When I was in secondary school in the 1980s, one of the required classes for every pupil was “Civics”. Civics, which was a broad overview of American law, civil rights, and government (with some small intersections with economic and military affairs) took place right before lunch and involved a great deal of (sometimes heated) discussion between the teacher and the students. It was also a thrilling class because we got to discuss an actual presidential election as it happened–and everyone was extremely excited over whether Michael Dukakis or George Bush (Senior!) would prevail. I also remember my fellow students getting especially worked up about 4th amendment questions, about Larry Flynn, and about how old you had to be to vote (for Bush or Dukakis!) or to run for the Senate. Although I did not notice it at the time, “Civics” at Valley Forge Middle School was taught fairly well and students who emerged with an A in the class also had a decent holistic understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and a simplified but workable macro-understanding of government.

A peripheral side note in civics class was “the filibuster” which was mentioned briefly as an obscure legislative tactic of last resort last used by racist southern politicians during the civil rights era. The filibuster was presented as a desperate measure by which a benighted United States senator could stall legislation by endlessly talking for hours and hours until he (the theoretical senator was a”he” in 1980s civics class) turned blue and keeled over, whereupon the senators could go ahead and vote about pressing national affairs. It was mentioned that the filibuster had an earlier past when it was maybe (?) used for nobler aims than just promoting segregation and Jim Crow. Somebody brought up the Jimmy Stewart movie, and then we moved on. Apparently that was all you needed to know about the filibuster back in 1988!

[actually, I think the teacher might have tried to add some additional information, but the bell rang and we rushed off to hair metal and savage adolescent delights…or at least to lunch.]

I suspect a modern version of civics class would be mostly about the filibuster and would not bother with any of that minutiae concerning the Bill of Rights, separation of Church and State, Article 1 institutions, or the draft…or any of the things which used to seem important in the 80s. The filibuster is why contemporary America is paralyzed with political deadlock and is swiftly becoming a failed state. It is why the Chinese laugh at us as a used-up empire as they build continent-striding super railroads and bribe every dictator in Africa to do their bidding. It is why young adults today shrug sadly about affairs of government and don’t bother to vote. They know that no matter how they vote, nothing will happen and nothing will ever change. The filibuster will kill any reasonable law. It will destroy all reform. It will prevent any change from the status quo of never-ending trench warfare. The filibuster is killing American democracy.

Grim Reaper Standing in the Meadow Credit: Getty

What happened? How did a footnote from civics class (humorously named after Dutch pirates!) rise up to throttle our entire society and destroy our democracy? In 1980s civics class we were taught that the true genius of the Constitution is that it allows reform. When vested interests or revanchists try to thwart the will of the electorate by means of out-of-date antidemocratic rules, the free people of the United States and our elected champions in Washington rise up and fix the system. That is no longer happening in America for a variety of reasons…but almost every one of those reasons directly or tangentially involves the Senate filibuster. Today’s post was a hair raising prequel to another essay about how to fix the rot which is affecting the world and threatening the future. Political problems are at the very heart of what is going wrong. America’s greatest political problem in 2021 is legislative gridlock. The filibuster is the cause of that problem.

I recognize that international audiences are now asleep as they read about obscure chicanery in poorly designed U.S. parliamentary rules. Yet unless the United States gets back to a political system involving good faith deal-making, the waves of nationalism and populism which are buffeting the democratic world will grow into tsunamis. We will talk about how to move forward in tomorrow’s second installment.