April 08, 2005

Whosoever Hunts Filibusters...

So I was just reading Nathan Newman's attack on the filibuster, scrolling, scrolling, nodding, thinking, "Damn this guy's good," but then came to this passage and jerked awake:
Yes, the absence of the filibuster might allow the GOP to pass noxious laws that would have been filibustered by Democrats. But if the GOP actually had a free hand to vote their whole agenda, their coalition would blow up. In fact, the GOP leadership depends on the filibuster and the courts to block their cultural agenda, a point that Thomas Frank outlined in his book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, since conservative leaders depend on manipulating a sense of cultural powerless by supporters to keep them on the political reservation.
Well, in a sense this is true. If Republicans ever passed, say, a nation-wide abortion ban they'd start losing elections real quick. (And no, you can't believe the polls here—lots of ordinary people say they're for restricting abortion, but would get quite, quite pissed if it actually affected them.) If they ever criminalized gay sex, or abolished Social Security, bye-bye majority! You can find the rest of the "core" GOP agenda here, and yes, it's all a massive election-loser.

But that's only one way of looking at it. The seamy underbelly here is that much of the GOP agenda is pretty sharply focused on dismantling the Democratic coalition. Get tort "reform" passed so that the trial lawyer donor base dries up. Erode labor laws so that unions are diminished as a political force—something Grover Norquist has openly bragged about trying to do. Privatize schools and decimate the teachers' unions. Close the immigration spigots so that you don't have a bunch of new Hispanic Democrats entering the country. And let's not get into the varieties of gerrymandering experience. So rephrase Nathan's sentence above: "If the GOP actually had a free hand to vote their whole agenda, they would cripple the Democratic coalition."

The dichotomy between "progressive" and "conservative" agendas may be the wrong one to focus on here. It's true that simple majoritarian rule would make it much easier to pass large, expansive progressive programs, and it's true that the filibuster is far more useful to conservatives. Also, thanks to the bizarre and undemocratic structure of the Senate, progressives simply won't enjoy a supermajority anytime soon, not so long as they remain less popular in the tiny statelets that wield disproportionate influence in the upper house. So that's the progressive case against the filibuster.

On the other hand, though, simple majoritarian rule stacks the decks in favor of whichever party aims simply to maintain and perpetuate its own power, just for the hell of it. This, alas, is exactly what the modern Republican party is playing at these days. It could also, some day, describe the Democratic party, which would be no less dangerous and anti-progressive. Sadly, the power of incumbency is ridiculously strong here in America, and it's hard to vote out a party that's metastasized into a corrupt, power-hungry cancer. So the Senate, absent a filibuster, could well turn into what the House has become, structurally, and probably will be for the foreseeable future -- namely, a place where absolutely power corrupts absolutely. Nothing about the Democratic party makes it immune from this corruption, quite frankly. Hence, I think, the rationale behind Mark Schmitt's "veil of ignorance" argument.

But all that said, on the long view I think Nathan's more or less correct when he says: "I don't think conservatives have majority support for their policies and in a fair and democratic fight, progressives would win most policy fights and win elections." That's been the experience of nearly every other developed country on earth, after all, so there's good reason to think he's onto something.

UPDATE: Wow, dyslexia strikes again. Nathan was obviously attacking, not defending the filibuster, as I wrote in the original post. Oy...
-- Brad Plumer 10:36 AM || ||