Don't Filibuster This!

American democracy is facing an existential threat

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If you see your house burning down, is that the time for idealistic long-range planning? If you believe in unity, yet your so-called partner is working furiously to make you irrelevant, is that the time to insist you believe in the rules? If you really love your country, doesn’t that include doing whatever you can to ensure the survival of democracy?

Yet here was Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema this week, standing side-by-side with Texas Sen. John Cornyn, talking with great gusto and belief about the value of the filibuster to motivate Senators to work together and protect our democracy.

"To those who say that we must make a choice between the filibuster and 'X,' I say, this is a false choice…The reality is that when you have a system that is not working effectively—and I would think that most would agree that the Senate is not a particularly well-oiled machine, right? The way to fix that is to fix your behavior, not to eliminate the rules or change the rules, but to change the behavior."

I don’t know what planet Sen. Sinema is currently living on, but the last few weeks should have provided sufficient evidence that Republicans have no interest in changing their behavior to protect our democracy. While GOP-led state legislatures continue to pass laws to restrict voting and reject election results, her Senate Republican counterparts refused to support a bipartisan commission to investigate the most horrific attack on our nation’s Capitol since the War of 1812.

What was the tool employed to ensure that outcome? The 60-vote requirement of the filibuster—the historically odious tool employed before, during and after the Civil War to block the rights of African Americans. If Sinema were acting in good faith, what additional proof would she need to confirm that the filibuster is not furthering consensus but instead providing an impenetrable roadblock by which Republicans can deny the Democratic agenda and even democracy itself?

Were we living in normal times, the commitment to the filibuster by Sen. Sinema and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin could be reasonably argued as a propellant for bipartisanship. In such times, sticking to their guns would not look like a suicide pact with an anti-democratic devil.

But these are not those times: It should be no surprise that Mitch McConnell has made rejecting the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act a top priority.

Before the vote on the Jan. 6 commission, Sen. Manchin confidently enthused about his GOP colleagues, “I think there’s 10 good people.” A month earlier, he took to the opinion pages of the Washington Post to assert his support for the filibuster and his against-all-evidence optimism:

“I have said it before and will say it again to remove any shred of doubt: There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster. The time has come to end these political games, and to usher a new era of bipartisanship where we find common ground on the major policy debates facing our nation.”

Such pretty words. So disconnected from our reality.

And what did he have so say after only six of those “good people” could be found to vote for a bipartisan commission, betraying his vision of “a new era of bipartisanship” and common ground? To his credit, he called the vote “unconscionable” and a “betrayal of the oath we each take.” But he also praised the “six brave Republicans” and added: "I am sorry that my Republican colleagues and friends let political fear prevent them from doing what they know in their hearts to be right."

Notice the pattern here? Sinema fantasizes about a “change of behavior” and Manchin insists these are “good people” who “know in their hearts” what is right. Meanwhile, the self-described Grim Reaper McConnell continues the Republicans’ filibuster-proof march to stem voting rights and hold onto power.

The cynical reading is that they’re really Republicans in Democratic garb. The more cynical reading is that they are Democrats in the pocket of Republicans—and have abandoned their duty as small “d” democrats.

Perhaps they’re simply taking this moment, when each vote is so critical, to increase their position near the center of power. Ironically, since this is the most obvious assumption, that may be the most cynical reading, since both of these Senators are capable of grasping the danger our democracy is facing.

Don’t just listen to me. Hear the words of over a hundred scholars of democracy joined together to describe states “dangerously politicizing the process of electoral administration,” empowering themselves “to override electoral outcomes on unproven allegations,” restricting access to voting, implementing “criminal sentences and fines to intimidate and scare away poll workers,” advancing initiatives to curtail early voting and mail-in voting, and openly talking about “ensuring the ‘purity’ and ‘quality’ of the vote, echoing arguments widely used across the Jim Crow South” to restrict the Black vote.

Such are the tools to “reverse the outcome of a free and fair election,” these experts note, raising the dark specter that “our entire democracy is now at risk.” And what are the consequences of this danger?

“When democracy breaks down, it typically takes many years, often decades, to reverse the downward spiral. In the process, violence and corruption typically flourish, and talent and wealth flee to more stable countries, undermining national prosperity. It is not just our venerated institutions and norms that are at risk—it is our future national standing, strength, and ability to compete globally.”

So it’s in times like these that Democrats should expect—indeed, demand—their elected leaders do whatever they can to confront the visible danger. It’s why so many people are so angry at Manchin and Sinema who are still clinging to the position that a 60-vote majority is an appropriate goal. They have chosen to praise the filibuster, even if that could be the rope that hangs our democracy.

When I was a young boy, in the ‘70s, I imagined that the idea of the American middle class was something that distinguished the country—that it was something sacrosanct that would provide stability and endure forever. (In subsequent decades, as the rich got richer, the poor got poorer and the middle class continued to shrink, I came to understand how wrong I was.) Even now, I continue to believe that democracy, as enshrined in our Constitution, remains a defining characteristic of what it means to be American.

It’s up to us to determine whether the democratic project continues to represent who we are—the best of us, the promise of what’s possible—or the American experiment becomes just another one of history’s failed attempts to overcome the dark instincts of human nature. What I am sure of: It’s worth fighting for.


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