In a recent and perhaps now infamous op-ed in The Washington Post, Senator Kyrsten Sinema dug in her heels even further in defense of her obstinate refusal to eliminate the filibuster in the U.S. Senate. Of course, she adopted a pose of political moderation, fashioning herself as the promoter of a stable democracy, writing,
My support for retaining the 60-vote threshold is not based on the importance of any particular policy. It is based on what is best for our democracy. The filibuster compels moderation and helps protect the country from wild swings between opposing policy poles.
This line of argument, without doubt, is riddled with problems, largely because of the particular circumstances of historical context in which she writes—and which she seems to ignore.
Even a cursory look at the political dynamics and events punctuating the past few years, even the past few months, would seem to spotlight the extreme extent to which Sinema’s reasoning is divorced from America’s present reality.
To insist, for example, that “the filibuster compels moderation” constitutes a willful denial of the flagrant extremism we see in the relentless war Republicans are waging on democracy itself and of the Republicans’ disregard for the wills of the constituencies they represent.
A few dramatic examples can clarify that the filibuster has not compelled moderation but rather enabled extremism and brought the nation to the brink of authoritarian minority rule at odds with the formulation of democracy in the U.S. Constitution, in which we can find no mention of a filibuster rule designed to empower a minority ruling class that flouts the wills of “we the people.”
As a first example—and we could start in many places—take the fact that the Senate Republican minority was able to abuse the filibuster to prevent even a debate, a simple conversation, about the merits, the possibility, of establishing a commission to investigate the violent, indeed murderous, assault on the Capitol last January 6 which was for all intents and purposes, given the information that’s come out, designed to overturn the democratic election of the president.
Senate Republicans have been able because of the filibuster to disarm any attempt to identify, understand, and hold accountable those in the nation who may be actively working to undermine American democracy and even overthrow the government.
Has the filibuster compelled moderation in this regard?
It would seem rather that the filibuster has enabled extremism by suppressing a robust exposure of the active threats to democracy and emboldening those actors.
As another example, take the fact that Senate Republicans have abused the filibuster to prevent the passage of the For the People Act, which contains provisions that could go a long way toward curbing the legislative assaults on voting rights taking place in states across the nation.
These assaults are extreme. But here’s Sinema’s answer:
To those who want to eliminate the legislative filibuster to pass the For the People Act (voting-rights legislation I support and have co-sponsored), I would ask: Would it be good for our country if we did, only to see that legislation rescinded a few years from now and replaced by a nationwide voter-ID law or restrictions on voting by mail in federal elections, over the objections of the minority?
The response to Sinema is simple: Would it be good for our country to allow a minority to enact laws that strip American voters of their power to duly elect who represents them and their interests and potentially establish political conditions that further promote and entrench the possibility of minority rule?
Democracy is under siege now, and people’s rights need to be protected now. When it comes to looking down the road, it is best to cross that proverbial bridge when we get to it, lest the Republicans burn that bridge now. Sinema’s political patience may very well in result in there being no democracy to save a few years from now.
She continues to ignore political reality. As a last example, take the fact that not one Republican voted for the American Rescue Plan Act, despite not just the dire and desperate need of Americans but despite also the fact that the majority of Americans supported the legislation. Republicans disregarded the will of the people they are supposed to represent.
Sinema is upholding a distorted version of democratic process that would enable Republicans to annihilate democracy through those very processes.
A look at the Supreme Court makes this point clear.
Senator Mitch McConnell eliminated the filibuster when it came to approving justices to the Supreme Court. In the final months of Trump’s damaging presidency, McConnell pushed through the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court—with a simple majority.
Let’s stress this last point. McConnell only needed a simple majority to approve Barrett because he was perfectly happy to eliminate the filibuster rule in 2017 when it came to confirming Supreme Court Justices. That was one of those “carve outs.”
Let’s think about that. When it comes to appointing the nine people, our Supreme Court Justices, who exert an incredible amount of decision-making power the lives of Americans, it’s ok to have a simple majority hold sway in selecting this elite minority to make some of the most crucial and far-reaching decisions about our lives.
But we can’t have 51 representatives the people actually elect make momentous decisions in their governing roles?
This situation is truly bizarre and defies logic, revealing the fundamental truth of the filibuster: it is simply yet another mechanism to enable minority rule and prevent democracy from coming to full maturity in America.
And we saw just recently the impact of McConnell’s tactics, as last week the severely right-wing Supreme Court further gutted the Voting Rights Act, again hobbling the American voters from participating in democracy and again disarming a majority rule.
As I’ve written about in the pages of PoliticusUsa, Chief Justice John Roberts got this ball rolling back in 2013, effectively declaring the obsolescence of many provisions of the Voting Rights Act because, in his view, racism was a thing of the past.
Roberts’ denial of reality rivals Sinema’s.
And what we see is how Sinema and the Supreme Court, empowered and enabled by the filibuster, have through the supposedly “democratic processes” Congress invented, extra-constitutionally, invited extremism into mainstream American politics.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.