An Interview with Norm Ornstein

On Oct. 30, the Washington University Political Review sat down with Norm Ornstein, a national commentator, political scientist, and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. We asked Dr. Ornstein about his recently published book, the state of Washington, the situation facing the American press corps, the Republican Party’s present and future, and more. What follows is a transcript of the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Dan Sicorsky: So, you’re on campus to talk about your newest book, One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported. Not that your New York Times-bestselling book needs a readership boost, but what’s your pitch to college students for why they should read your book?

Norm Ornstein: College students are going to be inheriting a world and a country that will either be an absolute mess or that will be redeemed in some fashion. We now live in a world where the political process has careened out of control. Figuring out how and why we got here, and what we can do about it, is in students’ own self-interest—not just in the larger interest of the society.

There are all these challenges in society now. There are deeper divisions, caused in part by economic turmoil and the aftermath of the financial crisis, and challenges that come from the populist reaction and distrust of all elites. These stark political divisions are also bolstered by divisions between metropolitan and rural, or sometimes ex-urban, areas. The metropolitan areas generally have highly educated populations, and are also the engines of economic growth in society. And the other parts of the country are struggling much more. But what that means is that we not only have blue and red states, but within the states we have gaping divisions and complete misunderstanding—even resentments—between these different areas.

If you layer onto that the racial divide, the questions about immigration, and the move of the country towards a majority-minority population—we’ve had a decline in community, in a sense. These are real challenges, and it’s going to be very important for college students to grapple with and work through ways of dealing with them. And this book I think will help. And it’s much cheaper than most of the books you buy in your courses.

DS: And much more informative, too.

Sabrina Wang: It’s interesting that you cite the huge divisions in our society as a reason that college students should read the book, particularly because the book emphasizes this “big tent” sort of anti-Trumpism. Critics have said that this perspective you take downplays the divisions within the Democratic Party. How would you respond to those allegations?

NO: Parties always have a tension between a pragmatic wing and an ideological wing. Sometimes that tension is sharper than at other times; it’s usually sharper when the party doesn’t have the presidency, because the president has a capacity to pull the party together. Sometimes it’s sharper when there are tough economic times and populism emerges. We saw this in our own recent history: So much of the focus was on the Tea Party, but the Occupy Wall Street movement was another reflection of that. When you have one party that goes completely off the rails, as the Republican Party did, there’s going to be a natural tendency in the other party—despite what objectively would be best politically—to occupy and move to the center. It’s a Newtonian instinct, an action creating an equal and opposite reaction. So there is tension there, but we still see a very different dynamic in the Democratic Party than in the Republican Party.

A recent Pew Research Center survey suggested that Democrats and Republicans have moved further apart, showing that there have been substantial shifts in Democrats’ views in the last seven or eight years. On the belief that racial minorities are at a serious disadvantage, Democrats have moved from 50 to 60 percent agreeing, to 80 to 85 percent agreeing. And we’ve moved from 50 to 60 percent believing that immigration should be more open, to 70 to 80 percent. A number of people writing about the survey have said that it demonstrates that the Democratic Party is now radicalizing. That tells you two things: First, that consistency in viewpoint in Democrats has increased. But it also tells you that positions that were generally viewed as centrist or just simply pragmatic—to be for resolving the immigration dilemma, or to believe that racial discrimination still exists—are now seen as radical. The Republican Party has moved the dialogue so far in the other direction, and because of that, these formerly centrist views are now seen as radical. And I don’t see it that way.

Also, there’s a marked difference if you look at the elite level. Can you find me a Democratic equivalent of Roy Moore? No. Can you find me a Democratic equivalent of Ted Cruz or of Mike Lee? Or is there a Democratic equivalent of the Freedom Caucus? And the answer is ‘no.’ Is there a Democratic Breitbart or a Democratic Steve Bannon? Not that I can see. Look at what Bannon is doing, going out and actively recruiting—I hate to use the term “alt-right”—radical, racialist alternatives to Republican incumbent senators. Is the Democratic Party recruiting more liberal alternatives to the more conservative Democrats running for reelection? Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, Jon Tester, Joe Manchin? No. I don’t see the same phenomenon.

Can you find me a Democratic equivalent of Roy Moore? No. Is there a Democratic Breitbart or a Democratic Steve Bannon? Not that I can see.

The willingness to just blow up norms to get your own way, the challenges to people who are even some who are more liberal because they are not radical enough—that’s just not happening. There’s plenty of tension in the Democratic Party. I’m sure it will play out in a very difficult fashion in 2020, and we saw it play out with the contest between Sanders and Clinton. But I just don’t think there’s anything close to equivalence.

SW: In the face of this deterioration of important, longstanding political norms, and considering that the Republican Party is no longer really playing by these rules, what would you prescribe for Democrats or liberals to do? How do they preserve these norms?

NO: This is really a tough question. You would hope that, if you regain power, you would go back to the old rules and norms and serve as an example, so that you’ll get the same behavior in-kind when there’s change the next time around. But there’s no reason to expect that that will happen. So, can you behave in a reasonable fashion with some acceptance of standards of behavior, or do you have to—to use a phrase that Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined—“define deviancy down” and make new norms that are on a lower level? There’s no easy answer.

But if you do recapture power, you have to try and at least have some constraints on what you do. And that goes for investigations. I hope that we wouldn’t see a Democratic-majority House conduct 12 investigations into Benghazi, distort the process the way that Devin Nunes currently is, or write legislation with secrecy, like what Mitch McConnell tried to do with the repeal of Obamacare. But you’re not going to be able to go back unless you say “I will go back if you behave in the normal fashion.” But it’s not easy. It’s interesting because Mitch McConnell professed to be a believer in the sanctity of the Senate and all of that—

SW: And a believer in the sanctity of process.

NO: Yes, he’d talk about process and how we shouldn’t make changes to procedure, and now he’s decided to throw all of that out. I think the thought was, “We’ve got this window now. We’ve got at least two years where we have a president who will sign anything that we put in front of him. We’ve got to get that stuff to him, and we’ll break every rule and violate every standard to do that.” There’s a lot they could get done if they decided to try and do it in a bipartisan fashion. But I think they decided to throw all caution to the wind. It’s kind of reckless, and Democrats are going to have to figure out how to take advantage of it without “defining deviancy down.”

DS: Earlier, you mentioned congressional investigations. Another form of investigation is, of course, journalistic investigations. Trump has launched a war on the media and the freedom of expression. Are you worried for the freedom of expression in this country, and what do you see as its future?

NO: Oh, yeah, I am. We talked a bit in the book about how Trump uses the phrase “enemy of the people” to refer to the press. What’s so striking is that that’s a phrase that came from Stalin, and when Khrushchev became the premier in the Soviet Union, he banned the use of the term because he said it was too dangerous. If the press is the enemy of the people, that justifies arresting or killing them or the like. If it’s too dangerous for Khrushchev but not too dangerous for Trump, that would leave me worried.

The war on the media, the degree to which he ridicules them, marginalizes them, and treats them as the enemy is an extremely dangerous thing. But, the fact is that the press enabled him during the campaign. Yes, there were investigations of his flaws, his wrongdoings, but in many cases, many of these investigations were done early on in the primary process, and they were kind of one-offs; they did it once, and they never came back to it. As we say in the book, he’s the only person who we’ve ever seen who can fend off a scandal with another scandal.

Today [Oct. 30, 2017] is the one-year anniversary of a New York Times headline that basically exonerated the FBI’s Russia investigation. I can understand all of the reasons the press corps uses anonymous sources, including that you guarantee anonymity in exchange for information. But there’s implicit—and there should be explicit—understanding that if the information you give me is deliberately false, if it’s given to distort or create a false narrative, then our contract is null and void, and I will identify you. We can’t say for sure that the two New York Times reporters who put this article on the front page a week before the election had a source in the FBI who was honestly telling them this information, but I think there’s an absolute obligation to talk about sources and to ensure there be a direct understanding. Now The New York Times is a hero; they’re doing what you want done in a free society to keep it free. But we might not be in this position if it hadn’t been for some careless reporting and some bad behavior.

Of course, the other large problem is that people are getting information from places that reinforce what they believe. And here, too, we see the asymmetry in a couple of ways. There’s no doubt that MSNBC, certainly in its evening shows and some other places, is a liberal network. But they also put on opposing viewpoints, and they really do focus on reporting what the news is. Fox, if you flip between the channels when important news emerges, is state-run media. It’s a wholly-owned subsidiary of Trump. So, if there’s a blackout on information, how do you create a broader sense that we have a problem that we have to deal with? At the same time, you have a problem with issues like climate change, where the knee-jerk reaction on television is to host a discussion with someone for the issue and someone against. It creates this larger sense that the scientific community is evenly divided, when it’s not. So, we’ve got the existential challenge of Donald Trump to a free press, but we also have a much bigger challenge without him, even if he disappears: How we can get a common set of facts before people?

We’ve got the existential challenge of Donald Trump to a free press, but we also have a much bigger challenge without him, even if he disappears: How we can get a common set of facts before people?

SW: You mention the obligation you believe the media should have to combat disinformation and ineptitude, two qualities that are characteristic of a “kakistocracy,” which is what you argue in your recent Atlantic article that the U.S. has become. Recently, Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake announced that they are not running for reelection. What do you think of that in an ideological sense? If America is a kakistocracy, what obligations, if any, do scrupulous policymakers have to combat this concerning trend?

NO: It’s a worrisome thing. The people who are serious about making policy—Republicans especially—are just deeply frustrated. One, they’re not particularly warmly received within their own party, even by their colleagues in Congress. Two, they’re kind of stuck in a no-man’s-land in terms of what they can do. And three, they’ve got to find ways to condemn bad things without getting death threats or being put in an untenable position. Four, if you’re running for reelection, you know that you’re going to have to spend all your time fending off a challenge in your own party, and it’s not like the people of the other party are going to rally to you and your cause. So, it can be easier just to hang it up.

There are different circumstances with Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, but they’re both sad. The odds are pretty good that their replacements are going to be much worse; when I look at the members of the Tennessee Republican House delegation running for Corker’s seat, there isn’t one that can hold a candle to Corker. Now, having said that, Corker and Flake basically vote almost entirely with their colleagues and with a Trump agenda, one that is dominated by McConnell and is a pretty radical agenda. We’ll see whether this changes coming forward.

Flake especially is extraordinarily conservative; his philosophy is a real right-wing philosophy. He’s a really decent human being, and his ideology doesn’t prevent him from trying to find ways to solve problems pragmatically, from building respectful relationships with partners and allies across the ideological spectrum, and from having good values about right and wrong. If you replace him with somebody whose political viewpoint is much more radical than his, you end up with somebody much worse. You hope people will stay in the fray. I often say to Republicans who are disgusted with what’s happening and want to leave the party: “I hope you don’t leave, because then you’re really going to be leaving it to a group of crazies.” But it becomes a really personal decision as well.

I often say to Republicans who are disgusted with what’s happening and want to leave the party: ‘I hope you don’t leave, because then you’re really going to be leaving it to a group of crazies.’

DS: You also speak in your book about the growth of citizen activism. St. Louis is a city with a great deal of citizen activism—

NO: And an establishment that seems to pay little attention to it.

DS: Mhm, that’s where a lot of the frustration comes from. How important is it for these protest movements to gain the public’s favor in order to be successful? Because the kneeling protests aren’t popular, the marching protests aren’t popular…

NO: One of the things that protests can and should do is highlight and keep prominent an important issue. That’s really important. It also means that you have to find ways to continue those protests in a fashion that doesn’t become counterproductive. That’s not just about violence; sometimes it’s just figuring out how you can keep an issue in the forefront in general. You hope not to get into a situation like with police violence against unarmed individuals: We just have one incident after another incident after another. You hope that we can move from protest to improvement and resolution of the situation. You hope that there’s a strategy that can move from protests to finding people who are willing to look at issues in a different, and not necessarily highly charged way.

The other part of the protest movement is—and we talked a lot about this after writing the book—we saw these impressive marches the day after the inaugural, all over the world. All of these people with these clever signs and everything. There’s a natural tendency—one that I think is even more present on the left—to think “I did my part. I marched. I spent a week making a sign.” But it also needs to get translated into continuing efforts and move to the next level of political activity.

SW: Given that the Washington University Political Review is a college publication, much of our audience is college-age. Many people on our staff and at Wash U, myself and Dan included, hope to become influential voices in politics in the future. Given your track record and experience in political science research and writing, do you have any career wisdom to impart?

I’m a strong believer in the value of internships and practical experience. The best way to learn is to get engaged.

NO: I do. I have over the years hired a sizeable number of interns. And interns became research assistants, and research assistants went off and had in many cases just terrific careers. I’m a strong believer in the value of internships and practical experience. The best way to learn is to get engaged—and it might be volunteering in a campaign, local or otherwise; learning something about political organizing; or doing internships with think tanks, legislators, city council people, or even in Washington lobbying firms or trade associations. Getting a deeper understanding of the people working in these careers, building relationships—because so many of these jobs are done by word of mouth—and finding mentors are all important.

Sabrina Wang ’19 and Dan Sicorsky ‘19 study in the College of Arts & Sciences. They can be reached at s.d.wang@wustl.edu and dan.sicorsky@wustl.edu.

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