Joe Manchin and Krystin Sinema are due a heap of gratitude by all of us. Personally, I prefer a government that is stable and seeks to represent the whole of the country and not a specific subset and it is those two, and not figures I’d probably have been more inclined to elect, that are holding to the esoteric parliamentary rule — the filibuster — that offers us such stability.
Every time one of our two political parties manages to take hold of the entirety of the legislative branch alongside the presidency, it (naturally) wants to flex its muscles. A large barrage of legislation typically follows and usually with little mercy towards the minority party. Some of that legislation is really a good idea and what got the party elected, but without fail, overreach will rear its ugly head.
In the best functioning democratically elected governments around the world, this impulse to overreach is often mitigated by the fragmented nature of those countries’ political landscapes, filled with a variety of parties and the necessity of building a coalition of them just to get a majority.
To our detriment, we Americans have consistently only empowered two parties to hold meaningful power, which means far fewer mitigations on the abuse of majority power.
We see in struggling democracies what this often looks like: parties gain a supermajority, pass legislation to extend their rule and gradually (or not so gradually) chip away at any meaningful semblance of democracy.
(Hello, Mr. Putin.)
If we look at our own party objectively (or at least “the other party”), we must honestly admit our favored politicos wouldn’t hesitate to do the same given the chance. We all know they are motivated in passing legislation by the possibilities concerning reelection and supportive donations to that end, after all.
In absence of those parliamentary coalitions we lack officially are forced to emerge, at least de facto, since it is a very rare situation that we grant either party an outright supermajority. The filibuster drives a wedge into otherwise too-unified, polarized setting and requires some level of thought, delay and — gasp — compromise.
To be sure, when “we” win an election it can be frustrating. Democrats were frustrated by the challenges in passing Obamacare, wanting to push through massive legislation before it was even understood what was being passed. The same force, played in reverse a few years later after President Trump and the GOP took unified control of the government. Obamacare would have been entirely purged but for the inconvenience of a few moderates.
Note the celebrants and mourners change sides, but the same situation — the deliberative nature of the Senate — made it happen.
So, Democrats who might have bemoaned moderator politicos (and the filibuster they now protect) in 2010, suddenly had a reason to love them. It was the GOP’s turn to hate them. But, fast-forward to 2021 as a GOP voter and imagine where those folk’s concerns would be sans two moderates and a filibuster.
It’s kinda nice to have, isn’t it?
And moderates by themselves aren’t enough without the filibuster. After all, Sinama and Machin support some of the legislation that has been stalling under the weight of a filibuster threat. What protects us from overzealous legislative movement (Left or Right) is something rather odd to see amongst politicians: courage to protect a principle (the filibuster) even when it doesn’t advance one’s own cause.
That is what we all ought to show more of. Principle. We need to quit wanting our side to do whatever it takes to claim legislative victories and hail the thoughtfulness of those who say simple, brute force victories aren’t necessarily victories.
If we continue to polarize while eliminating the need for a super majority for most legislation to pass, we face one of two distasteful possibilities. Either the country will toss back and forth in a bipolar mess every time the other party gains power (even more than it does now) or one party will prove crafty enough to undermine democratic institutions and ensure the other party’s permanent exile from power.
As frustrating as our current situation may be, neither of those options sounds better to me.