He warned democracy was in peril. And that was before the Capitol riot
It's not as if Tom Mann is happy to say "I told you so."
After decades as a leading expert on Congress and our fragile American experiment in democracy, Mann shed his impartiality and scholarly distance and co-wrote a clanging alarm of a book that said government was headed seriously off the rails.
"It's Even Worse Than It Looks" didn't steer a middle course by blaming "both sides," or countenance the "well, what about" school of reductive reasoning — as in, "Well, what about Hillary's emails?" — which shrinks any difference between Democrat and Republican to the level of a schoolyard taunt.
The problem, Mann and co-author Norman Ornstein stated, was a Republican Party captive to its most unhinged elements.
"The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics," the two wrote. "It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country's challenges."
That was back in 2012, when Donald Trump was hosting "The Apprentice" and the weightiest matters he publicly wrestled with were questions such as who designed the best launch party for Crystal Light Mocktails.
Nine years later — after a disastrously mishandled once-in-a-century pandemic, a failed presidential effort to overturn the 2020 election and a deadly insurrectionist raid on the U.S. Capitol that Trump helped incite — Mann suggests things are even worse than they seemed back then.
"We're on a precipice," Mann said. "We're actually potentially so close to losing our democracy."
he scholar sat grim-faced over his kale salad at a Berkeley bistro, and if those words — scholar, kale salad, Berkeley, bistro — read like a caricature of some out-of-touch liberal elitist, Mann notes he grew up scraping by in a Florida trailer home and took out loans to attend public college. So it's not as though he's spent his entire life stroking his chin in some ivory tower.
His deconstructions of government and politics have long commanded respect from members of both major parties, as well as anyone trying to figure out the byzantine byways of Washington. Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich was among those who enthusiastically blurbed one of Mann's earlier books on Congress.
More to the point, Mann and Ornstein have proved prophetic. The Republican Party has only grown more obdurate since their 2012 work was published, more invested in conspiratorial thinking and more willing to undermine democratic values, such as the sanctity of free and fair elections.
Yes, Mann said, Democrats have their fringe elements. (Well, what about ... .) But, Mann said, they haven't commandeered the party to the same extent as the 147 Republicans in the House — among them GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California — who refused to certify Biden's election, or the state lawmakers nationwide who've passed legislation making it harder to vote and allowing partisans to overturn elections they don't like.
"We've always had extremist groups on the left as well as the right, but they've always been marginalized or co-opted to become more moderate," said Mann, 76, a senior fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution and a resident scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. "This is the first time an extreme set of forces like this has actually won the White House and tried to steal it a second time."
He leaned forward, elbows planted on the table before him, which wobbled as Mann made his point. His salad sat untouched.
The remedy, Mann said, begins with an utter repudiation of Trump and his authoritarian impulses, first in the 2022 midterm election and then in 2024, when the White House is again up for grabs. Only then, he said, will less extreme, more pragmatic elements of the GOP be positioned to rebuild the party atop its rubble and set the country on a healthier course. (A starting point might be some of those Republicans negotiating with the Biden administration to pass an infrastructure bill.)
America needs two strong governing parties, Mann said, to keep each other in check and hold each other accountable. "One-party rule is autocratic rule," Mann said.
He offered other, more drastic prescriptions aimed at sidelining the GOP's scorched-earth wing. He would abolish the Electoral College and choose the president based on the popular vote. He would make voting a mandatory requirement of citizenship, the way it is in Australia. He would do more to strengthen third parties, promoting cooperation and more political coalition building.
One step Mann supports but believes is unachievable right now is eliminating the Senate filibuster, which is perhaps the strongest weapon in the minority party's arsenal. Instead, he would change the requirement to end a filibuster from a supermajority of 60 senators to three-fifths of those present and voting, an easier threshold. Alternatively, he would require 41 votes to keep a filibuster going, not 60 votes to end it, placing the burden on the minority to continue the obstructionist tactic.
The point, Mann said, is allowing the party that gets the most votes to actually govern, pass laws and then be held accountable at the ballot box. Most voters, he said, "want [government] to work well for everyone, are not attracted to conspiracy theories and don't want an autocrat, demagogue or fascist or whatever you call it running things."
For all his gloom, Mann was not entirely cheerless. He took solace in the fact Trump lost his reelection bid — he really did — and was thwarted from pursuing an even more egregiously subversive second-term agenda. Had Trump won, "we'd have passed Hungary pretty quickly in moving to an autocratic world and a dangerous world," Mann said. "So it could be worse."
He paused, then exclaimed: "How about that! It could be worse!"
He laughed, long and hard.
— Mark Z. Barabak is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, focusing on politics in California and the West.