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The filibuster and partisanship

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The Wall Street Journal reports that the movement among Senate Democrats to get rid of the filibuster entirely is gaining steam. I think this is a bad idea and will lead to more polarized politics.Why are our politics so polarized? One answer is that elections are more and more winner take all. The more it ...

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The Wall Street Journal reports that the movement among Senate Democrats to get rid of the filibuster entirely is gaining steam. I think this is a bad idea and will lead to more polarized politics.

Why are our politics so polarized? One answer is that elections are more and more winner take all. The more it is winner take all, the more incentive there is for scorched-earth tactics to win, or to keep from losing.

Imagine a not so distant future in which winning an administration and both houses of Congress by 50.5% means a party can pass any legislation it likes, pack the Supreme Court or better yet impeach the lot and replace them, take control of the Department of Justice and FBI, swiftly jail anyone involved with the previous administration, take control of voting law and regulation, further hand out money to political organizations on its side, and by regulation and high taxes force businesses and wealthy individuals to its side. One person, one vote, one time.

That's extreme, but our political system has headed a lot in this direction already. As the stakes in each election get higher, do not be surprised that the scorched-earth partisanship and polarization of politics gets stronger.

The first function of a democracy is a peaceful transition of power. That requires losers to accept their fate, acknowledge the legitimacy of the outcome, regroup and try again. And they have to be able to do that.  We are not a pure democracy. We are set up as a republic, with elaborate protections for electoral minorities. The point is to keep those electoral minorities from rebelling. Union first, "progress" second.

The filibuster is a small and imperfect part of this protection. It evolved by tradition, not design. It has a sordid racial history, being used for decades by southern democrats to block civil rights legislation. To work, both sides had to accept certain rules of the game. You use it only to block core issues of great importance. You do not use it as willy-nilly obstructionism. It has to be costly to those who use it.  It, and other protections could be improved for sure. But we need somehow the space that a narrow election loss does not mean utter defeat and devastation.

Like the other protections for electoral minorities, it has already been mostly torn down, as the WSJ reports. But if, say, Republicans can shove guns, immigrant deportation, and abortion prohibition down Democratic throats with a tiny majority, or Democrats can shove unions, wealth taxes, and national health insurance down Republican throats with a tiny majority; if, more importantly, either party can take a tiny majority to entrench their hold on power and disenfranchise the other, we have not seen anything yet in the partisanship and polarization department.


John H. Cochrane
In real life I'm a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. I was formerly a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I'm also an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. I'm not really grumpy by the way!

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