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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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I just read The Economist’s rather excellent series of articles concerning the extent to which enormous multinational conglomerates have gained dominance over the world’s economy and politics.  This article concludes that American and EU politicians will have to use a (quasi-miraculous) combination of self-restraint, prudence, insight, ingenuity, determination, and bravery in order to control these monopolies/cartels without risking destroying the innovation & growth which make them [the giant corporations] so valuable. I was suddenly filled with indignant fury!  Our political leaders cannot approve simple funding against Zika–a serious and universally-feared communicable disease. American politicians seem like poltroons who would rather fight each other over moronic soundbites rather than picking extremely low hanging fruit.  How can they be expected to reign in vast all-powerful companies worth hundreds of billions of dollars which wear a million aliases yet have neither face nor address?

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However, once I calmed down, I realized how dangerous and counter-productive this sort of anger is. Our indignant fury at the system is not helping us—in fact this anger at our leaders is making everything worse. And anger at the system helps one side more than the other.  Being infuriated and throwing up your hands and saying “everything is hopeless” is, itself, a partisan position.

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This is because the so-called tea-party legislators have gamed the system in a way which has diminished the system.  Namely, they have told everyone that government does not work and then they have deadlocked government so that it does not work.  They have done so in order to cynically reap electoral advantages, and in order to privatize government services and turn sundry public holdings over to their cronies.  As the government gets worse and worse—they can claim to be correct about how useless and ineffectual it all is.

This strategy is successful in that government indeed becomes less and less effective (just like the Republicans said!), but it is a dangerous strategy–like trying to take over a spaceship by turning the life-support systems off and prying open the airlocks.  Our state is already showing the sad results of such naked sabotage—but becoming angry or nihilistic about this terrible problem only magnifies the damage.  We are trapped in a feedback loop.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the Russians have been meddling in our election this year with a series of leaks, statements, vague threats, and (probably) with money. I find it alarming how similar the Russian strategy is to the tea-party strategy. A Rand Corporation spokesperson summed it up succinctly: “(The current Russian leadership) may think there is a low-cost/high-payoff way to increase the perception that the system over here is chaotic and is not reliable.” They would do such a thing in order to make autocracy look good…and apparently that is working too.

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Republicans have tried to exploit this so they can momentarily balk the demographic trends which are relegating their party to obscurity, but in doing so, they have opened a portal to hell. Indeed the tea-party people seem to have lost the momentum and they are being swept away by the autocratic and fascist-style politics they have unleashed.

Being angry at the government is how the Republicans and the Russians want you to feel.  They want the government to fail so that they can allow oligarchs to take over even more critical functions.  They want corporations (and the rich people who own them) to directly control the streets, schools, parks, and military as well as the hospitals, courts, and prisons.  They believe that you should be the plaything of autocrats and enormous monopolies.

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So I have stopped being generally angry at the election and the government. We all need to move beyond feeling so much directionless anger and fear.  These things are poisoning us. We need to gain a sense of steely calm and we need to carefully and methodically fix the problems which are undermining our superpower. This doesn’t involve saying that everything is broken and there is no point trying to fix anything.  It involves seeing that the system is broken because one of our two parties is deliberately sabotaging our state. Let’s throw out these revolting tea baggers who are defrauding us, so that society can start building things and discovering things and caring for people and the planet—oh, and busting up the monopolies which have been preventing competition and free enterprise from doing what they are supposed to do.

And if the Russians and the Republicans win, they probably can’t dismantle the entire system in 4 years.  We can throw them out then and start to bust trusts and rebuild society in 2020. I can see the bumper stickers now “Hindsight is 2020: No more President Trump!” but it would be better if we didn’t have to print such things.  It would be better if we acted like adults and sorted out our problems now with a combination of self-restraint, prudence, insight, ingenuity, determination, and bravery.

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