40 years of friendship and fighting for good governance
It was fall of 1969 in Washington, D.C., and Norman Ornstein, PhD ’74, was walking his roommate’s wirehaired dachshund on the northwest side of town. He had just relocated from Ann Arbor and his grad school classmate, Thomas Mann, MA ’68/PhD ’77, was renting a room in the same house. They’d competed for one highly coveted Congressional fellowship from the American Political Science Association and were rewarded with two. Soon they both would begin an immersive year inside the House of Representatives.
As Ornstein approached Dupont Circle, the dog began to yelp uncontrollably, tugging at the leash.
“Then I saw the canister of tear gas coming,” Ornstein says, “followed by a group of people moving rapidly in my direction, including police in full riot gear. Apparently a demonstration at the South Vietnamese embassy had gone awry.”
Ornstein coughed and choked his way out of his first experience with inadvertent political activism and shoved wet towels under the doorframe as soon as he got home. “It was a tumultuous year,” he recalls.
That tumult was not restricted to the streets. Congress itself was undergoing massive reform in 1969. Ornstein and his schoolmate Mann were close to the action, working for two representatives at the vanguard of a transformative movement. Donald Fraser (D-Minn) and James O’Hara (D-Mich) were major figures in a liberal House organization called the Democratic Study Group, an effort by mainstream Democrats to regain control of the party and the Congress, which was dominated by conservative players from the South.
“To both observe that movement and participate in it was fascinating,” Mann recalls.
The beginning of a beautiful friendship…
That fellowship year in Washington turned out to be a serendipitous and seminal experience for these Michigan men. It set the stage for their subsequent careers as nontraditional political scientists with one foot placed in academe and the other planted squarely in politics and policy.
“We are different than typical Congressional scholars,” Ornstein says of the pair’s intersecting paths. “We are both scholars and activists. We study institutions and try to improve them.”
Today, Mann is the W. Averell Harriman Chair and senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the author of the weekly column “Congress Inside Out.” Both are fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In 2012 they co-authored the controversial book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism (Basic Books). It’s a blunt report on the unprecedented acrimony, hyper partisanship, and dysfunction running rampant in Congress today. Most notably, it casts Republicans as insurgent outliers at the heart of the problem: “ideologically extreme, scornful of compromise, and ardently opposed to the established social and economic policy regime.”
The book was a watershed for the scholars, who’d been meticulously nonpartisan throughout their careers—regularly pointing fingers on both sides of the aisle. Not this time. Here they track decades of behavior leading to a state of “asymmetric polarization” with the Republican Party implacably refusing to allow anything that might help the Democrats politically, no matter the cost to society.
“[The book] caused some trauma and a lot of people are really unhappy with us,” Ornstein says.
“But in our view,” adds Mann, “a new reality had taken hold in our politics. And while it’s simply impolite to say it in public company, we did that.”
That they did it together—after decades establishing a track record as disciplined scholars of political behavior—makes it especially significant.
“We’ve spent 40 years in Washington building capital as people who had no ideological axe to grind and no partisan agenda to push,” Ornstein says. “It was time for us to use whatever credibility we had built up to blow a few whistles. We care about our nation’s governance and making sure our politics work well.”
To that end, a significant portion of the book comprises prescriptions for change—nuanced and multilevel prescriptions—born of the duo’s many years studying the U.S. Congress.
A cure for what ails us?
In 1978 Mann and Ornstein initiated the Congress Project with mentor Austin Ranney at AEI. It was the first data-driven effort to track Congress as an institution. They learned they complemented one another well even as their individual careers took them to the American Political Science Association, Catholic University, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and finally AEI and Brookings. Over the years, they saw they could leverage opportunities to initiate projects focused on reform and bring together people with different views to think institutionally.
Among their shared accomplishments: They helped create the Office of Compliance, ensuring that Congress abides by the laws it applies to others. They had a major hand in campaign finance reform. They were intimately involved in drafting the rules that now form the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. And they’ve played a serious role in reforming the committee process in Congress.
Throughout, they’ve grown increasingly dismayed by what they’ve seen on Capitol Hill, which led to their first book together, The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track (2006).
“Unfortunately our hopes that we could bring about a more civil and deliberative Congress have not gotten where we want them to go,” Ornstein says. “On campaign finance reform we had a few years of wonderful satisfaction followed by some years of real dismay. We are just hopeful that we won’t have to write a third book that goes from The Broken Branch to It’s Even Worse Than It Looks to Run For Your Lives.”
Forward, ever forward
Post-election, the authors see tremendous ferment among Republicans trying to figure out where to take the party. And as bad as things may seem today, “we’ve encountered very difficult periods before,” Mann says. “Because our critique of American democracy is so tough it’s important to put it in historical perspective. We spend so much time steeped in and constantly reading about the nation’s present that it’s healing, as well as enlightening, to dip back into our past.”
The duo dipped back into their own past in November when they returned to campus to speak at the Ford School of Public Policy.
They keep close ties to the University, hosting Michigan interns at their respective organizations and at different times managing the very fellowship program that launched their careers. Last fall, thanks to the efforts of Ornstein’s wife, Judy Harris, the University created a scholarship in their names to support students in the Michigan in Washington Program, a semester-long undergraduate experience that combines coursework and internships in the nation’s capital.
Establishment of the Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann Scholarship and Academic Enrichment Fund came as a complete surprise to the duo, a fitting bookend to their early experience as student competitors who grew into trusted collaborators.
“It was a stunning thing and I have a wonderful feeling of gratitude that people would contribute to this scholarship,” Ornstein says. “The fact that it honors 40 years of friendship and partnership makes it doubly sweet.”