The Limits of “Sensible Centrism”

Published date01 November 2014
AuthorAlasdair Roberts
Date01 November 2014
804 Public Administration Review • November | December 2014
Book Reviews
Alasdair Roberts is professor of law at
Suffolk University Law School in Boston. His
most recent book is
The End of Protest: How
Free-Market Capitalism Learned to Control
(Cornell University Press, 2013).
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 6, pp. 804–806. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12300.
formed to challenge “hegemonic Democratic control
… of national policy making,” the core message of
the movement was that national political institutions
could not be trusted (58).  e stridency of national
political discourse was intensif‌i ed as print and
broadcast media were supplanted by talk radio, cable
television, and Internet-based social media. Mann and
Ornstein say that we are witnessing the “return of a
nineteenth century partisan press” (xv). Added to this
is the breakdown of controls over the f‌l ow of money
into politics, through lobbying as well as campaign
But the authors also suggest that troubles in
Washington have deeper roots. In the South, con-
servatives f‌l ed from the Democratic to the Republican
Party, increasing the ideological gap between the two
groups. And the conservative Sun Belt states gained
inf‌l uence as jobs and people migrated from Northern
states. Mann and Ornstein suggest that conservative
Southerners drew dif‌f erent lessons from the cultural
and political tumult of the 1960s than did Northern
Democrats.  ey are now less tolerant of secularism,
threats to public order, and federal activism. Party
platforms ref‌l ect this fundamental division in atti-
tudes about the role of government in general and the
federal government in particular (47).
is part of the analysis is critically important but hast-
ily done. Mann and Ornstein subscribe to the view that
there are two Americas—one red, one blue, and divided
by geography. But it is not as simple as North and
South. Other studies have suggested that the real divi-
sion is between urban and rural America. Democrats
gain heavy support from the coastal megalopolises and
urban centers in supposedly red states. Republicans,
meanwhile, have a disproportionate share of votes in
less populated areas, not only in the South but also in
the Midwest and Northeast. “Rural and urban voters
live in very dif‌f erent cultures,” the political scientist
Seth McKee has observed, and these rural–urban dif‌f er-
ences have “contributed to massive voter polarization
in recent elections (2008, 105–6). James Gimpel and
omas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, It’s
Even Worse than It Looks: How the American
Constitutional System Collided with the New
Politics of Extremism (New York: Basic Books, 2013).
248 pp. $26.00 (cloth), ISBN: 9780465031337;
$16.99 (paper), ISBN: 9780465074730.
In It’s Even Worse than It Looks: How the American
Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics
of Extremism, omas E. Mann and Norman J.
Ornstein provide a sobering description of how politics
in Washington has coarsened over the span of a genera-
tion. Today, the authors warn, “America’s capacity to
govern” is under threat (xvii).  ey have some practical
suggestions on how to make Washington work better.
But the remedies may be unequal to the underlying
problem: a profound shift in the structure of American
politics and attitudes about the role of the federal
government in American life.
For Mann and Ornstein, the clearest sign of dysfunc-
tionality in Washington is the inability to solve prob-
lems—evidenced by deadlock over the federal budget
and the debt ceiling during 2011, which resulted in
a downgrading of the United States’ credit rating by
Standard & Poor’s. But there are other symptoms, too,
such as the decline of goodwill among legislators and
the collapse of “regular order” in the legislative branch
as parties bend rules to seek short-term political
advantages. Mann and Ornstein think that the United
States is acquiring “parliamentary parties”—cohesive,
highly adversarial groupings—that are ill suited to a
system in which the minority party has ample oppor-
tunity to jam up the works.  ey place particular
blame on the Republican Party, which they describe
as an “insurgent outlier”—ideologically extreme and
determined to “reverse decades of economic and social
policy by any means necessary” (132).
Mann and Ornstein lay out some of the proximate
causes of this sorry state of af‌f airs.  ey describe the
emergence of a new conservative movement in the late
1970s and its growth over the next 30 years. Initially
e Limits of “Sensible Centrism”
Sonia M. Ospina and Rogan Kersh, Editors
Alasdair Roberts
Suffolk University Law School

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