To Hell with the Filibuster
[Before the Civil War] when Americans spoke of filibusters, they meant private armed groups mounting criminal military expeditions against foreign countries from U.S. territory…As filibustering faded away as a word for military aggression, it naturally morphed into political applications for aggressively stalling laws.
~Robert E. May, February 27, 2021
It’s no surprise that the word “filibuster” has a particularly gnarly origin or that “filibusters” were aggressive lawbreakers who did not respect borders or limits of any kind. Which is richly ironic because the word has morphed into something that is not so different—a filibuster is the moral equivalent of trespassing, crossing a boundary without regard for the law. In a word, the filibuster is a travesty. A gross violation of a bedrock principle of representative democracy—majority rule.
There are two related reasons why the filibuster is anathema to the proper functioning of a republic. One reason is based in theory, the other in practice. Neither reason has anything to do with partisanship. Contrastingly, the only reason for NOT abolishing this anachronism has everything to do with partisanship.
Representative democracy based on majority rule is logical; anything else is utterly illogical and self-defeating. If the minority can resort to a simple parliamentary maneuver to defeat the majority, the popular will is a chimera, as the system is neither representative nor democratic.
The second reason to advocate the death of the filibuster arises from the urgent need to give new life to official accountability. A democratic republic by definition is a system in which adult citizens (aka, voters) choose representatives via regular, free and fair elections. Elected representatives make the rules. They alone have power to make or abolish laws the rest of us are compelled to obey. In a republic, it is the will of the majority that gives legitimacy to the awesome power and authority lawmakers exercise.
Sovereign states can and do differ fundamentally but they all claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercive force. The United States is no exception. Government at all levels—federal, state, and local—can and does punish noncompliance with the law.
Another name for “republic” is limited democracy. When enforcement is done selectively based on class and connections, it is a sure sign that accountability in a limited democracy is too limited. A republic that allows accountability to be severely limited either with a filibuster broad-axe or death by a thousand cuts will eventually lose contact with democracy altogether. Why believe in a failed system?
Hence the absolute need for accountability. If elected representatives endeavor to pass new laws that bid fare to alter the conditions of life for the many while serving the interests of the few or change key rules under which society is governed without seeking the consent of the majority—the door to dictatorship is thrown wide open.
In British-style parliamentary systems, governments can fall at any time if they lose the confidence of the electorate. In the United States, we are stuck with a president for four years, but as voters we can change which party makes the laws, confirms or rejects appointments to key cabinet posts and federal courts, raises an army and navy, and, under the Constitution, decides when America goes to war.
The problem with the filibuster is that it all but eclipses the issue of responsibility for laws and policies, which increasingly has fallen to presidents to decide by virtue of executive orders. That makes sense to many onlookers because, after all, "the government” (aka, Congress) is in a permanent state of gridlock. So the next time an election rolls around, it’s not at all clear even to the most independent and conscientious voter which party is to blame for the things that have gone wrong since the last election. Of course, things always go wrong. In politics, Murphy’s Law applies in spades.
The idea that without the filibuster one side or the other can run wild when they have a majority is nonsense. Abolish it and watch what happens when either party tries to do that. We very recently witnessed the closest thing to an insurrection aimed at overthrowing constitutional government since the Civil War. And let’s not forgot: The existence of a filibuster that can--and has—turned minority rights into minority rule did not prevent the January 6 assault on the Nation’s Capitol.
Most American voters favor middle-of-the-road politics and politicians. Most are more conservative, traditional, and moderate, than socialist, reformist, or radical. The word “liberal” no longer has any connection to its origins in19th century British politics and it meaning has been so badly distorted by Republicans (authentic liberals in the original sense of the word)), to say nothing of social media, that it’s primary use now is polemical rather than analytical. Throwing the rascals out is always a possibility (as you know, it happens in quite often midterm elections), but holding the rascals feet to the fire is another matter altogether.
In Abe Lincoln’s first inaugural address, there is a passage that speaks volumes about the current state of politics in the Nation’s Capitol. I will close with the prescient quote from a recent article by writer Fintan O’Toolein the New York Review of Booksprovocatively entitled “To Hell with Unity”:
Lincoln reflected on what must happen when a minority insists on its right to overturn the properly expressed will of the majority: “The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.” The rule of a minority as a permanent arrangement is the underlying project of a Republican Party that cannot win majorities in presidential elections.