Making the United States “democratic” Again
How the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule must be modified to restore majority rule and give the U.S. a prayer to be a modern, dynamic country.
May 11, 2021
Senator Joe Manchin has a lot of explaining to do. Though a Democrat, elected from the conservative state of West Virginia, he is almost single-handedly thwarting the forward progress of the United States and the Biden administration.
Many observers don’t fully realize how dangerous it is that the U.S. has become such an anti-majoritarian democracy. The “will of the majority” is violated in so many commonplace ways.
For example, there is the artifact of the electoral college which is used to elect the President of the United States. It should have long ago been abolished in order to ensure that the person becoming President has actually won a majority of the popular vote.
Then there is the extremely malapportioned structure of the U.S. Senate, in which two senators are elected per state, regardless of population. That allows Republicans to win a far greater share of seats than their share of the popular vote.
These defects at the heart of the U.S. political system are deep-seated and anti-democratic in nature. However, they will be difficult to change.
Only a custom
But there is one anti-majoritarian practice that is far easier to change. That is the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, one of several Senate rules that routinely wreck the will of the majority.
Arcane though this custom is, this is a hot button issue right now. The threatened use of the filibuster by the Republican minority in the U.S. Senate threatens to completely topple the legislative agenda of Joe Biden’s administration for the next four years.
Enter Senator Manchin. He says that the filibuster promotes bipartisanship. In theory, yes. In reality, it results in a Senate train wreck in which, as numerous observers have said, “That’s where good legislation goes to die.”
Ever since the arrival of Mitch McConnell in the role of Senate Minority (and formerly Majority) Leader, hyper-partisanship has stood in the way of the U.S. government preparing the country to meet its present and future challenges.
The ash heap of history
Because the filibuster is not written into the U.S. Constitution, it only takes 50 Democratic Senators – plus a tie-breaking vote cast by Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris – to toss it into the ash heap of history, where it belongs.
But all Democratic Senators would have to vote to jettison this long-standing Senate tradition. The Democrats are very close to doing that. Except for Senator Joe Manchin, and possibly also Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who have been holding out.
There will always be Joe Manchins
In the most charitable interpretation of Manchin’s motives, his is an act of self-delusion. The GOP of Donald Trump has become more radical and less wedded to the most basic precepts of bipartisanship or compromise.
As the entire world is aware, this is also the political party that tried to overthrow a presidential election, claiming widespread election fraud with zero evidence.
Joe Manchin and Andy Warhol
The artist Andy Warhol once said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
The Senator from West Virginia, personally an affable, approachable fellow, seems determined to stretch his 15 minutes into an eternity. He wants to use the filibuster to deny a solid majority of the American people its political will.
Killing America’s future
Republicans will never give up on the filibuster because, given their status as a structural minority party, their political power depends on it.
While the U.S. Senate is split 50-50, the Democratic half represents 56% of the American people. It won votes from over 41 million more people than the Republican half.
For the Democrats, legislating under the threat of filibuster is like having a foot race in which they start 10 meters behind the GOP.
The EU offers the path to a solution
The United States isn’t the only world region that wants to protect voting minorities. In the European Union, many of its major decisions at the EU level require unanimity.
That’s worse than the U.S. Senate. This requirement has often led to gridlock and policy paralysis in the EU, sometimes during urgent crises.
But that’s not always the case. For other votes, the EU provides a model that could be applied to filibuster reform in the Senate.
To allow sufficient flexibility, the EU has implemented a “qualified majority vote” in the European Council, which is the real executive power body inside the EU. It is composed of the heads of state from all EU member states.
To minimize legislative obstruction, a qualified majority requires that only 55% of member states must agree to pass any proposal. In addition, to ensure that the low population member states can’t gang up on the larger ones, the rules require that assenting member states must represent 65% of the EU population.
“Democratizing” the filibuster
This principle can be applied to the United States. And indeed, a number of U.S. experts have proposed a similar type of qualified double majority structure as a way of “democratizing the filibuster.”
One proposal by three US academics, writing in the Washington Post, calls for a rule change in which advancing legislation in the Senate would require approval from 51 senators who collectively represent a majority of the U.S. population.
If that requirement were introduced, at least it could be said that the filibuster would then be democratically legitimized at the popular level.
Biden’s more modest proposal
President Biden, a long-time U.S. Senator and at heart a Senate traditionalist, has proposed going back to the “talking filibuster” as a way of discouraging so much frequent use, making senators “stand there and talk” if they want to maintain a filibuster.
(In the past, 41 senators had to “hold the floor” by reading out of telephone books or cooking recipes, preventing the Senate’s business from moving forward.)
If that sounds idiotic for this self-proclaimed “world’s greatest deliberative body,” that’s because it is. Such is the sclerotic state of this American House of Lords, where women and racial minorities are vastly underrepresented. Yet, it might win the support of Joe Manchin.
Ending the betrayal of democracy
Some kind of change to the filibuster is certainly necessary, since the status quo constitutes a gross hollowing out of the true meaning of democracy.
The proposed filibuster reforms are mild, and not even attempting to enact pure majoritarianism. But they would preserve enough of minority rights protection that they should represent sufficient middle ground.
The anti-modernity forces of blue state supplicants
The irony — no, the travesty in all this — is that the so-called “red” Republican states, most of them rural with small populations in the country’s flyover middle, depend for their economic livelihood on transfer payments from the “blue” Democratic states, which tend to be on the coasts.
Indeed, a recent study from the Brookings Institution found that the 509 counties in the U.S. that voted for Joe Biden generate 71% of U.S. GDP. Meanwhile, Trump’s 2,547 counties — most of them sparsely populated — account for just 29% of the U.S. economy.
Simply put, the powerful political and cultural forces that make up the United States continue on a collision course.
The blue Democratic states are the economic engine of the entire country, enabling the red GOP states to underperform economically.
Yet the latter hold a veto over any semblance of progressive policy.
The blue states exist in a quasi-vassal status, stoking the powerful economic engine, while the red states receive blue state handouts.
Without filibuster reform, the United States will further polarize and split into diverging directions, like two yoked oxen that can’t live together and can’t live apart.
Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from conservative West Virginia, is single-handedly thwarting the progress of US and the Biden administration.
US Politics: There will always be Joe Manchins in the U.S. Senate. But what can be done about the filibuster?
For the Democrats, legislating under the filibuster threat is like starting 10 meters behind the Republican Party in a foot race.
Joe Manchin seems determined to stretch his "15 minutes of fame" into an eternity.
The 509 US counties that voted for Biden generate 71% of US GDP. Meanwhile, Trump’s 2,547 counties account for just 29% of the US economy.
The blue states are the economic engine that enable the red states to underperform. Yet, the latter hold a veto over any progressive policy.
US economy: Without filibuster reform, the US will further polarize and split into diverging directions.