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Yesterday’s post was about the intellectual and emotional dissonance of realizing that all of the stuff American schoolchildren are taught about how our democracy works is no longer true. Our quarter-of-a-millenium long experiment in self-government is starting to fail. Thanks to the decades-old legislative logjam in the Senate, meaningful far-reaching legislation is nearly impossible to pass. In place of well-crafted legislation, we have been muddling forward with a baffling hodgepodge of conflicting executive orders and judicial rulings. American citizens (who are not the most patient people to begin with) see this dysfunction and tune out of politics–or start believing in crazed strongmen or weird conspiracy theories. How did we get here?

Although gerrymandering, political polarization, “media bubbling,” and demographic factors have all contributed to the mess, the biggest problem in American politics at this moment is the filibuster, a procedural rule which means that any United States senator can derail legislation by refusing to yield the floor unless a supermajority of 60 senators vote for cloture (which ends the debate and brings the legislation to a vote whereupon a simple majority of 51 senators can then pass the legislation). The founding fathers meant for the Senate to be counter majoritarian (since pathetic little states have the same 2 senators as large worthwhile states) however they wanted legislators to be able to make deals and pass laws! The filibuster is not in the Constitution but is a part of the senate’s self-created rules (which can arguably be changed–under certain specific circumstances–by a simple majority). The current state of affairs vis-à-vis the filibuster was made possible in 1806 thanks to the advice of the infamous Aaron Burr (who was then vice-president and thus the presiding officer of the Senate). Burr recommended the Senate get rid of a rule which allowed for a simple majority to force a vote on the underlying question being debated.

Yesterday I mischaracterized the filibuster as requiring a senator to continuously talk on the floor. For many years–from 1837 (the first time the filibuster was used) through the Civil War and up to World War I–that is how the rule was construed; however, in the modern era, the majority has preferred to avoid filibusters by moving to other business when a filibuster is threatened. I think my civics teacher was hoping to explain that back in 1988, but the exigencies of middle school prevented him from properly explaining the Byzantine complexities of Senate rules. Speaking of which, this excellent overview by the Brookings Institute actually explains all of the filibuster/cloture rules and all of their possible ramifications. Within that article we find the following troubling graph which is a fair representation of the growing importance of the ever-growing power of the minority to balk legislation.

I worry that the real point of this essay is being lost as I try to explain esoteric parliamentary rules (hardly my métier, anyway). Yet that worry should focus everyone’s attention, since it is what has effectively already happened. Mitch McConnell, the “grim reaper” of the Senate believes that Americans will not care if, through inaction and executive rulings he strips them of their rights, their wealth, and their future. He believes that faced with a complex procedural problem, Americans will blame both political parties. This benefits the Republicans who hardly care if government accomplishes nothing, since it allows them to say “government accomplishes nothing” and then pilfer the system and flout rules designed for a lifetime ago. When faced with such obfuscation and bad intentions, Americans should be furious! The U.S. government is not designed to allow Mitch McConnell to hollow out society and shovel money to his billionaire masters while China takes over the world! The fact that we have allowed him to take over our country because he is a master of mendacity and tortuous rules should shame every American voter. We should write to our senators and demand that they end the filibuster, and if they don’t we should remember to vote them out. Joe Biden also needs to dangle big rewards (and big threats) in front of Joe Mansion until the West Virginia senator properly tows the party line [this essay has taken twice as long as it should since I keep writing incandescent insults about Joe Manchin and then ruefully erasing them].

All of which is to say that the United States government is not as broken as it looks. With a single rule change, we could have 21st century infrastructure, glorious innovation, comprehensible healthcare, and an economy which makes everyone prosperous! So why has that rule not been changed? Mitch McConnell has threatened Americans with scorched earth and political apocalypse if the filibuster is reformed or eliminated. Do you like being threatened? I do not.

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.

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