Humans have a lot of trouble communicating, and language–which developed to facilitate that communication–frequently gets in the way. (A quote attributed to Talleyrand seems apt: he supposedly opined that “language was given man to conceal his thoughts…”)
Take the word “democracy.” These days, virtually every opinion column, every political speech or tweet or meme centers on threats to American democracy, but a recent New York Times column by Jamelle Bouie reminded me that Republicans and Democrats have rather different approaches to what the term means in American governance.
Bouie’s column didn’t address that longstanding difference–he was talking about how far Congress is from the dictionary definition, which is “majority rule.” He began by pointing out that a Senate majority favors raising the debt limit, protecting citizens’ right to vote, reforming policing…measures that are widely popular and that need to get done.
With a simple majority, in other words, Democrats could secure the full faith and credit of the United States, restore to strength the most important voting rights law in U.S. history and make progress on a critical issue for millions of Americans. They might also, if they have the votes, make it easier for workers to organize a union and, separately, codify Roe v. Wade into federal law.
Of course, the Senate does not run on 51 votes. Instead, members must assemble a supermajority to do anything other than appoint judges, confirm nominees and pass certain spending bills. Pretty much everything else must go through a protracted and convoluted process that makes a mockery of the Senate’s reputation for debate and deliberation.
It would be easy for me to write another jeremiad against the filibuster. I can’t say I’m not tempted. But I also have nothing left to say. Its problems are as well documented as anything could be, and the main argument in its favor — that a counter-majoritarian chamber already structured by equal state representation needs an additional supermajority requirement to protect the “rights” of a partisan minority — does not withstand serious scrutiny.
Of course, Bouie is absolutely correct–if the matters he lists are supposed to reflect majority opinion, as most Americans suppose. As I used to tell my students, the Bill of Rights prohibits American government from invading fundamental liberties, even when a majority approves of that invasion–but other matters, policy matters, are supposed to reflect the will of the majority.
Actually, even before the GOP lost its mind, Republican political orthodoxy rejected that explanation. I can’t count the number of times I heard that “The United States isn’t a democracy, it’s a republic,” as if those were diametrically-different systems. That we are a republic is technically true: we elect Representatives and Senators to make decisions on our behalf. But this repeated insistence that we are not a democracy but a republic wasn’t evidence of a desire for grammatical precision–it was thinly-veiled paternalism. What those delivering that lecture meant was that we vote to select our “betters,” who are thus empowered to decide what’s best, irrespective of the expressed desires of those voters.
There is, again, a measure of truth to this. We hope that the people we elect will inform themselves of the nuances of policies and support those they believe are in the national interest, especially when their constituents lack sufficient context or technical knowledge to inform their preferences. But as I look back on those discussions, there was a strong whiff of “father knows best” to them. The electoral process–properly crafted (!!)–would put superior people (okay, white Christian males) in office, and they’d run things. Their way.
After all, America isn’t really a democracy…
Not all Republicans believed this, of course. The party once had thoughtful, responsible people in it. Bouie quoted the very Republican Henry Cabot Lodge who wrote the following in 1890:
“If a minority can prevent action, the majority, which is entitled to rule and is entrusted with power, is at once divested of all responsibility, the great safeguard of free representative institutions.”
Democracy or democratic republic, in all but a few areas where fundamental liberties are at stake, the majority is entitled to rule. And right now, thanks to gerrymandering, the filibuster, vote suppression and demography, a distinct and shrinking minority continues to prevent actions desired by significant majorities.
We’ve suffered a (mostly) bloodless coup.