The filibuster is in trouble. President Joe Biden has come out in favor of reforming it, and Democrats in the Senate are weighing alternatives. But the strongest sign that its days are numbered is that the Republican leader Mitch McConnell is threatening Armageddon if the other party touches it. No one presently—or perhaps ever—in the Senate has practiced the dark art of obstruction as relentlessly as the current minority leader. And the Kentucky senator’s most effective weapon, requiring 60 votes for virtually everything the opposing party wants to do, has been the filibuster. Democrats can propose legislation that voters strongly support—a higher minimum wage, a path to citizenship for Dreamers, background checks for gun purchasers, safeguards for Americans’ ability to cast ballots—and McConnell can strangle it off camera with a minimum of notice or fuss.
Like Lyndon B. Johnson, McConnell is a master of the Senate. But although Johnson often used his mastery to pass important bills, McConnell uses his to kill them—while simultaneously generating outrage that yields considerable benefits for his party. McConnell possesses a rare understanding of mass psychology and knows that the American political system is unusually opaque to voters. Not only does the United States have multiple branches and levels of government, but voters elect their representatives in Congress separately from the president (as opposed to parliamentary systems, such as Britain’s and Canada’s, in which the executive is the leader of the majority party or coalition). In this complex system, determining who has done what can be like figuring out a mystery novel. The filibuster, an arcane procedure that prevents those who seem to be in charge from actually passing the legislation they want, only deepens the mystery.
The upshot is that party accountability in the American system mostly centers on the president. Even in midterm elections, when the president isn’t on the ballot, dissatisfied voters tend to punish the president’s party at the polls. This has a certain logic: Figuring out who is president is easy. So is deciding whether you like what you think the president is doing. By contrast, a strikingly large share of voters struggle to identify their representatives in Congress, or even which party controls the House or the Senate. (In 2014, a midterm year, just 38 percent of Americans correctly said that Republicans controlled the House, and the same paltry share correctly said that Democrats controlled the Senate.) In this context, voters are unlikely to punish a minority party wielding the filibuster—and, indeed, are far more likely to punish a president and a president’s party for policy failures caused by the filibuster, even if it is wielded by the other party.
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