one could cast aspersions on both parties, over the past decade it has become clear that it is the Republican Party — as an institution, as a movement, as a collection of politicians — that has done unique, extensive and possibly irreparable damage to the American political system.

The only problem I have with this setup is calling out the year 2006 as a time when one could cast aspersions on both parties. For example, after routing Republicans in congressional elections that year, and facing a historically unpopular President Bush who incompetently blundered the nation into a never-ending conflict in Iraq, Democrats refrained from impeaching him and instead trusted they would win the presidency in 2008. In other words, they let the appropriately allowed the electoral process to play out. In 1998, however, a Republican Congress impeached President Clinton for lying about having an affair with an intern during a deposition. This was a minor matter of no national importance, but the Republican Party hated Clinton so much that they were willing to impeach him over almost anything.

If one accepts that at any given time both parties indulge in a certain amount of lying, cheating, and stealing as part of the day-to-day of politics, what we’re talking about today with the Republican Party is something different. I’ve been following politics closely since the 1992 presidential election. During that time, there has been an obvious march of the Republican Party to the right. As it’s gotten more conservative, it’s also gotten more intransigent. It’s now completely unwilling to compromise; has developed a view of Democrats and liberals not as political opponents who simply have a different view of, say, tax policy, but rather as being fundamentally un-American.

The authors go on to describe this shift:

First, beginning in the 1990s, the Republicans strategically demonized Congress and government more broadly and flouted the norms of lawmaking, fueling a significant decline of trust in government that began well before the financial collapse in 2008, though it has sped up since. House Republicans showed their colors when they first blocked passage of the Troubled Asset Relief Plan, despite the urgent pleas of their own president, George W. Bush, and the speaker of the House, John Boehner. The seeds of a (largely phony) populist reaction were planted.
Second, there was the “Obama effect.” When Mr. Bush became president, Democrats worked with him to enact sweeping education reform early on and provided the key votes to pass his top priority, tax cuts. With President Barack Obama, it was different. While many argued that the problem was that Mr. Obama failed to schmooze enough with Republicans in Congress, we saw a deliberate Republican strategy to oppose all of his initiatives and frame his attempts to compromise as weak or inauthentic. The Senate under the majority leader Mitch McConnell weaponized the filibuster to obstruct legislation, block judges and upend the policy process. The Obama effect had an ominous twist, an undercurrent of racism that was itself embodied in the “birther” movement led by Donald Trump.


Third, we have seen the impact of significant changes in the news media, which had a far greater importance on the right than on the left. The development of the modern conservative media echo chamber began with the rise of Rush Limbaugh and talk radio in the late 1980s and ramped up with the birth of Fox News. Matt Drudge, his protégé Andrew Breitbart and Breitbart’s successor Steve Bannon leveraged the power of the internet to espouse their far-right views. And with the advent of social media, we saw the emergence of a radical “alt-right” media ecosystem able to create its own “facts” and build an audience around hostility to the establishment, anti-immigration sentiment and racial resentment. Nothing even close to comparable exists on the left.

This is inarguable. The question is what to do about it. In my opinion, it’s long overdue for Democrats and liberals to start being very tough not just with Congressional Republicans, but with the entire right-wing media establishment that enables them. It’s an ideological struggle as important as the ideological struggle against fascism and communism were, and should be treated accordingly.