Monday, July 6, 2020

The filibuster and partisanship

The Wall Street Journal reports that the movement among Senate Democrats to get rid of the filibuster entirely is gaining steam. I think this is a bad idea and will lead to more polarized politics.

Why are our politics so polarized? One answer is that elections are more and more winner take all. The more it is winner take all, the more incentive there is for scorched-earth tactics to win, or to keep from losing.

Imagine a not so distant future in which winning an administration and both houses of Congress by 50.5% means a party can pass any legislation it likes, pack the Supreme Court or better yet impeach the lot and replace them, take control of the Department of Justice and FBI, swiftly jail anyone involved with the previous administration, take control of voting law and regulation, further hand out money to political organizations on its side, and by regulation and high taxes force businesses and wealthy individuals to its side. One person, one vote, one time.

That's extreme, but our political system has headed a lot in this direction already. As the stakes in each election get higher, do not be surprised that the scorched-earth partisanship and polarization of politics gets stronger.

The first function of a democracy is a peaceful transition of power. That requires losers to accept their fate, acknowledge the legitimacy of the outcome, regroup and try again. And they have to be able to do that.  We are not a pure democracy. We are set up as a republic, with elaborate protections for electoral minorities. The point is to keep those electoral minorities from rebelling. Union first, "progress" second.

The filibuster is a small and imperfect part of this protection. It evolved by tradition, not design. It has a sordid racial history, being used for decades by southern democrats to block civil rights legislation. To work, both sides had to accept certain rules of the game. You use it only to block core issues of great importance. You do not use it as willy-nilly obstructionism. It has to be costly to those who use it.  It, and other protections could be improved for sure. But we need somehow the space that a narrow election loss does not mean utter defeat and devastation.

Like the other protections for electoral minorities, it has already been mostly torn down, as the WSJ reports. But if, say, Republicans can shove guns, immigrant deportation, and abortion prohibition down Democratic throats with a tiny majority, or Democrats can shove unions, wealth taxes, and national health insurance down Republican throats with a tiny majority; if, more importantly, either party can take a tiny majority to entrench their hold on power and disenfranchise the other, we have not seen anything yet in the partisanship and polarization department.


  1. Quite well said about the direction of our democracy. Whether the filibuster is as integral to a functioning democracy or not is debatable but the increase in polarization and strict ideological conformity is worrying.

    Though the lack of filibuster has existed in state governments for years. When one party takes control of the legislature and governor then there can be a spate of partisan legislation. Generally the most egregious doesn't pass (somebody in the ruling party retains a bit of sanity) but there can be a definite shift in laws and programs.

  2. Matthew Gentzkow et al had a very interesting paper on measuring polarization. They discover to change point dream the Clinton administration has continued to this day in speech rhetoric, although they are careful about drawing conclusions about correlation and causation.

  3. Ok Prof... I usually agree with you, but on this one, I am not sure.
    I think I would disagree with you on a few fronts.

    One, Great Britain had a winner take all system for ages, and it is still functioning. And the parties accept that - they don't try to change it, even when they lose. Yes, sometimes British politics is rough, but still, the parties accept the outcomes of the vote.

    Two - thus, I do not think it is the winner take all system.
    It is much deeper. It is a moral principle that if you lose, you lose.
    This was not the case of in 2016. There was one party that simply did not want to accept that a certain candidate lost to Donald Trump. And they put up any and all kind of obstacles along the way. I do not want to rehash them all, but it is for everybody to see.

    Three - the same holds for the bureaucracy, the Deep State, or whatever you want to call it. They simply did not want to accept Donald Trump as the new head of the Executive Branch. Under normal circumstances, you accept your new boss, and move on. But it was not in this case - thus, the moral principle was broken again.

    Four - there is "ideology" or "principles". And I think in some instances, we are coming to a point where on some issues there simply is no compromise. For example, destroying and burning private property. If some politicians of a certain extraction cannot bring themselves to condemn the looting, destroying and burning - what is there to compromise about? There are lines in the sand that many people will not cross.

    In summary, I think it runs much deeper that just winner takes it all.

  4. A 50%+1 majority could not impeach judges. That requires 2/3rds of the Senate. FDR struggled with the same problem, hence his court-packing scheme that went nowhere. I would be surprised if such a scheme would work today either. It's one thing to scream about "packing the court" when you lack power to do so; Democrats who actually do respect historical precedent will get cold feet when actually called to do it.

    In reality, there is no surprise Democrats are now openly talking about abandoning the filibuster at the same time the polls suggest they may take the Senate back. The Dems have spent 3+ years characterizing their opponents as literal Hitlers and Eichmans. You wouldn't let some 41 Senators stand in your way; when you're trying to stop Hitler, the ends justify any means.

  5. Why not work it from the default process?

    If we have N items in our investment portfolio, we want them risk adjusted so that the amount of a default in any one of them is equally damaging. If our N items is complete, then it includes government bonds, and the amount invested in government bonds is risk equalized, and it has non zero risk of default.

    Probability ofGovernment default cannot be zero, otherwise we would put all our money in government, we are buying risk and earning money by taking it. Folks will redefine the definition of government default, ignore that. We will be upset at being swindled by the philosophers, but we will not be surprised if say, Trump, Powell, McConnel, Pelosi all agreed to erase a trillion of the Fed portfolio. Probability of default, a philosophically unpleasant unit, but is difficult to fake. Estimate default probability on government debt, a much simpler approach.

  6. I agree about the winner-take-all nature of our current political atmosphere. It's reminiscent of the early 1790s in France. I used to be ambivalent about which party was in power because not much really changed regardless of who won the most recent election. I wasn't a fan of Obama, but was he worse than McCain or Romney would have been? Hard to say. However, the current climate seems far worse and more dangerous. The progressives who have taken over the left (and taken it to the extreme left) have the capacity to change the course of this country...for the worse. Is it really unthinkable that if they win the rhetorical guillotines might be turned into real ones?

  7. "Why are our politics so polarized?"
    Bread and circuses?
    The 'true' polarization is between the 'plutocrats' and the 'rest'?

    “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens
    Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page
    Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics—which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic-Elite Domination, and two types of interest-group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism—offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented. A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. We report on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues. Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism. “

  8. I never understood why the situation you describe here of the winning party passing everything they want in a no filibuster system doesn't happen in the UK where theres nearly no breaks on the majority party.

  9. I must disagree. A majority in a Canadian parliament can do nearly whatever it wishes. But there's always the next election to keep a check on things.

    1. There might always be "the next election", but only if majorities do not exist that are willing to torch themselves to achieve something.

      In 2010, the Democratic majority (supermajority, even! so even more powerful) was willing to torch itself for Obamacare (and primarily for it). Now imagine that...but potentially every election.

      Back in the 2006-2008 era I remember thinking, as a not terribly seasoned politics watcher, that the filibuster was kind of nice in the long run, but did it really deserve to exist? Perhaps not. I am not so sanguine about the consequences of its disappearance now.


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