The Democratic Value of the Filibuster

The Democratic Value of the Filibuster

The filibuster was not invented to serve some lasting and critical role in democratic governance, but unintentionally, it does perform that function.  The filibuster is a structure – one rule of the game in American politics – that plays a powerful role in supporting more stable democracy. And it is particularly critical in times of deep polarization in politics. 

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on Capitol Hill on June 8. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Critics of the filibuster tend to take one of two overly simplistic positions on this device. 

One is that the mechanism of the filibuster is simply antithetical to majority rule by allowing a minority of Senators to delay and thereby often block bills in the US Senate despite a majority in support. This position ignores key realities of democratic political processes, such as the importance of intense minorities, the pluralist nature of democracy. 

Democratic systems are rightly respectful of intense minority opinion, such as the respect normally accorded to protests that gain strong support, but by no means a majority. It is likely that, overtime, intense minorities have fought for the status quo, and thereby have a conservative bias. However, there have been intense minorities for change in many cases, from anti-war protestors to climate change advocates. Democracies ignore intense minorities at their peril. 

More generally, in a pluralist democracy, like that of the US and many other liberal democratic nations, policy is shaped by specialized sets of individuals who care about and have expertise in particular issues, what has been called a polyarchy (Dahl 1971). Those who govern education are different from those who govern defense or healthcare. You want this kind of pluralistic, polyarchical form of governance to insure a division of labor that supports greater competence and focus. Even when legislative or parliamentary bodies meet, each member does not understand every issue – they could not even read every bill that comes before them. They rely on committees, specialized experts and policy makers, and then take cues from their partisans on the committee reporting the bill. They take cues as a necessary short cut (Stimson 1975). So, minorities are making policy that is endorsed or rejected by majority voting.

In short, majority rule is an oversimplification of the democratic process even in leading liberal democratic nations. 

Secondly, critics of the filibuster ignore the central importance of democratic stability, perhaps the most important issue, by focusing on the issue of the day. 

In the aftermath of the second world war, a seminal study of the cultures of democracies (the US, UK, Germany, Mexico, and Italy) identified the US as being relatively more stable due to its ‘civic culture’ (Almond and Verba 1963).[1] In contrast, in the period prior to the second world war, Germany had democratic regimes that were notoriously unstable. Stability in the US was attributed to a political culture that supported consensus, enabled diversity of opinion and moderated change. Arguably, the US has lost its civic culture as its politics is typified more by polarization, tribalism, and distrust – none of which are compatible with consensus and moderation. 

However, the filibuster can incentivize moderation and compromise to find a consensus that goes beyond the tyranny of majority rule. It is true that the use of a filibuster has caused many politicians to dig in their heels even further and say the fight has only begun, but a small but growing number of promising politicians have seen the value of the filibuster in supporting compromises that promote greater stability in policy and in democratic structures. 

Most recently, US Senator Kyrsten Sinema helped lead a bipartisan compromise that resulted [if enacted] in support for a $1trillion package of measures to upgrade declining infrastructures across the nation. She herself expressed support for the filibuster before her election and before this bill in a wonderful opinion piece in The Washington Post, which countered conventional wisdom to argue that ‘we have more to lose than gain by ending the filibuster’, arguing that it ‘compels moderation’ and counters ‘instability, partisanship, and tribalism that continue to infect our politics’.[2]

This rising star of the US Senate also warned against changing democratic rules of the game based on the policy issues of the day. As a Democrat in the senate, she reminded her colleagues that the filibuster was used by them in defeating some major Republican efforts, when Republicans were in the majority. Her opinion piece is must-reading for those who oppose the filibuster, but have an open mind in considering a serious issue for the future of American politics. 

References

Almond, Gabriel A., and Verba, Sidney. (1963), The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Dahl, Robert A. (1971), Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Stimson, James A. (1975), ‘Five Propositions About Congressional Decision-Making: An Examination of Behavioral Inferences from Computer Simulation’, Political Methodology 2 (4): 415–36.


[1] Some critics of the time argued that Almond and Verba were simply describing American politics and ascribing the attribute of stability to it, rather than having a clear causal argument. But even if only descriptive of the era, that kind of civic culture is arguably absent in most cases of American politics today. 

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/06/21/kyrsten-sinema-filibuster-for-the-people-act/

Polarization is Not the Problem: A Post-Civic Culture

Increasingly, the dilemmas facing politics in the United States if not worldwide are being portrayed as outcomes of polarization. It is an attractive topic for discussion, because there is undeniably a great deal of polarization, if defined as wildly different (polar opposite) viewpoints on one or more issues. Moreover, it seems to be tied to popular conceptions of the role of the Internet in enabling individuals to find support for their views online, even if extreme. Conceptions of echo chambers and filter bubbles are tied to this perspective. While I have argued that echo chambers and filter bubbles have been over hyped and under researched, I also can’t believe that polarization has not been prominent throughout the history of American politics.

So what is the problem? What has changed?

Perhaps it is the degree that proponents of different viewpoints have begun to take more ideological, righteous, or even sectarian positions. Their opponents are not wrong, they are seen and portrayed as bad if not evil.

What is surprising about this in the context of American politics is our history of being the model of a so-called ‘civic culture’ (Almond and Versa 1963: 8), defined by a culture based on “communication” and “consensus” in which diverse opinions are moderated by the structures and process of the political system, such as the two-party system and our system of checks and balances. This view was roundly criticized as simply a description of American politics post-World War II, as contrasted with less stable democratic systems leading up to the second world war, such as the Weimar Republic. However, there has been some face validity to this civic culture notion, at least up to the divisions surrounding the Vietnam War. Today, the idea of a civic culture seem ludicrous. 

So I don’t think we should be as focused on the dynamics of polarization, or a diversity of opinions, but more on the dynamics of this politically sectarian righteousness. Maybe it is the nature of the issues being considered, such as the right to life, the environment, and immigration, that have connections with deep ethical or religious principles. But the search for answers to this question will lead in different directions than the search for the dynamics of polarization on the issues of the day.

There is a thoughtful letter to the editor of USA Today by David Engen of Spokane, Washington, that focuses on the decline of civil discourse. I find myself in agreement with him and others who are focusing on the decline of civility in American politics as absolutely central to fixing or mitigating what seems to be a decline of our political processes. Yet even the discussion of civility in American politics has been steeped in claims that one or another sectarian group is to blame, such as a recent story about whether voters see the Democrats or President Trump as more responsible for a decline in civility (Wise 2018).

Are we lost in what I would call a post-civic culture?

References

Almond, G. A., and Verba, S. (1963), The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dutton, W. H. (2017), Fake News, Echo Chambers and Filter Bubbles: Underresearched and Overhyped, The Conversation, 5 May: https://theconversation.com/fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-underresearched-and-overhyped-76688

Engen, D. (2018), ‘We’re all Americans. Let’s be civil, please.’, Your Say section of USA Today, 2 July: page 5A.

Wise, J. (2018), ‘Poll: More Voters Blame Trump than Dems for Lack of Civility’, The Hill, 3 July: http://thehill.com/homenews/395371-poll-more-voters-blame-trump-than-dems-for-lack-of-civility