Yesterday, I attended a session on Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein's new book, It's Worse Than it Looks, hosted by the National Capital Area Political Science Association. Participants included Mann, Matthew Green of Catholic University, and David Karol of the University of Maryland.
Mann and Ornstein's argument, in brief, is that there is a mismatch between our constitutional institutions and our "extreme" political parties. Our institutions are designed to make it hard to change policy, and to require broad support to do so. They are designed to defend against factions. But our political parties today are like parliamentary parties, and so they want to govern as a majority. Since the institutions make that difficult, they obstruct and battle, to little end.
This amounts to laying the blame for the problem at the feet of the parties. They are behaving badly. That sort of characterization bothers me, but more on that below. Mann and Ornstein go on to suggest that the Republican Party is especially to blame, because they, in particular, have become particularly ideologically "extreme"
In response, Matt Green argued that the institutions of the House of Representatives are actually quite well suited to parties such as these. It's the Senate that's the problem. If the Senate requires 60 votes to pass any legislation (because of the threat of a filibuster), and if holds mean that even one senator can block legislation, then a majority party cannot pass its program. In the House, when the majority fails to pass legislation (as has happened, Green points out, both for Democrats and Republicans in recent Congresses), then what we need are stronger, more parliamentary parties.
David Karol expanded on this point on Green's. It's time to concede, he argued, that ideologically distinct parties are "the new normal," which is really the old normal. The period when parties were undisciplined collections of disagreeable members was brief, in the middle part of the 20th century. Otherwise, here and everywhere in the world, we have programmatic parties. So we should design institutions to fit them, not the other way around. Karol praised suggestions to reform or even end the filibuster, but reforms that were designed to blunt the parties rather than fit them are not such a great idea.
I couldn't agree more with Karol on this point. Political parties are endogenous institutions. They respond to the institutions they face, and they will respond. What we should be doing is not complaining that the parties are behaving badly. That's never a solution. We should find ways to change the their incentives, so they do not behave badly, or so that their behavior has better consequences. Since it is impossible to entice policy-motivated people not to fight for policies that they want, we should instead try to design institutions that, judo-like, direct those passions in positive ways.
To make a bold if impractical suggestion, if Mann and Ornstein are correct that we have "parliamentary parties," then perhaps what we need is a parliamentary political system.