So here’s the problem: as Paul Krugman recently noted in his weekly newsletter, Will Rogers oft-quoted line — “I am not a member of any organized political party; I am a Democrat” —is still accurate.
Today’s Republican Party has morphed into an ideological monolith, mainly constructed around racism and a visceral rejection of the “other.” That has led to a Democratic Party that encompasses, and must appeal to, pretty much everyone else–from the sane centrists fleeing what has become of the GOP to the moderate left to America’s version of the far left. In order to win elections with such a coalition, Democrats have to satisfy multiple constituencies. (As Krugman also observed, there’s a positive side to this reality–“this makes it harder to sell your soul, because it’s not clear who you’re supposed to sell it to.”)
The monolithic nature of the current GOP has helped it hold power despite the fact that we have literally mountains of research attesting to the fact that the party’s priorities are widely–sometimes wildly–unpopular. But (as a political scientist friend of mine recently explained over coffee) we fail to appreciate the extent to which Republican electoral successes are also a consequence of the filibuster.
Bear with me.
Even moderately honest observers realize that GOP legislators routinely put partisan advantage over the common good of the country. What we fail to appreciate is that most Democratic lawmakers–not all, certainly, but most–truly do try to put country first. (Granted, that doesn’t mean that the policies they pursue are necessarily correct, or that their motives are always pure.) Part of putting country first is protecting Americans from some truly awful policies that Republicans want to impose.
Democrats defending the filibuster point to precisely that function. They argue that in an inevitable future, when Republicans gain control of the Senate, Democrats will need the filibuster to keep the GOP from enacting damaging policies. As my friend pointed out, that impulse–to protect the country from policies that are broadly harmful and unpopular–actually helps the GOP.
He provided two illuminating examples.
In Indiana, when the Republican Governor and legislature passed a bill that would have allowed merchants to discriminate against LGBTQ customers, the blowback was intense, and the effort ultimately failed. The law was “clarified” to avoid its obvious goal. The very public nature of the response also “educated” a lot of people who don’t follow politics–and in the more urban parts of the state, at least, did the GOP no favors.
The more recent example is the Texas anti-choice vigilante law. For a number of years, pro-choice voters have relied upon the courts to protect their right to reproductive freedom, leaving them free to vote on the basis of other issues. It remains to be seen how much the outrage over the Supreme Court’s refusal to step in will motivate voters, but at this point, it looks like Texas Republicans have handed the Democrats a powerful issue.
My friend’s point is simple: let the GOP enact their pet policies, many if not most of which research tells us are very unpopular. Don’t use the filibuster to protect the party from the consequences of its own venality. Yes, the country will initially suffer the results –but the likely negative reaction will, once again, “educate” voters, clarifying the importance of registering their disapproval with their votes.
Obviously, there are other structural elements of our electoral system protecting an unpopular GOP from losses it would otherwise incur–as enumerated in this story in Vox. Gerrymandering and the Electoral College are huge hurdles, as is the growing tendency to view political party affiliation as part of one’s tribal identity, and to vote on that basis rather than on reaction to policy. But the less-recognized use of the filibuster as a mechanism to keep Republicans from enacting a toxic agenda is counterproductive.
Also, since it is a rule made by the Senate, it ought to be easier to eliminate. Someone needs to “educate” Manchin and Sinema.