Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

23 November 2013

The Trouble with Filibusters

[For more on the South’s alien culture, which it has used filibusters to serve, click here.]

Is gridlock good for us?
Republics and democracies
Majority rule
How advising became a minority veto
Conclusion: the South will rise again, over our prone bodies, but only if we let it
Coda: A Truly Alien Culture


David Brooks is a conservative pundit for the New York Times and PBS. He’s one of the few of his ilk to whom I can listen without hearing fingernails scraping on a blackboard. He’s not dogmatic. He’s not belligerent. He doesn’t even sound authoritarian. He has an attractive “aw shucks” manner similar to Warren Buffet’s, although I doubt he’s as public spirited or as rich. At least I haven’t heard of him donating $30 billion to charity.

On last night’s PBS News Hour, in his usual end-of-week political roundup, Brooks did something extraordinary. He foretold our future. He explained why today’s brand of so-called “conservatism” either will destroy this country or will be beaten decisively in the next few years.

Brooks did this inadvertently. He was, in his usual way, just being affable, trying to explain his moderately conservative beliefs. In this case, the belief in question was that we should expect—and even celebrate—inertia and stasis in government.

The context of his paean to gridlock was a discussion of this week’s seminal event: eliminating filibusters of the President’s (and future presidents’) executive and lower judicial appointments (those below the Supreme Court). Brooks lamented this change as making our Senate less “special” and portending greater partisanship.

To some extent, his co-pundit Mark Shields, who is supposed to be a progressive, agreed with Brooks on these points. It was an extraordinary performance by both men, a seeming ode to stasis for stasis’ sake. This essay analyzes their mutual reverence for procedures that keep government from working.

Is gridlock good for us?

We should never expect too much of politics, Brooks opined. When we do, we set ourselves up for failure and disappointment.

Brooks superimposed this mournful view of our nation and human nature on the day’s retrospectives of JFK. He seemed to say that we were sad after JFK’s untimely demise because we expected him to accomplish so much more. Most of us would say we were sad because JFK’s murder deprived us of one of our most inspiring leaders. (Shields did capture this spirit in a ringing and accurate homage to JFK.)

And why, according to Brooks, can’t government do much? Because our Founders designed it that way.

Our Founders, Brooks implied, designed our Senate for gridlock, not just slow deliberation. Their goal was to make political change really hard, so that policy would be consistent and “stable” from eon to eon. In Brooks view, it should take decades or centuries to get anything real done in politics, like making our freed slaves equal citizens—a task almost exactly one and a half centuries old and still ongoing.

That’s the way Brooks and most conservatives like things: stable, unchanging and ever the same. But that’s not what life, let alone evolution, demands. Maybe that’s why so many so-called “conservatives” reject Darwin. They don’t want us to evolve, either socially or biologically. They want things to stay the same, forever if possible. They reject Darwin’s monumental discovery that survival, let alone thriving, demands change, in an ever-changing and highly competitive world.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the great leaps in economic and social progress that our government—yes, our government!—has made over our nation’s short history. They include: the Louisiana Purchase (doubling the size of our nation), Lewis and Clark’s exploration of our continent, opening the West with staked-claim farms, freeing the slaves, subsidizing the railroads with land grants, authorizing and subsidizing universal education, funding land-grant colleges, pulling us out of the Great Depression, inventing nuclear weapons (a military government project from start to finish), passing new civil rights laws, trying to eliminate racism as a governmental principle, funding and managing the conquest of smallpox, polio and AIDS, taking us to the Moon, and developing the Internet (a DARPA project later released for commercial use). And that’s just a partial list.

Apparently Brooks would not have funded or authorized any of these worthy projects. In his world of laissez faire, where the real rulers are corporate bosses and their hidden wealth, we would be just another Latin American nation. Likely we would have lost the Great War and would be speaking either German or Japanese. Brooks (who I believe is Jewish) might be dead, along with his family and mine, victims of a Holocaust that never ended.

But never mind. Inertia is so comfortable for those who can’t stand change. The dinosaurs were like that, too. We see their skeletons in our museums.

Republics and democracies

Let’s leave aside these historical inconveniences of Brooks’ government-as-bumbler philosophy. In coming to his counterfactual conclusions, Brooks told a real whopper. “[W]e’re a republic,” he said, “and not a democracy . . . .” That’s a direct quote.

Maybe Brooks was tired. Who wouldn’t be, after listening all day to people praising our most recent presidential martyr, knowing that that martyr’s persona and call to sacrifice contradicted Brook’s own political philosophy? Who wouldn’t feel a bit squeamish, after feeling the glow of JFK’s inspiration and intelligence, still shining half a century later, and watching Ronnie’s memory diminish in comparison like an incredible shrinking doll?

Even high-school civics students know that nothing in our Republic or our Constitution contradicts democracy. What our Founders gave us they called a “Republic” to distinguish it from a direct democracy: one in which the people themselves, in masses assembled, vote on all important issues.

Ancient Greece had something like that, and our Founders knew all about it. The Republic our Founders gave us is different. It’s representative democracy, as distinguished from ancient Greece’s direct one. But it was (and is) still supposed to be a democracy, in which the people’s chosen representatives govern them and are accountable to them.

Our Founders had ambitions just like JFK’s. They knew our nation would grow strong and multiply. Eventually, they knew, it would get far too big for town-hall meetings. And in their own time—over two centuries before the Internet and even radio—they knew that we, the people, would have to debate and vote through representatives, if only because we would be too many to do otherwise.

Our Founders hoped our representatives would be smarter, better educated and more skilled in debate and useful compromise than the average person. But they never doubted, even for an instant, the most basic principle of democracy: majority rule.

Majority rule

A funny thing, majority rule. It’s so natural that no one invented it. It just evolved, like us.

In the fields of Runnymede, King John looked at the assembled knights and knaves. The Barons had a majority. They outnumbered him. So he could fight the good fight, probably lose (maybe his own life), and shed a whole lot of blood. Or he could make a deal.

King John dealt, and the result was Magna Carta. So the first post-ancient democracy began.

That was about 800 years ago. Ever since, the principle of democracy in Anglo-American societies has been the same. Majority rule applied, whether in the House of Commons or the House of Lords, or in the boardrooms that directed the private companies that discovered the “New World.”

And let’s not forget ancient Greece and Rome. They all acted by simple majorities, too. They go back at least three millennia. (Sometimes social evolution has to re-discover itself. Two steps forward, one step back.)

So, no, David. Democracy and a Republic are not incompatible. Our Republic is a democracy, just as were ancient Greece, ancient Rome (for a time), and England for eight centuries, and as are Australia, Canada, India and New Zealand today (to list only the English-speaking ones). We are “exceptional” only because our democracy no longer works.

How advising became a minority veto

Brooks also bewailed the passing of what is “special” about our Senate. The context was this week’s Senate rules change, allowing Harry Reid and the Democrats to let our President appoint subordinate members of his own team and occasionally a federal judge. (Nearly six years into Obama’s presidency, an unprecedentedly large number of Executive positions still remains unfilled. I guess that fact saves money and furthers the GOP dream of drowning government in a bathtub. The fewer heads to drown, the quicker the job.)

Both executive and judicial appointments are things that our Constitution explicitly authorizes. Brooks thinks that lowering the necessary Senate majority from 60 to 51 (the second similar decrease in modern times) forfeits something “special” about the Senate that our Founders bequeathed us.

That thought, too, assumes a couple of whoppers. Our Founders didn’t bequeath us filibusters and Senate holds at all. Read our Constitution from cover to cover, and you will find no reference to them. None at all.

What is in the Constitution is the Senate’s power to “advise and consent” to executive and judicial appointments and to ratify treaties. It’s hard to read those soft words as meaning minority veto power.

In 1791, when our Constitution was ratified, people (even politicians) said what they meant. “Spin” was something children’s tops did, not pols. If our Founders had meant to give the Senate carte blanche to “return” or “disapprove” any presidential appointment, they would have said so, just as they did in authorizing presidential vetoes (although without using that modern term). If they had intended a minority of the Senate to have that privilege, they would have been especially clear.

Filibusters did begin not too long after our Constitution was ratified. But what was their purpose? Was it to give a Senate minority veto power over legislation and the president’s executive and judicial appointments? Was it to give any individual senator veto power, merely by threatening a filibuster, as Senate “holds” do today?

No and no. The filibuster’s original purpose was only delay, not a senatorial veto, let alone a minority veto.

Back in 1791, it took about two weeks to travel the length of our country on horseback, or to send a letter across it by similar means. There was no Internet. There was no radio or TV. There were no automobiles. There wasn’t even a railroad. Stage coaches’ wheels broke, and they tended to get bogged down in mud, especially in winter. So horseback was the fastest mode of transport and communication.

The filibuster’s original purpose to give senators from outlying states a chance to assemble and debate important issues. Its aim was just to let them communicate, deliberate, assemble, and debate, in time to have some impact. It was not to give a minority a veto, let alone over every bit of routine legislation needed to keep the government running.

Some such delaying tactic was practically necessary at the time, for reasons of simple fairness. Without it, states closer to the seat of government (which was then Philadelphia) would have had an advantage. Senators from outlying states would have to stay in the capital and lose contact with their states and voters. Or they would have to let their senatorial opponents assemble a quorum in their absence and vote without their presence, wisdom, debate or objection.

It is self-evident that these reasons do not apply today, when any senator can send an e-mail across the world in seconds or travel personally from the farthest state to Washington, D.C. in a single day. Modern technologies of communication and travel have extinguished filibusters’ raison d’être. Yet like Dracula and vampires, they live on.

The Senate’s “advise and consent” function was supposed to give our presidents the benefit of whatever relevant wisdom and experience senators might have. It was designed for collegiality and consultation. Roadblocks were to be as rare as impeachments. They were intended for once-in-a-century disputes.

Not only was the “advise and consent” power never supposed to provide routine “vetoes” over executive policy. It was never dreamed to turn the appointments process into an opportunity for political extortion, as Senator Shelby of Alabama has done over 70 times. Our Founders could never have imagined that filibusters would become a routine means of blocking legislation desired by the majority of Americans’ representatives, let alone at 142 times the rate from 1917 to 1972.

The House today is just as bad. Under the Republican-designed “Hastert Rule,” it lets a 26% minority block legislation when the GOP is split, even if the Dems are unanimous and favor a bill. (Since the practice requires a majority of the majority, and the House is roughly split between parties, a 26% minority of the whole House, by blocking action in the GOP, can prevent a bill from coming to the floor even if 74% of the whole House want it to pass.)

This practice makes a mockery of majority rule. And yet it is not yet even a decade old. So this perversion of majority rule cannot be blamed on our Founders, even with aid of the lies about history now customary in American politics.

In the House, nearly two-thirds of self-identified Tea Party members are from the Old, Deep South or Border States. Nearly twenty percent are from Texas alone. With the help of Fox and its huge propaganda machine, the South is making big waves. But it’s still largely the same old place, except where demographic changes are slowly turning it blue.

Conclusion: the South will rise again, over our prone bodies, but only if we let it

Who or what is responsible for turning our Founders’ prescriptions for collegial government into instruments of minority veto, extortion and gridlock? To answer that question, we must look to history.

From our old Articles of Confederation to the present day, one region of our country has always coveted loose and weak government, no central control, and minority vetoes. That was our South.

The South has always had a different culture and a wildly different attitude toward government from the rest of us. Slavery was the primary reason, but not the only one.

From its very first settlement by Europeans, the South was different. It was an agrarian society based on vestiges of feudal land tenure. At first those vestiges were slavery. Later came sharecropping. The most recent step is the pervasive bossism that characterizes Southern culture today.

All this should be no surprise. Our South began as a landed aristocracy based on slavery. Jefferson and Washington were among its few aristocrats. Its land tenure and rules of operation were as unfair and unequal as anything in France under Louis XIV, likely more so.

Not quite a century after our Founding, the South fought our bloodiest-ever war to retain its immorally unequal system. When it lost, it surrendered militarily but fought a rear-guard action in Congress and the courts. It has done so ever since. The so-called “Tea Party” is just its latest manifestation—with a deceptive name cleverly devised to make us think of our Founding and of Massachusetts (which claims no Tea Party member in either House).

For about a century, the South’s rear-guard political action was highly successful. Why shouldn’t it have been? With Lincoln murdered and a Southern fifth-columnist (Andrew Johnson) in the White House, the South could (and did) reverse most of the North’s post-Civil War policy. After a brief Reconstruction renaissance, Jim Crow kept African-Americans in a state of near slavery for most of the next century.

When a semblance of equal opportunity finally dawned over the South, its culture of bossism remained. Slowly and grudgingly, despite large pockets of horrendous racism, the South accepted the idea of equal opportunity, independent of race. But the notion that someone must be boss, and that others should serve him remained, even as the importance of skin color waned. The boss has always been a male, maybe with an Iron Magnolia standing behind him.

The South’s leaders may have been selfish and anachronistic. But they have never been stupid, at least in politics. With others to do their menial work for them, they have had lots of time to think, plan and plot.

And think, plan and plot they did. From the very Founding of our nation, they knew that the North (and eventually the West) would become more populous, more wealthy, more industrial, more scientific, and more powerful than their agrarian and hierarchical society. How could it be otherwise? Their society existed for the benefit of the few; ours exists to expand the horizons of the many. They foreswore the enormous benefits of social cohesion from the very beginning.

They sought from the outset to aggrandize their region and increase their power by political, not economic, means. And they were clever and successful, maybe beyond their wildest dreams.

How so? Let me count the ways. The Great Compromise gives each state two senators, regardless of size, which can never be taken away without a state’s consent. So now humble Wyoming, with 576 thousand people, has two senators, just like California, with 38 million, or about 66 times as many. As a result, the people of our most populous and most productive state have one-sixty-sixth the voting power in the Senate of people from Wyoming. The South, of course, with its generally smaller and less populated states, is the primary beneficiary of this gross departure from the most basic principle of democracy: one person, one vote.

Our mal-apportioned Senate was far from the only Constitutional time bomb that clever Southern politicians put away for later use. An inevitably conservative Supreme Court (made so by lifetime tenure and unavoidable age) upheld the notion of slaves as property in the infamous Dred Scott decision. Later it upheld the farce of “separate but equal” treatment in Plessy v. Ferguson. Like a crumbling but still solid dike, the Court held the tide of racial and social progress back decades—all in service of the South’s unique culture.

In the last half-century, some Southern leaders have seen the writing on the wall. But most still cannot accept it. So they have taken the filibuster—a procedure intended to be rare and to permit delay—and have fashioned it into a tool of minority dominance, extortion and gridlock. They have exalted the “gentlemanly” custom of Senate “holds” (a mere threat of filibuster) into a hideous weapon of extortion, which Alabama’s Shelby used over 70 times in attempts to extract concessions favorable to his state. And now, with the so-called “Hastert Rule,” they have converted the House into a larger and more unruly Senate, in which a 26% minority can block any legislation, shut down our government, and bring our nation to the brink of default.

The South’s pols can get away with all this for three reasons only. First, their predecessors and mentors helped draft our Plan. Second, their region’s pols have been masters of using our Constitution for delay and obstruction for our entire history.

Third—and most important—we in the North and West (and large parts of the Midwest) have been dozing. We’ve been oblivious to how the South—a small and largely backward region of our nation—has been taking over our national government and bending it to its own ends.

As Southerners learned in our Civil War, Yankees are slow to boil. So after losing that war, the South has tried to control and even govern this country by stealth and chicanery. That has been the state of affairs for 150 years now.

Enough is enough. The rest of our nation has the population, the wealth, the education, the industry, the science, the inventiveness, and (if it came to that again) the military power. No one wants another civil war. But we cannot forever be governed by an anachronistic minority culture, utterly foreign to our majority values, even if it exists within our present national borders.

Federalism gives the South the right and the power to stay mostly as it is for as long as it likes. But it cannot force its alien culture on the rest of us.

If the South wants to leave this Union, we should let it go this time, with our blessing. But it should leave its nukes behind. Jewish and Italian immigrants invented them, whom the South would never have admitted to its Confederacy. And with its current anti-government “philosophy,” the South never would have funded nukes’ development by government (which at one time commandeered almost 10% of our national electric energy to enrich uranium). Anyway, a nuclear-armed rogue state like Texas would destabilize geopolitics even more than The Little Kim.

So states that are uncomfortable with our democracy should go quietly, leave their nukes behind, and close the door firmly behind them. But if they want to stay, they should be prepared to abide by the most basic principle of democracy throughout human history: majority rule.

We Northerners, Westerners, and most Mid-Westerners have waited two centuries to see that principle at work as our Founders intended, and as most of the rest of the world now operates. We are getting impatient.

Coda: A Truly Alien Culture

What makes the South alien to the rest of American culture? For our entire history, the easy answer has been racism, the justification for and legacy of slavery.

But there are deeper and more persistent differences. As racism wanes—and, yes, it is on the run, even in the South!—these other differences matter more and more.

The South is full of anomalies. The most important may be its consistent and adamant support for Wall Street. In every attempt to restrain them, our rogue bankers have found their strongest congressional allies in the South.

At first glance, this makes no sense whatsoever. Didn’t Yankee bankers finance the North’s victory in the Civil War? Didn’t they help finance Sherman’s terrible march through Georgia? Wouldn’t the South, as our nation’s least developed region (still!), benefit from a more rational, fairer banking system less devoted to gambling and swindling? Why would the South, which guards its unique culture and regional differences like the most scared treasure, consistently support policies that centralize economic power in Manhattan—a place whose culture could not be more different?

But culture need not be logical. As my first Russian teacher once said about language, it’s psychological, not logical.

And so we have recent history. Time after time, Southern Senators have exercised their votes, their filibusters and their “holds” to keep Wall Street unfettered and firmly in control of national finance. Alabama Senator Shelby’s personal crusades against Elizabeth Warren, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Nobel-Prize-winner Peter Diamond as candidate for the Fed are just the highlights of a long and (so far) successful march of Southern pols on Washington for Wall Street.

Two easy explanations for this anomaly come to mind. First, outside booming Triangle Park, Atlanta, Miami and South Florida’s retirement community, much of the South is still poor. A little campaign money goes a long way. Wall Street’s money is a boon to Southern politicians and a good “investment” for Wall Street. The price of an Alabama pol is cheaper than, for example, a Californian or a New Yorker.

Second, LBJ’s civil rights laws and Nixon’s Southern Strategy turned the so-called “Solid South” from Democratic to Republican. Southern culture is nothing if not loyal. So the South bought the GOP’s adulation for Wall Street along with its muscular, unregulated capitalism. The South did so because the GOP, unlike LBJ’s Dems, agreed to carry its cultural baggage.

But I think these explanations are too glib. If you read a little about Senator Shelby, you cannot escape the suspicion that he really believes what he says. If not, he’s a better actor than Ronald Reagan.

So what motivates him and much of the South? I think it’s a combination of bossism, authoritarianism (including sexism, vis-à-vis Warren), and a cultural inferiority complex, of which anti-intellectualism is a part.

Wall Streeters are the straw bosses of finance, and the South loves its straw bosses. Anyway, what business does a woman like Warren, let alone a young one, have telling the straw bosses what to do? She isn’t even an Iron Magnolia.

As for Diamond, isn’t he one of those Yankee eggheads, of the same type that George Wallace once said “couldn’t park their bicycles straight” when they tried to integrate his precious all-white university? Aren’t they the ones who consistently undermined the South’s self-image with prickly and uncomfortable reasoning, both during and after the Civil War? Didn’t they even try to prove that Southerners weren’t real Christians when they supported slavery? What kind of perverse, sophistic reasoning is that?

Of all Americans, Southerners most deride Europe, with its internationalist and intellectual flavor. The irony is that, among all of us, they are most like Europeans—the European working class. They resemble the European peasants who, throughout the twentieth century, kept portraits of Napoleon in their homes, waiting for another strong man to grant them egalité.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., began his non-violent struggle, it came as much more of a shock to the South than to the rest of the nation. It was the first time that any free people in the South had ever risen up against their bosses. The early twentieth century’s labor struggles had passed the South by, mostly because the South had little industry besides plantations.

A white Southern nobody killed King because King was a highly successful revolutionary, not just for civil rights, but for equality and economic justice for all. King was disturbing the natural order of things, meaning boss rule. The tragic irony was that people like James Earl Ray, in the long run, had as much to gain from King’s revolution as people with mixed African blood. They just didn’t know it.

Health care is another another Southern anomaly, like banking. The South has by far the largest number of uninsured people of any US region. Yet it consistently votes to deny its poor people health insurance.

This is not just a political anomaly, but a mortal danger. With as much as 20% of its population—one out of five people!—lacking access to medical care, the South is a prime target for the next pandemic. It will rip through the South and decimate it just as the Black Plague decimated Western Europe. The uninsured maids, nannies, housekeepers, gardeners, waiters and cooks will bring it right into their bosses’ homes, places of travel and businesses.

But the South’s pols resist health-insurance reform just as adamantly as they resist any restraint on Wall Street’s financial power. Bosses are bosses, even if they phone their orders in from Manhattan.

To say this whole system is ripe for peaceful revolution would be an understatement of this new century. African-Americans won their rights to use the same hotel rooms, restaurants and bathrooms as whites. But when a misguided poor white killed King, their revolution ran out of steam.

The great tragedy was that King was just beginning to broaden his revolution and make it an economic one when he was killed. (Maybe that’s why he was killed, but I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories. There was certainly enough racism alone to serve as motivation.) With all the many, well-deserved retrospectives of the March on Washington after half a century, most of them downplay or ignore that fact that it was for “jobs and freedom.”

Those words were on every placard for the March, in that order. Even then, jobs came first. For without economic sustenance and independence, there can be no freedom: we are all vassals of the bosses. If poor whites and poor blacks in the South ever recognize their common economic interests and the economic irrelevancy of skin color, we will see a new South, a new America, and perhaps a new world.

But in the meantime, we must deal with (to paraphrase That Idiot Rumsfeld) the Southern culture we have, not the one we would like. That culture is much like Europe’s in its bad old days, with bosses firmly in control and their underlings waiting, hats in hand, for a strong man like Napoleon to lead them to freedom.

We outside the South can’t do much about that. Culture can take decades or centuries to change.

Sometimes change happens faster. The change may involve hideous violence, like the French or Russian revolutions. But sometimes, with great leaders like King, Gandhi and Mandela, it can happen quickly and peacefully.

While we wait and hope for such change, the least we can do is abolish filibusters, which the South invented to protect its unique culture from erosion by majority rule. At very least, we shouldn’t let that uniquely backward culture subsume the rest of us.

Leadership is a heavy burden. Sometimes leaders have to do things even when it’s hard and when Fox’ moron-bullies will yell at them. They even have to do hard things knowing that John Boehner will try to counteract their every move by turning the House of Representatives into its own simulacrum of a filibuster machine.

But the Senate’s majority must restore majority rule to this country, quickly, boldly and surely. It’s long past time to do so, and there may never be a better time. If they act boldly, a nation fed up to the teeth with authoritarian bullies like Boehner will follow. The alternative is to let this nation inexorably become more and more like the South, and less and less like the America people my age once knew.

Footnote: Possible invidious comparisons between JFK and Ronald Reagan are almost too numerous to count. I will make only one. JKF advised us, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Reagan advised us that, “It’s your money.”

The contrast is not just between a grand vision and squalid shopkeepers’ selfishness. To youth, who are always ready to rebel against their elders’ questionable values, it’s a contrast between a life of meaning and a tawdry struggle for middle-class survival in a nation that can’t even give them employment commensurate with their education or vision.

All a president needs to capture today’s youth, permanently, is to do what JFK did: give them a lofty vision like the Peace Corps or a Moon shot. Then challenge them to make the world and their country better places to live. The current, underemployed “new generation” will grasp the baton with both hands and run with it, just as mine did.

And, sorry GOP, but keeping “your own money” won’t do the job. Thanks to you, our youth don’t have any money to keep. And their natural youthful exuberance and idealism won’t countenance such a squalid, selfish goal.



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