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  • Oren Levin-Waldman

The Elites' Opposition to the Senate Filibuster Reflects Nothing but their Contempt for Democracy

The elites that claim the filibuster in the Senate violates the principles of democracy now seek to end it, not because they really want greater democracy, but because they want to perpetuate the preferences and policies of the elites. It is true that the Senate, as a republican institution, was established as an anti-majoritarian body, but the elites’ abhorrence of populism is equally anti-majoritarian.


Progressives of the Twenty-First Century share something in common with Progressives of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century: disdain for the people and contempt for democracy. Early progressives sought to change the rules of the game because ethnic minorities, especially in cities, were attaining positions of prominence, which in their view was displacing the “better” sort, i.e, those who were entitled to govern because of the superior pedigree, which also included a superior education.


Stressing the importance of meritocracy for the ranks of public administration, of course, sounds reasonable on its face, but the intent was clearly to send ethnic minorities, who mostly had no formal education and got their jobs through the old spoils system, packing. Ironically, the spoils system was a relic of Jacksonian democracy: you vote for the party that wins the election, and you will be rewarded with a job.


Although the early progressives did give us the Seventeenth amendment which allows for the direct election of senators in each state, they still distrusted the masses the way the Framers of the constitution did. The senate was intended to be a check on the passions of the House of Representatives, which was where democracy was intended to reside. The Framers were concerned that a democratic House might vote to redistribute property and that a Senate, not directly accountable to the people, would be a check on that.


Later on, the early progressives introduced primaries for candidate selection to effectively strip machine party bosses, who for the most part were ethnic minorities, of control. Again, this stemmed from the belief that progressive elites should be party nominees and that they should be the ones who would govern. Once elected, they would push a party agenda that reflected the greater wisdom of the elites, who, of course, knew better than the masses what was good for them.


Progressives today are doing just that. They are using party majorities to push elite agendas that effectively ride roughshod over democratic majorities. The filibuster dates back to 1917, which ironically was the pinnacle of the first progressive period. Prior to that, there was a senate tradition of unlimited debate in the chamber intended to be the deliberate body. That year, the Senate adopted a procedure known as “cloture” to end debate. The 1917 procedure actually required a vote of 67 — two thirds of the Senate — to end debate. It was then reduced to 60 in 1975.


Arguably the senate filibuster, which is nowhere to be found in the Constitution, is anti-majoritarian. It certainly prevents the Senate from becoming another version of the House of Representatives. But it may reaffirm a commitment to republican government which the Senate as an institution was intended to protect.


Remember, the idea of a bicameral legislature is to have internal checks and balances, and the idea of a Senate which is a deliberate body is to have the irrational passions of the House — the demos — checked by reason in a body that would have greater wisdom. Some, like Jefferson, envisaged the Senate as an aristocracy of talent, a body, because of their superior talent and wisdom, would have greater understanding of the public good than the House governing governing on the base passions of the public.


Is it any wonder, then, that the filibuster was adopted not too long after the Seventeenth amendment to the Constitution? Prior to the Seventeenth amendment, each state’s legislature would select two senators to represent their states, and senators would do as instructed by their respective states. To have the people directly selecting senators was clearly intended to make it a more democratic body, but perhaps this was a step that went too far.


The filibuster effectively protects the rights of minorities, as there may be states that don’t want to go along with the majoritarian impulses emanating from the House. In a sense, when senators are forced to listen to their constituents against the interests of elites, they are reflecting the best of democracy. Today’s progressives have no interest in democracy; they simply have an elitist view of society, whereby they presume to know what is good for the masses. That the masses would thwart their efforts to rule through a filibuster is another reason to get rid of an archaic republican institution.


What, then, does the filibuster achieve? It enables the Senate to remain a deliberate body, as intended, and to govern on the basis of consensus. If the Democrats in the House can’t achieve their maximalist agenda because the filibuster stands in the way, they are then forced to find common ground with the Senate. This means watering down proposed legislation to the point where compromise reaches consensus. Then again, it was the intent of the Framers to have a political system whereby consensus would be the norm, even though it might be difficult to achieve.


This was the essence of separation of powers. The rights of individuals would effectively be protected against the passions of the irrational mob, which no doubt could include what we would now call radical policy proposals. In other words, the system was never designed to transform the nations. And yet, by being a robust political institution which protects individual rights, and those of minorities, we do achieve broad-based democracy.


The idea that contemporary progressive elites are speaking for democracy rests on a very narrow utilitarian conception of democracy, as initially put forth by Jeremy Bentham. This held democracy to be the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But this also meant that if riding roughshod over the rights of minorities would constitute the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, then so be it. By what precept could we say that violating the rights of minorities and trouncing the rights of individuals is in keeping with the spirit of democracy? Only if the elites have a particular agenda and really aren’t interested in what the public has to say. To ram things through without serious deliberations only betrays a contempt for democracy.

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