I have mixed emotions about the U.S. Senate’s decision to weaken the filibuster in order to approve the nomination of Neil Gorsuch as the next member of the U.S. Supreme Court.
On the one hand, the filibuster was used for years to preserve segregation in the southern states.
On the other, the filibuster recognized an understanding of human nature lacking today — that tyranny can come not only from a king or
dictator, but from a majority of the masses.
Although not part of the Constitution, the filibuster was one more way to slow the lawmaking process down, to make sure that all arguments were heard, and so that, even though a consensus may not be achieved, at least some bipartisan support was earned.
The demise of the filibuster has been coming for 45 years, ever since Roe v. Wade changed abortion and court politics forever. It was then that both liberals and conservatives began to see the Supreme Court in a different light. Instead of being an impartial oracle issuing its decisions from the constitutional heavens, the partisans saw it as just another political tool to be used to make law in areas where those elected to do the job were too frightened of public opposition.
It came to a head in recent years when first the Democrats weakened the filibuster to move forward the approval of some lower court justices, and then the Republicans refused even to take a vote on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to be on the court. Why did they do those things? Because they could.
The logical extension of that behavior would have been to let the courts wither away death by death until either anarchy reigned or that rare moment occurred when one party or the other gained the 60 votes needed to override the filibuster. The winner could then appoint extremists of one ilk or another. This latest move lowers the bar for such extremism. It moves us ever closer to the day when a simple majority can do anything.
I think the Founding Fathers would say, “Be careful what you wish for.”
In recent years, much disparagement of the Electoral College has been raised. How can we allow someone to become president if that person did not receive the most votes?
The Founding Fathers would say, “Because we have more interests than just the individual’s. We need to consider the interests of neighborhoods, communities and states as well.”
In his book, “Our Fractured Republic,” Yuval Levin thinks we have become stuck in a morass of nostalgia, progressives yearning for the 1960s and conservatives wanting to return to the early 1980s, while both ignore the new challenges and opportunities before us.
As recently as a century ago, most people lived on small, family farms. But for two centuries, the drive of industrialization and technology has asked us to form into ever bigger organizations, becoming cogs in factories or bureaucracies.
Our civic life also sought greater organization, moving on from the church social. Most of today’s civic organizations from the Rotary to the American Legion to the Boy and Girl Scouts were formed in the first 20 years of the 1900s.
Now that cohesion is withering away. Liberals and conservatives alike yearn for different days when “Do your own thing” seemed harmless, celebrating either diversity or the desire to be left alone while ignoring the downside. Now we are seeing fractures throughout the body politic, from a general incivility to shout-downs at public meetings to street riots.
Lowering the filibuster bar is only the latest symptom of the failure of our recent politics.
In the last years of the Obama administration, talk grew in Texas about secession. After Donald Trump’s election, the same kind of talk began in California. Across the seas, Britain wants out of the European Union and Scotland wants out of Britain.
Levin writes, “Progressives tend to treasure the social liberalization, cultural diversification and expressive individualism of our time, but they lament the loss of social solidarity and the rise in inequality and fragmentation — and their consequences for the most vulnerable Americans in particular.”
But then he adds, “Conservatives tend to celebrate the economic liberalism, dynamism and prosperity, but they lament the social instability, moral disorder, cultural breakdown and weakening of fundamental institutions and traditions — and their consequences for the most vulnerable Americans in particular.”
What’s been created, Levin writes, is a “perilous mix of overcentralization and hyper-individualism.”
To repair our politics, he says, first we need to repair the lower levels of society, starting with the family, and then reaching out through the neighborhoods, friends, schools and communities. To do that, he writes, “Put power, authority and significance as close as reasonably possible to the level of the interpersonal community.”
For example, instead of dictating from Washington and St. Paul, give more aid in the form of block grants to the local level that encourage experimentation and implementation without over-regulation.
Human nature being what it is, our state and federal politicians and bureaucrats will be reluctant to do that. It’s easier said than done, but we have to start somewhere. What’s going on today isn’t working.
Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at [email protected]