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More Than Half, less than perfect

I have been meaning to write about the filibuster business. For those who don’t follow party politics, the Senate has just changed the rules to (essentially) allow a majority vote on confirming nominations (except Supreme Court nominations). It was a (mostly) party-line vote, with all the votes in favor of the rule change coming from My Party. The formal change in rules followed a change in norms of behavior; the Other Party chose to block every nominee put forward for the District Court, and indicated they would continue to do so as long as they could. My Party didn’t really have a good choice in the matter: they could acquiesce to a Minority Party veto not just on some nominees but on all of them, or they could eliminate that power altogether. Or, I suppose, they could have done something very clever, but nobody was clever enough to figure out a clever thing that the whole caucus could agree on.

I am a bit sad about this. Left Blogovia is for the most part chortling with glee, and I understand that. On the whole, though, it seems to me that this is another incremental measure that decreases the power of individual Senators and increases the power of Parties. And, hey, I’m a supporter of Parties. Political Parties are awesome! OK, maybe not awesome, but the benefits to a democracy far outweigh the disadvantages. I am in fact bewildered by how unpopular the concept of Political Parties are, but that presumably has something to do with how unpopular the actual Parties are, and I do understand that. Still and all: Your Humble Blogger supports Political Parties.

And yet, there ought to be room—in the Senate, for crying out loud!—for individual initiative, individual prioritization, individual deals. The filibuster and the hold, which worked by threat of filibuster, allowed a Senator or a small group of Senators to demand action on a particular thing in order to make business happen. Essentially, the Majority Party has to pay off a trouble-making Senator…which of course means paying off that Senator’s constituents, that is, getting the will of (a group of) the people done in the government.

Sadly, the whole thing reminds me of a little kid who won’t play properly with his toolkit, but instead saws notches in the table legs and whacks people in the shins with the hammer. Eventually, you have to take the tools away.

And, alas, I can’t even blame the Senators of the Other Party for acting like rotten kids. It became clear at some point that for any Representative of the Other Party to vote with My Party even on a procedural matter would be a betrayal of the trust entrusted to him by his constituents. Those voters didn’t want a hospital or a bypass or a federal courthouse, they didn’t want oversight over some particular regulatory matter, they didn’t want an Air Force Base or a contract for helicopter parts. They wanted some sort of ideological purity—not on any sort of Conservative ideology that I understand, but on the idea of standing athwart history yelling Stop. Not as the principle for a beleaguered magazine looking for readers, you understand, but as the principle for a legislative Party… And if these Senators have been elected to yell Stop, and anything else is going to be viewed—correctly, in my opinion—as breaking the most fundamental of campaign promises, and (perhaps just as important) if all the other Senators of that Party, all the opinion leaders, the radio hosts and state party chairmen and bloggers, all the potential primary candidates and PACs and think tanks, the whole Party and all its overlapping interest groups and organizations all are going to vilify a Senator for breaking faith with the wishes of the constituency… well, if you believe in democracy, you know, you have to have some respect for the way democracy has compelled those Senators to act in such an obviously crazy and counter-productive manner.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

Should have linked to some things worth reading on the whole thing: Greg Sargent over at The Washington Post, Scott Lemieux over at The American Prospect, Jonathan Bernstein over at The Washington Post, Paul Waldman over at The American Prospect.


I would quibble with the ideas (1) that for the Republican senators to behave with maturity would be a betrayal of the trust placed in them by their constituents and (2) that it is democracy has compelled them to take this crazy stand.

First, the constituent trust point. For some Republican senators, it might be true that their constituents want them to behave this way, but it is surely not true in all cases. (It is surely true of a number of Republican representatives in the House.) This sort of behavior is expected of them, apparently, by Republican primary voters, who constitute, in most cases, only a minority of their total constituents. They toe this line not to uphold a trust, but to hold on to their positions. If they were concerned about the trust of their constituents, many of them would behave very differently. One might (though I do not) have sympathy for the delicate position in which they find themselves (I would call it lying in the bed they have made), but, really, I must object to characterizing their behavior as following the will of their constituents. Maybe that's true of senators from states like Texas, Alabama, and South Carolina, but it's surely not true of any state with mixed representation in the Senate--Pennsylvania, Florida, Indiana, Maine, to give examples of states with one senator from each party that I can think of off the top of my head. To speak close to home, Indiana Republican primary voters threw out Richard Lugar and selected Richard Mourdock as their candidate: the Indiana electorate elected moderate Democrat Joe Donnelly instead. If Dan Coats, our Republican senator, were representing his constituents, he would comport himself quite differently.

The second point. It's not democracyas such that has compelled Republican senators to behave as they are behaving: it is the strategic choice the Republican Party has made--within the context of the outmoded, plurality-takes-all, two-party election system in the U.S. that is far from the most perfect example of electoral democracy in the world today--to maximize their electoral chances by cultivating a base of people who believe and behave as you describe, because people who are mad with terror and rage about a host of things their fellow citizens find completely unexceptionable are easy to turn out for elections and to manipulate to serve the interests of plutocrats. In sum, the Republicans have painted themselves into this corner because they have pursued an anti-democratic strategy as their route to power in a democracy. They have gamed the system to give great power to minority interests, and now they are the prisoners of those interests. The Democratic Senators have grown tired of enabling Republican undermining of democracy through abuse of the filibuster, so they have reformed it. It is opposition to democratic principles that drove Republican abuse of the filibuster, and it is the logic of democracy that has reformed the filibuster.


Well, and my point about democracy in all this applies all the more to My Party and to the whole situation--the Senators from the Other Party have made promises to their constituents, the Senators from My Party have made promises to their constituents, and the combinations of those promises compelled the filibuster reform.

It is true that representing the primary base is not the sum total of democracy. But on the whole, much of the Other Party have made those kinds of promises and the majorities in those states have either supported them or acquiesced. I suspect—more accurately, I hope—that there will be a certain amount less acquiescing in the future, and that will have democratic repercussions as well. Still, for the moment, that big chunk of the country, the part that's mad with terror and rage, is getting the representation they deserve by being active in politics. The chunk of the country that is trying to get stuff done is getting the representation they deserve (pretty much, more or less)(as evidenced by the actual legislative successes against the shutdown/debt ceiling madness and now by the success against the omnipresent filibuster). And the chunk of the country that is acquiescing... is pretty much getting the representation they deserve as well.

Thanks,
-V.


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