Norman Ornstein: U.S. Political Culture Has Veered Away From Problem-Solving

The U.S. political landscape has changed dramatically over the last 15 to 20 years, leading to a sharp polarization of the two main parties and to new challenges in developing effective science policy, political science expert Norman Ornstein told a AAAS audience.

“As much as anything, the difference is in a mindset [that] says there’s no need or reason to compromise,” said Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and coauthor of the 2012 book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How The American Constitutional System Collided With The New Politics Of Extremism. “That is not consistent with what the framers [of the Constitution] had in mind…or with a culture of problem solving.”

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Norman Ornstein

Ornstein spoke at AAAS on 10 April as part of the AAAS Science & Technology Fellowships 2013 Distinguished Speaker Series. Cynthia Robinson, director of the fellowships program, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, said that the series will examine the role of science in policy, how it can make a difference, and how it can be better leveraged to enhance policies.

“We’re working under some serious new constraints,” such as the recent sequestration of the federal budget, Robinson said. “Having the bigger political picture will help people in the trenches,” including the S&T Policy Fellows.

The sharp, geographical polarization of the current political landscape holds its roots in a diverse set of factors ranging from changes to the campaign finance system, to the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century, to the spread of air conditioning which let older people migrate south, Ornstein said. The Republican and Democratic parties have become more homogeneous and no longer overlap. Republicans have, in general, become more conservative and Democrats more liberal.

“If this were just a problem of ideological and partisan polarization, it wouldn’t necessarily be alarming or deeply dysfunctional,” Ornstein said. “If you have an environment that focuses on problem solving, there are many policy areas where you bridge even sharp ideological divides, either by finding common ground…or by creating a process of give and take and compromise.”

But the divide now goes beyond partisanship and into a tribalism bolstered by mainstream journalism outlets. Members of the other party are no longer adversaries, but enemies. Political thinking often takes the route of “if you’re for it, I’m against it, even if I was for it yesterday,” Ornstein explained. “It’s very difficult to figure out how you can make policy under those circumstances.”

That tribalism also plays into the anti-science mindset that is prevalent on many issues, because science is used to provide evidence or bolster the case for specific policies. But, “if you believe that your enemy is wrong and needs to be delegitimized…then anybody who provides evidence or bolsters the case for your enemy needs to be delegitimized as well,” Ornstein said.

Under such circumstances, finding common ground is increasingly difficult. In addition, a radical element has developed that advocates policies that lean more anti-government than toward leaner, smarter government. “There’s a willingness to opt for less over opting for better,” Ornstein said.

The current sequestration of the federal government is a perfect example of that, he continued. The cuts were proposed as the “unthinkable outcome” that would force members of Congress to resolve their budget issues, not realizing that the dysfunction of the current political process was so deep that the unthinkable would happen.

Ornstein believes that the cuts will be deeply destructive. “This is not like an immediate cataclysm. It’s more like a cancer than a heart attack, or termites eating out the foundation rather than a fire in the house. Over time, we’re going to see damage done to public safety, to homeland security, to fundamental infrastructure, and to the underpinnings of science,” he said, citing cuts to the National Institutes of Health, basic research, and the Department of Defense research agency DARPA.

Outside of sequestration, there is continued pressure to reduce federal spending, despite the fact that defense and discretionary spending levels are already at their lowest level, as a percentage of gross domestic product, since the time Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.

That pressure “ignores the realities of how we survive and thrive in a global economy and in a world with major threats out there, and makes it far more difficult to focus on long-term needs,” Ornstein said.

More special events and resources are planned to celebrate the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships’ 40th anniversary, including a Commemoration Event on 3 May.

Read about the impact of former AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows over four decades of work in Washington, D.C., and across the United States.

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More special events and resources are planned to celebrate the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships’ 40th anniversary, including a Commemoration Event on 3 May

Read about the impact of former AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows over four decades of work in Washington, D.C., and across the United States.