A Conversation with Tom Mann

Thomas Mann
July 19, 2016

Thomas E. Mann is Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution and Resident Scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies.

In 2008, he and Norman Ornstein published an updated edition of The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.  Their New York Times bestseller, entitled It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, was published in 2012.

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks was republished in 2016. With a new preface, afterword and a cover redesigned to read “It’s Even Worse Than It Was” the book is more timely than ever and enjoys a robust trade and text market.

What should be next for the Republicans?  

The biggest obstacle to effective governance is that we don’t have a responsible governing party right of center. We have one left of center and we have seen the way in which they operate in office. They are fact based, they like evidence based research, they believe in compromise and bargaining and that is something the Republican party hasn’t had now for a while. It’s not just that their views are extreme. They are so fiercely oppositional that their job is to destroy their political adversaries, who they view as illegitimate.

Norm and I have written a lot of pieces arguing that the Donald Trump phenomenon, which we regard as a serious threat to American democracy, could have only occurred within the Republican Party. They set the stage for it and created anger among rank and file Republicans who have been loyal supporters but didn’t get any of the things they were promised by the Party, even though they helped vote in a majority in Congress. This led to a lot of bitterness and the opportunity for someone like Trump to come forward.

Most Republicans, in spite of Trump, are going to vote for him. There still is a strong brand loyalty. On the other hand, Republican leadership doesn’t want to lose their credibility defending Trump as a candidate – it can’t be done. Trump is against many of their specific proposals and where they disagree, Trump is closer to the Republican constituency than the leaders are. They are paying a price for how they have behaved for the past 8 years and longer.

At the Presidential level, I can’t see Ted Cruz as having done any better although he would have provided a cleaner test of the Republican ideology. As a candidate, Rubio was better but there was no “there” there – no real character or strength and he denied everything good he did when he saw what the reaction was among core Republican voters and activists. Kasich was an unlikely hero –  a good guy but prone to hyperbole. He claimed credit for balancing the budget in the 1990s. I mean that’s as big a whopper as many things Trump says!

On the other hand, any form of pragmatism – just accepting reality as Kasich was more prone to do than the others – is welcome. But I don’t think the Republicans have anyone – they chased most of those pragmatists, including the Bushes, out of the party. Reagan wouldn’t belong in the party now, and certainly not Nixon. Goldwater maybe in his original form but not as he aged – and certainly not Eisenhower. It’s new territory they are on and they are not in a position to govern. This is really an existential moment for them.

We’ve talked mostly about Republicans – you’ll be going to the Democratic Convention.

I was invited by the National Democratic Institute. It’s a nonprofit set up by the government, (there’s a Republican Institute too). The Democrats invited me and Norm to join Tom Daschle in speaking to 400 foreign dignitaries who come to watch the convention. I have been to almost all the Democratic conventions and a couple of the Republican conventions. Vice is working on a documentary on the Obama Era where experts explain things; Norm and I are going to tape a segment on gerrymandering while we are in Philadelphia, too.

Can you talk a little bit about the class you taught here at Berkeley this spring?

I’ve never been a full time faculty member. The last course I taught I commuted to Princeton and taught upper division undergraduates but it’s been a long time. I meet often with students on their campuses and in Washington and around the world but usually it’s a one off. The class was a junior seminar with a dozen students. There were no exams; I made them write blogs connecting the readings to contemporary events and questions, which set the stage for class discussion. They had to do five blogs over the course of the semester and they all did a research paper. They are not used to having a course like this – so small, getting to know the professor – it went very well. I didn’t want to do lectures because I’ve done a zillion lectures in the course of my career, so this was the perfect way to do it.

Do you have any other forthcoming work or projects that you want to mention?

My short term plan is to help make sense of the campaign and to look ahead to governing prospects. I want to see if any of the pillars of our system have eroded seriously, the kind of changes we can expect and what would be constructive. Because so many things of relevance happening overseas, I’ve done some writing on Australia and the UK. I’m open to ideas. I basically stopped writing for scholarly journals a long time ago. That doesn’t mean I don’t draw on a lot on scholarship – it’s just that my comparative advantage is now as someone sitting between the two worlds and interpreting one to the other.

What do you enjoy the most about the work that you do?

I have had the best career I could have ever imagined. I began as an undergraduate, assuming I’d go to law school. Professors turned me on to grad school, where I went. Then I was going to be a college professor. I won a fellowship to work in the Congress – the Congressional Fellowship – and then stayed in town and was offered a job at the APSA (American Political Science Association) on the staff. Then I did polls for congressional candidates on the side and took a leave and wrote my dissertation and then got actively involved again in academics. I went to Brookings back in 1987. And it’s just been wonderful. I control what I do and what I’m interested in and how I want to write it. Making the switch from Washington to the Bay Area was huge – and you know I don’t miss DC at all, it’s easy to be in contact and I go back periodically for things but I love being on campus. I’m teaching periodically, giving public lectures and meeting with other classes, doing things for IGS and other public programs. I pay very close attention to politics but I think the value of punditry is diminishing over time and I don’t have to do the stuff that I don’t want to do. I do what’s interesting, where I have something to contribute.

Can you speak about your role at IGS and how you fit in to our community? 

I’ve come out here a number of times, mostly when Nelson Polsby was the Director of IGS. Nelson was skeptical of political reform – he thought unanticipated consequences usually made the situation worse – and a number of his colleagues and students carried on that tradition of skepticism. I came to IGS as a bit of a contrarian and I’ve found the discussions and debates invigorating. A number of grad students are with me on this, and it’s been fun to get to know them. I got to know a lot of Berkeley grad student who became Brookings research fellows – a really impressive list and I’ve always enjoyed their presence at Brookings. IGS is a good home for me and much nicer than other settings with no real community activities. I’m a happy camper here!