The 2020 Democratic primary has only just begun, but it has already been defined by a fatal tension between the passion and controversy driving the candidate’s agendas and a reality that few of them want to grapple with.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the latest entrant, who has done more than any other politician to define the boundaries of the Democratic presidential policy debate, embodied the tension in his launch interview earlier this week. Sanders reiterated his vision of a more egalitarian and environmentally sustainable world, but also expressed misgivings about the kind of tactics that will be required to give his vision life. He is the candidate who made supporting Medicare for All and the Green New Deal the price of entry into progressive politics, but admitted he’s “not crazy about getting rid of the filibuster.”
In a field overrepresented by senators, it is no surprise that Sanders doesn’t harbor these doubts alone.
“We should not be doing anything to mess with the strength of the filibuster,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) told Politico. Sen Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) expressed reservations as well, telling Pod Save America, “Having just lived through being in the minority and how destructive the 51-vote threshold has been for Supreme Court justices, I just want to think long and hard about it.”
What these senators mean is that for all the broad left’s justified alarm about the brittleness of our democracy, and the hardening of minority rule in America, 41 out of 100 senators, representing much less than 41 percent of the U.S. population, should be allowed to doom their ambitions. Even a Senate that could reliably pass legislation with 51 votes would still not be a majoritarian institution. The senators from the 25 smallest states would still have as much power as the senators from the 25 largest states, and because of how our population is sorted, the Senate would still allow a minority of the country, through their elected representatives, to hobble the progressive agenda.
Still, abolishing the filibuster would at least give the next Democratic president a fighting chance to govern. It would also strike a blow for core democratic principles liberals claim to stand for, bringing the country closer to a one-person, one vote ideal. Democrats who support its abolition could appeal to voters not just on the basis of policy checklists and anti-Trump sentiment, but as tribunes for a more responsive democracy. The problem is that many Democratic senators seem to believe that this would be bad. And unless that changes, the primary will be less a contest to determine which ideas a unified Democratic government might enact than a grand but meaningless celebration of liberal empowerment. A laboratory simulation to determine where consensus among Democratic base voters lies, before that consensus gets dashed upon the shoals of Republican obstruction.
As these candidates have staked out their positions, Mitch McConnell has constructed a fine-tuned machine for confirming right-wing judges who, left to their own devices, will be shaping life in America for decades to come. President Trump is assembling a committee of climate-change deniers to dispute the consensus that global warming threatens national and global security. The last five years have been the hottest five years in recorded history. And nothing of substance can pass the Senate with less than 60 votes.
There is a famous New Yorker cartoon that depicts three children and a grown man huddled in a post-apocalyptic outpost around a campfire wearing tattered clothing, and the caption reads, “Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.” It’s a perfect satire of the brutal myopia of corporate capitalism, but it could be easily refashioned into commentary about the absurdity of Democratic politics. “Yes, the planet got destroyed. But would it really have been worth saving if it meant a majority of legislators could make laws in America?”
The most frustrating thing about this whistling past the graveyard isn’t that it places all of civilization at risk. It is possible (though terrifying) to imagine us muddling through the climate crisis with a combination of clever legislating, regulation, innovation, and waste, while leaving the filibuster intact. What makes that thought truly bewildering is the hollowness it reveals. The poverty of ambition, the limp resistance, the fear of democratic accountability, the willingness to let year after year of right-wing abuse go unanswered. Whether driven by cynicism or delusion, the idea is that Democrats should claw their way back to power by inflaming the righteous and passionate Trump opposition with false promises, and then hope their disappointed voters will blame Republicans for the ensuing squander.
The Democrats’ infatuation with the filibuster may place key items on the progressive agenda out of reach, but it is most galling as an indicator of how many Democrats intend to respond both to the harms conservatism has caused and to the threat to democracy Trump has thrown into relief.
In her speech announcing her candidacy earlier this month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) warned supporters against the temptation to turn the page. “Once [Trump’s] gone we can’t pretend that all of this never happened,” she said. By no coincidence, Warren is also one of the few candidates who hasn’t run scared from the idea of eliminating the filibuster. “Everything stays on the table. You keep it all on the table. Don’t take anything off the table.”
Her insight is that these objectives are related. You can’t defeat antidemocratic forces by cementing their minority rule, and there will thus be no meaningful reckoning for Trump so long as the filibuster remains in place.
The modern history of American politics is one in which tens of millions of voting-age Americans have been cheated out of their democratic choices. After the first election I was old enough to participate in, multiple partisan institutions brought their power to bear to deny the presidency to the candidate who won the most votes and who, in a fair counting, would have won the electoral college as well. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 brought about a mass forgetting of this theft, which in turn allowed President George W. Bush to implement disastrous economic and foreign policies while dodging most questions about how much responsibility his administration bore for not detecting and stopping the attacks. Bush, who should have never served a day in office, appointed two justices to the Supreme Court, both of whom have many years of service ahead of them.
In the eight years between Bush and Trump, under a Democratic president who won both of his elections with substantial popular majorities, Republicans turned the filibuster into a tool of nullification, used routine legislative deadlines and threats of harm to the population as means of extortion, and stole a Supreme Court seat.
There has happily been no comparable forgetting of the 2016 election, but our understanding of how Trump came to power is still developing, and the long-term consequences of his presidency are only just becoming clear. At the very least, we know that Trump received nearly three million fewer votes than his Democratic opponent, and the paper-thin margins he won in the states that gave him an electoral college majority might easily have vanished if he hadn’t cheated in multiple ways. Prosecutors have identified Trump as the leader of a criminal conspiracy to defraud voters by making secret hush-money payments to former mistresses in order to affect the course of the election. His campaign cooperated with and covered for Russian intelligence agents who conspired to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and may have been an active participant in that conspiracy, too. Trump’s campaign chairman gave sensitive, private, highly detailed polling data to an agent of the Russian intelligence unit that ran the attack on the election. Trump and his top aides offered the Russian government policy spoils amid all of this activity, while Trump himself pursued a lucrative, government-sanctioned real estate deal in Moscow. The hidden hand of Russia was a background assumption within the Trump campaign. Advisers at all levels of the team knew Russia was trying to help Trump win, and hoped the Kremlin would provide them, directly or indirectly, with stolen dirt on Hillary Clinton. Absent these crimes, Trump almost certainly would not be president.
But become president he did, and waiting for him on inauguration was the year-old Supreme Court vacancy that had been stolen for him, from President Obama. The pretext McConnell used to steal that seat was that the public should decide whether or not to change the ideological balance on the Court, but his putative concern for the public’s voice dissolved when all the votes were counted and Trump came up millions short.
In the two years since, Trump has poisoned alliances, enriched his donors, sundered the American social fabric, and ruined countless lives. He’s also stacked lower courts with far-right ideologues, including some unfit for judicial service, and appointed another Supreme Court justice. Among the cases that have been decided 5-4 since Trump took office is Janus which gutted public-sector unions on dubious free-speech grounds. Reproductive rights are now in the Court’s crosshairs, as are the underpinnings of the modern regulatory state. Should a future Congress ever try to enhance voting rights or fight corruption or ban assault rifles or strengthen campaign-finance laws, it will run headlong into a 5-4 (or, heaven help us, 6-3) conservative majority—on what by all rights should be the Kagan Court.
Democrats have no answer to this history. Or rather, what the Democratic frontrunners who have placed the filibuster above all other concerns are telling us is, Too bad. There will be no remedy for any of it.
Some progressives believe that the key to quieting, or at least overpowering, the revanchist tempers of the far right is by building cross-cutting economic institutions to create class solidarity among working people. Give everyone medical security, mobilize the population with the allure of good jobs and a clean environment, and authoritarian appeals to race hatred will lose their popular force. If that assumption is correct, then perhaps it follows that Democratic presidential candidates are reluctant to put the cart of process before the horse of policy. They could feasibly exploit existing Senate rules—just as Republicans did to cut corporate taxes—to increase taxes on the wealthy, expand public health insurance, and spend money on jobs programs, while leaving the filibuster it in place to foil the next Republican administration.
This is foolhardy thinking for many reasons, but most importantly for what it places off limits as means of making people who have suffered for the past two decades whole. Trying to revive the social contract with a budget bill will prove inadequate to the economic policies they’re running on but it will also leave every other agenda item, including basic democratic fairness, on the cutting room floor.
Setting aside the theft of the Supreme Court, there will be no restoration or enhancement of voting rights—McConnell calls any idea that makes it easier for people to vote a Democratic power grab. There will be no anti-corruption act, no immigration act, no criminal-justice reform act and there will be no truth and reconciliation commission aimed at preventing another authoritarian from coming to power in the U.S. There will be no direct accountability for Trump’s enablers in Congress, no penalty for conservative foes of democracy, and no reprieve for the young voters who will have to live for decades under the illegitimate laws and judges Trump will leave behind.
In so many words, these Democrats are saying that come 2021, should voters sweep Trump out of power, it will be time, once again, to turn the page. Obama succumbed to the same temptation in 2009, creating an accountability void for an administration that had illegally spied on Americans and established a global network of secret torture prisons. Obama’s aim, naive though it may have been, was to bolster the norms upholding the peaceful transition of power and buy enough good will from Republicans in Congress to allow him to govern. He was rewarded with the maniacal bad faith of a minority determined to destroy his presidency and a successor who has attempted to wield the federal law enforcement apparatus as a weapon of partisan retribution against members of the last administration.
Obama should have seen at least some of this coming—Republicans had been building to it for years—but he could at least claim some level of surprise. No other president had been greeted quite that way before. The next Democratic president won’t credibly be able to claim naivety, though. The theory that an inspiring figure or a political revolution will break the Republican fever has been discredited in the most painful way. And yet those running today, at least the ones hellbent on preserving Mitch McConnell’s power to destroy their presidencies, are dooming themselves and the rest of us to live through everything that brought us to this point all over again.