Members Only | June 8, 2021 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
No, the filibuster does not protect the Democratic Party. It creates the gridlock that weakens it
Magdi Semrau explains why the GOP loves a do-nothing Congress.
Last week, United States Senator Kyrsten Sinema expressed ongoing support for the filibuster, arguing that “it is a tool that protects the democracy of our nation” and prevents our country from “[ricocheting] wildly every two to four years back and forth between policies.” Then, over the weekend, Joe Manchin echoed a similar sentiment, writing that Democrats have “attempted to demonize the filibuster and conveniently ignore how it has been critical to protecting the rights of Democrats in the past.”
Sinema and Manchin have been rhapsodizing over the filibuster and the virtues of bipartisanship for months, so these arguments are far from surprising. One obvious problem is they fly in the face of overwhelming evidence that bipartisanship is (mostly) dead. However, there’s another, more troubling problem that warrants our attention.
Democratic policies are popular on a national level. Republican policies are not. Republicans know this, which is one among their reasons for maintaining a dysfunctional Congress, writes Editorial Board member Magdi Semrau.
Sinema and Manchin maintain that the filibuster protects not only our democracy, but also the Democratic Party. If we rely on a mere majority for legislation, the thinking goes, any leftward movement will be met with an equal rightward shift when the GOP inevitably returns to power. Thus, we are to believe that the filibuster not only ensures stability, but, in the long run, actually protects Democratic Party’s legislative interests.
This analysis presumes that both parties are equally interested in passing legislation and that both equally benefit from a procedure that impedes democratic change. A moment’s reflection on the contemporary GOP shows these assumptions to be false.
Consider this question: why didn’t Mitch McConnell nuke the legislative filibuster during the first two years of Trump’s presidency when the Republicans held control over both chambers of Congress? The Senate majority leader—with the support of Senate Republicans—happily abolished the filibuster for Supreme Court justice nominees. This was after McConnell had refused to hold a hearing for Merrick Garland, essentially hobbling another branch of government. At the time, McConnell even declared: “One of my proudest moments was when I looked Barack Obama in the eye and I said, ‘Mr. President, you will not fill the Supreme Court vacancy.”
So is there something about the legislative filibuster’s role that’s more valuable to McConnell than other norms he’s broken? No. He only wants to maintain the legislative filibuster because, despite what Sinema and Manchin claim, the procedure ensures an imbalance of power that benefits Republicans while harming Democrats.
A 60-vote threshold would benefit any conservative party over a progressive counterpart by minimizing change. Even if a conservative party desires regressive change—such as the privatization of a public entitlement (e.g., Social Security or Medicare)—their next priority is, at the very least, maintaining the status quo. The GOP is thus well-served by a procedure that favors inaction at the federal level.
The asymmetrical benefit of the filibuster doesn’t stop there. The GOP doesn’t want to build anything. They want to either destroy the safety net we have or, at the very least, ensure it doesn’t get more expansive. This predictably results in congressional gridlock. Major legislation is rarely passed, which makes distinguishing the two parties’ agendas difficult. And guess who benefits from this state of affairs?
An amorphous mass of congressional inaction fuels voter apathy which, in turn, negatively impacts Democrats more than Republicans among key constituents, such as young voters. Why vote in the midterms if neither party does anything meaningful?
Republicans further benefit from national gridlock because their policies are unpopular. Majorities support Democratic policies on a variety of issues, ranging from gun control to immigration to healthcare. For example, as polarized as we are as a nation, if voters hear a party-neutral description of the public option, 68 percent endorse it. Meanwhile, though Republicans were successful at ginning up opposition to the Affordable Care Act throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, their actual attempt to repeal it correlated with increased support for the Democratic position.
Republicans are much better served by fighting on the state level while packing the courts. This allows them to chip away at popular policies under the radar while resting peacefully with the knowledge they control the Supreme Court.
So Democratic policies are popular on a national level. Republican policies are not. Republicans know this, which is one among their reasons for maintaining a dysfunctional Congress. Meanwhile, Republican causes are well-advanced on the state and local level, as well as through packing the federal courts with right-wing judges.
Consider abortion. Two months ago, McConnell threatened that, if Democrats abolished the filibuster, Republicans would respond by putting a variety of conservative measures, including a ban of abortion, on the docket once they regained power. McConnell was essentially making a similar argument as Sinema and Manchin: if Democrats abolish the legislative filibuster, Republicans will respond in kind.
McConnell is likely bluffing. A national fight over abortion would be disastrous for the GOP. Fifty-nine percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Younger Americans are pro-abortion by a whopping 69 percent. Pushing an abortion ban through Congress would not only serve to fully differentiate the two parties. It would also likely energize young voters and eliminate Democrats’ midterm turn-out disadvantage. There’s no better way to get a 25-year-old white guy passionate about voting than by telling him that he’ll be stuck with a kid if the condom breaks.
Thus, Republicans are much better served by fighting on the state and local levels while packing the courts. This allows them to chip away at popular policies under the radar while resting peacefully with the knowledge they control the Supreme Court.
Importantly, if the ACA or Roe get struck down by the courts, the GOP won’t be directly blamed. The dire consequences would be a step removed. McConnell and other shrewd Republicans recognize this. They know their battles are better fought on furtive ground. They also know that, due to the unpopularity of their policies, congressional gridlock serves as a shield. Voters will see nothing getting done and blame both parties. Apathy—which especially afflicts young voters—will prevail. Democrats and their popular policies will suffer when they’re unable to enact them.
Sinema and Manchin overlook the differences between the parties and how these differences are asymmetrically bolstered by congressional inaction. The filibuster doesn’t make our democracy more robust; it impedes democratic change, vastly privileging one party’s agenda over the other’s. Crucially, these benefits occur in an electoral system whose quirks give disproportionate power to Republican senators.
Like many Democrats, I am growing tired of Sinema and Manchin’s arguments over the filibuster. The bipartisanship they hail does not exist. Retaining the filibuster won’t fix that. Nor does it equally benefit both parties. Republicans know this, which is why the legislative filibuster is the only “democratic norm” they will fight to protect.
Born and raised in Alaska, Magdi Semrau is a writer now pursuing graduate work in linguistics, communication sciences and disorders. Follow her on Twitter at @magi_jay.
Published in cooperation with Alternet.
Magdi Semrau writes about the politics of language, science and medicine for the Editorial Board. She has researched child language development and published in the New York Academy of Sciences. Born and raised in Alaska, she can be found @magi_jay.