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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.

Like everything else in the year of our Lord 2020, the American election of 2020 was an ugly mess. As I write this, it looks like Joe Biden will probably manage to scratch out a meager victory, however any hope he had of accomplishing anything as president is already comprehensively and utterly ruined. Mitch McConnell’s icy skeletal grip upon the Senate remains, and McConnell will not allow any legislation that would benefit any non-billionaire to ever pass that ghastly house. There will be no new fiscal stimulus, or, if there is, it will be a miserable pretense which really only helps billionaires. There will be no improved medical care system. Indeed, the Supreme Court is almost certain to strike down the ACA in the immediate future, driving tens of millions of citizens out of medical care and into bankruptcy (to say nothing of what those charlatans in robes will do to reproductive rights or gun control rules). The next four years will feature no technological innovations, discoveries, or breakthroughs of any significance (Republicans and their corporate overlords have no interest in such things when the current status quo serves their purposes just fine). There will be no infrastructure deal to rebuild our crumbling nation. Americans will become poorer, sicker, and face greater day-to-day insecurity. The coronavirus will continue to kill us off and keep us separated from each other for the next several years until it burns out on its own (or do you envision folks from Kansas rushing to follow President Biden’s health initiatives?) Our standing in the world will keep on plummeting, as our autocratic foes coerce lesser nations into their thrall. Worst of all, environmental devastation will continue at a breakneck pace. Soon most ecosystems will be irrecoverably degraded and most wild lifeforms will be impossibly rare or outright extinct.

So…was the election a complete disaster? It was not! Getting rid of Donald Trump was the most important thing, and, unless he manages some Robert-Mugabe-style dark contrivance in the immediate future, he will be mercifully gone within a few looooooooong months. I am not looking forward to the cash grabs, parade of pardons, and graceless & dangerous transfer of power which we will witness during those months. However Donald Trump was the biggest threat to representative government in modern U.S history, and staving off such a threat is not nothing!. The fact that 48% of the electorate joyously voted for a white supremacist con man who has looted & preened while a quarter of a million Americans died is discouraging. Yet with Trump out of the picture (in exile, prison, or the grave) his cult of personality will recede and we will be able to look to the future and solve some of the problems which are destroying us.

Except will we really?

I did not write that first paragraph for no reason. I believe everything I said will come to pass. It is the future which Mitch McConnell is building even as I write this. And, as soon as we (non-billionaires) are being crushed beneath it, he will blame it all on Joe Biden. “Government is the problem” McConnell (or his mouthpieces) will say. Just privatize everything and let business cartels write their own rules and there will be no problem! Americans are already figuratively corporate slaves. The terrible years to come are all about making us into literal slaves.

We need to prepare for this as soon as possible. Harden your heart and stiffen your upper lip. Things in America are about to get much worse than they have been for the last 4 years. This will be entirely the fault of the Republicans. It is not even a mistake or miscalculation. It is their plan! Only by carefully explaining this again and again and again will we be able to help voters understand where their misery is truly coming from. Right now voters seem to think it is liberal snowflakes raiding their bank accounts, raising their insurance premiums, and threatening their social security. Perhaps if we can help voters understand who the true villains are (McConnell and his cronies!) we can escape some of the harm which is about to cascade down on us.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

May 2021