Communication Implications of the 'Mann-Ornstein Hypothesis'

Can Framing Overcome Political Scheming?

Climate change is mentioned just once in It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, the new book by respected Washington insiders Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, but the book offers at least two important lessons for climate change communicators.

To those familiar with the history of climate policy in the United States, the complaint sounds familiar: One side in the debate ignores, cherry-picks, or invents facts far more often than the other, but because the press compulsively “balances” its news reporting, the public perceives both sides as equally at fault.

But this was not a scientist criticizing media coverage of climate change. This was Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow at the center-left Brookings Institution, and Norman J. Ornstein, resident scholar of the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), criticizing the media’s coverage of American politics.

Global warming was mentioned only in passing at the Center for American Progress panel discussion for It’s Even Worse Than It Looks (hereafter It’s Even Worse), Mann and Ornstein’s recently published book. Nevertheless, their analysis, which Ornstein’s former AEI colleague Steven F. Hayward calls the “Mann-Ornstein Hypothesis,”* has important implications for communicating climate change.

The Hypothesis

Mann and Ornstein provided a punchy summary of their “hypothesis” in an April 27 op-ed piece in The Washington Post — “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.”

To support their claim that Republicans bear the bulk of responsibility for the gridlock in Washington — which is not to say Democrats are blameless — Mann and Orenstein described moments, like the debt-ceiling debate, when Republican congressional leaders refused to negotiate or compromise and blocked what many independent observers viewed as broadly supported efforts to solve real, even critical, problems.

But one must look to their book for the explanation of the strategy behind these actions. Republicans, they argue, have adopted the no-holds-barred stance of an opposition party in a parliamentary system, while using every procedural tactic provided by America’s very different system of divided government. By exploiting this mismatch between stance and system, one party, in this case Republicans, even when not in full control of Congress or the White House, can effectively shut down the government.

Which means that persuading a majority of Americans, even a significant majority, to take a particular position on an issue is no guarantee that policy action can be taken on that issue.

The Schemers and the Tactics

Mann and Ornstein trace the roots of America’s current political dysfunction as far back as the post-WWII years, but they focus on the congresses during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama presidencies. The key actors are Republican representatives John Boehner of Ohio, Eric Cantor of Virginia, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky … and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

To Newt Gingrich they attribute the original strategy, which he first articulated after he was elected to the House in 1978, “to so intensify public hatred of Congress that voters would buy into the notion of the need for sweeping change.” In 1994, voters did buy into that notion, electing the first Republican House majority in 40 years, fueled at least in part by the rhetoric of Gingrich’s “Contract with America.”

By 2010, however, when Republicans again won a majority in the House, Gingrich’s self-serving tactics had become an ideology. The newly elected members, led by Majority Leader Cantor and only partially controlled by House Speaker Boehner, were prepared to let the government default on its debt — as a matter of principle.

Two decades of heated rhetoric had led to non-negotiable convictions — which now demanded strident measures. Mann and Ornstein cite Grover Norquist’s No-Tax Pledge to illustrate how “true” conservatism was now measured as a result of this cycle. And they note that even Senator McConnell, who in 2010 had said the defeat of Obama in 2012 was “the single most important thing [Republicans] want to achieve,” could still wish to see the brinksmanship of the House curbed.

These strident philosophies and the strategies that ensued had become possible in part because the two major political parties had become isolated. When he became Speaker of the House, Gingrich urged newly elected members of his majority not to move their families to Washington. One effect: weakened social bonds among members of Congress, especially those of opposing parties. The rise of cable and the Internet then allowed members to choose separate “news worlds” for themselves and their constituents, reinforcing existing political preferences and biases. Closed primaries, in which only the most committed voters participate, have further reinforced the boundaries of these worlds.

It was in the Senate, however, that the tactics of obstruction could be seen most clearly. And of the many made possible by the extra-constitutional rules of the Senate, Mann and Ornstein focus in particular on the filibuster. As a measure of the dramatic increase in its use to block or slow action in the Senate, they include a graph that documents a ten-fold increase in cloture motions from 1965 to the present. (A more detailed version of that graph can be found here.)

Change the Message or Change the Delivery System?

It’s Even Worse recounts several instances when significant majorities were unable to pass a bill because a Republican minority successfully used Senate procedural rules to block a vote. In one telling example, several Republican senators voted against a resolution they themselves had originally co-sponsored. Clearly, framing was not the problem. Thus Mann and Ornstein’s recommendations are focused not on crafting better messages but on reducing the isolation of the parties and on limiting the tools of obstructionism.

To reduce isolation, Mann and Ornstein recommend (1) making it easier for citizens both to register and to vote, (2) increasing the power of the center by reforming rules for redistricting and by changing to open primaries, and (3) reforming campaign financing.

To limit the opportunities for obstruction, they stress the need to restore simple majority rule to the Senate by making filibusters more difficult to initiate and sustain, and by restricting individual members’ often anonymous “holds” and other impediments to the nomination process.

Achieving these objectives will likely also require moving public opinion. But Mann and Ornstein’s analysis implies that campaigns aimed at changing major public policies, such as those dealing with climate change, will succeed only if they are paired with campaigns to change public processes.

One or Two Steps Left of the New Right?

A careful reading of It’s Even Worse suggests an outcome not discussed in the book. Simply put, if the Republican Party has moved as sharply to the right as described, then AEI, unless it moved in tandem, is now at least one step to the left of the party’s newly emergent right.

When Ornstein’s colleague, Karlyn Bowman, introduced him for an AEI debate in June — “Is the Republican Party Too Extreme?” — she had used the simple fact that an AEI resident scholar had co-authored It’s Even Worse to argue that AEI remains true to its motto: “The competition of ideas is fundamental to a free society.”

But Ornstein’s critical views of the Republican Party are not the only hints that AEI’s position on the political spectrum may have shifted. For instance, Ornstein’s opponent in that debate, Steven F. Hayward, author and a former fellow at AEI, had also critiqued the current state of American conservatism — in an article for the Fall 2011 issue of The Breakthrough Journal.

And other AEI events from the summer also may hint at a relative shift in AEI’s position, at least in so far as climate change is concerned, on Washington’s “inside-the-Beltway” ideological spectrum:

The cumulative effect of these “environmentally-friendly” events is perhaps counter-balanced by the July 27 appearance of Robert Zubrin, author of Merchants of Despair. Zubrin’s presentation offered a vivid example of how darkly some conservatives still view environmentalism. (For this very reason, environmentalists should view it). But in the Q&A that followed, Zubrin was challenged — from his left — on several points: evolutionary theory, environmental regulation, and the social benefits of The Pill.

Two steps left, one step right for AEI?

The Implications

In their contribution to the new issue of Democracy, Mann and Ornstein further distill their argument: “Parliamentary-like parties in a separation-of-powers government are a formula for willful obstruction and policy irresolution.”

This is the formula now followed by one of the two major parties in our system. Thus some portion of the polarization now being analyzed in communication journals, the Mann-Ornstein Hypothesis implies, can be attributed to choices made by GOP leaders over the past 30 years.

Within such a dysfunctional setting, framing, while almost certainly necessary, is insufficient. Virtually all studies on framing or re-framing climate change presume that democracy works; Mann and Ornstein argue that our democracy no longer is working — at least not properly.

In their new article, Mann and Ornstein also again highlight the difficulties these circumstances pose for journalists: It’s hard to see dysfunction once it has become the norm, and it is hard to assign responsibility in an ongoing series of actions and reactions. But, they repeat, “an artificially balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is a distortion of reality and a disservice to the public.” So another implication of the Mann-Ornstein Hypothesis is that reports of the demise of “balance as bias” may be premature.

Bottom line: In the broken system described by Mann and Ornstein, a system in which a minority can repeatedly block and even nullify the choices of the majority, better messaging tactics are not the answer. Framing alone cannot overcome scheming.

Thus Mann and Ornstein would likely agree with Matthew Nisbet’s and Dietram Scheufele’s recent caution against liberal “hyperpartisanship.” Balancing the extremes, by more aggressive messaging on the left, will not strengthen the center. To do that, those engaged in the ongoing deliberations must also tackle important process issues. And thanks in no small measure to Mann and Ornstein’s It’s Even Worse, more official and unofficial policy wonks in and beyond Washington may be doing just that.

*Hayward shortened this to “The Mann-stein Hypothesis.”

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Writing at The George Washington University with a long interest in climate change communications. (E-mail: msvoboda@yaleclimatemediaforum.org)
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