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Congressional dysfunction focus of Ford School forum

Paul Sherman/Daily
University alum Thomas Mann discusses the polarization of Congress at the Union on Tuesday. Buy this photo

By Molly Block, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 27, 2012

Though University students often have the opportunity to hear from a wide range of political persuasions, attendees of an event hosted by the Ford School of Public Policy had the chance to discuss American politics with governmental experts that lean toward the radical side.

Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, political scientists and University alumni, examined how partisan polarization in Congress is plaguing the American government during a discussion on Tuesday at the Michigan Union. Both men find two primary problems endangering the American political system: polarized political parties inhibiting action and unequal responsibilities of each side. They said these issues create “asymmetric polarization,” a situation in which Republicans deny Democrats anything that may help them politically at any cost.

“They have become ideologically extreme, contentious of the inherited policy regime going all the way back to Roosevelt — and I mean Theodore, not Franklin — scornful of compromise, skeptical of facts, of evidence, of science, and simply dismissive of the legitimacy of the political opposition,” Mann said.

Public approval ratings for Congress are currently at an all-time low and Democrats and Republicans have increasingly struggled to compromise on the nation’s critical issues. Mann and Ornstein said they believe Republicans have become more extreme and opposed to recognized social and economic policies, which in turn has caused citizens to raise concern with their elected officials.

Ornstein suggested that increased public participation and a restructuring of both houses of the U.S. Congress could remedy the problems currently plaguing Congress. He said he hopes the media and general public will learn to reinforce positive policies and diminish deadlocks to ensure a functional democracy.

“We do believe that some of the ways out of this are external to the Congress or politics in Washington,” Ornstein said. “First among them, we want to make voting easier and we want to enlarge the electorate.”

Mann added that party polarization also must be addressed, and said each party needs to better focus their visions and squash extreme factions like the Tea Party.

“In the end, it’s going to take voters sending signals to the party that strayed too much while keeping the other one true to its mission and its promises to bring them back to the mainstream world of American politics,” Mann said. “Without doing that, nothing can be enacted or implemented effectively.”

Public Policy Dean Susan Collins said she found the session to be entertaining, particularly Ornstein’s jokes about Big Bird’s “near death experience” during the election, in which Mitt Romney claimed he would cut funding to PBS programming if elected during the second presidential debate last month.

“I thought they did an excellent job of summarizing some of the challenges we are facing, but also offering some concrete suggestions,” Collins said. “And they did it with some humor as well as some history.”

In addition to being comical, Collins said Mann and Ornstein were also easily understood by the audience.

“Their responses were accessible to students who might not know much about political science, but may be worried about what is going on in Congress,” Collins said. “I liked the extent to which they went beyond the book, specifically their discussion of the past election.”

Public Policy graduate student Claire Hutchinson said she was glad to see University alumni returning to campus to educate current students.

“It’s awesome that they’re Michigan grads and they’re back and excited to be back,” Hutchinson said. “It’s also really interesting that they’re from very different political think tanks in terms of ideology, which is great and interesting and unique. I could have listened to them talk all day.”

Hutchinson also said she appreciated their perspective on Capitol Hill.

“They had a lot of insight as to where the political gridlock is occurring and they did a really great job providing anecdotal stories about what they’re seeing in D.C. now,” Hutchinson said.


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