Matt Miller - The Archives
Can't we just have majority rule?
The Washington Post, January 5, 2011
Quick: Which fact in Washington is more outrageous?

(1) We don't have majority rule in America, thanks to the Senate filibuster rules; or

(2) The Democrats' plan for "controversial" filibuster reform doesn't actually seek to establish majority rule in America.

It's a close call, but I'll take No. 2. Apparently making a full-throated case for majority rule is too controversial a step in the year 2011 in the world's leading democracy.

I'm having a hard time explaining this to my 13-year-old daughter. She gets that the Bill of Rights protects certain fundamental liberties against even a determined majority's thirst to trample on them.

But protecting a determined minority's desire to thwart the will of the majority on legislation of all kinds? A minority that might represent as little as 15 percent of the population?

It's not clear what theory of governance elevates the tyranny of the minority into a sacred principle.

It can't be the pabulum about "the Senate's unique role as a moderating influence," as Mitch McConnell argued in The Post Wednesday. The framers did that by giving senators six-year terms, not the filibuster.

When you step back from the nitty-gritty, some debates reveal a Big Picture, while other rare issues involve a Really Big Picture. Pull back the lens from the filibuster and the Really Big Picture is this: If we can't scrap the filibuster, we won't thrive in the 21st century.

Let me connect some dots and defend that statement.

As James Fallows noted in an important Atlantic Monthly cover story a year ago, American society now presents a paradox. We have a vibrant, innovative private sector, whose routine birthing of Googles, iPads and Facebooks is the envy of the world. Yet this private dynamism is increasingly weighed down by dysfunctional public institutions that have allowed our infrastructure, and education and health-care systems (among other things) to fall into disrepair—or to operate with crippling inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

This public dysfunction comes at a particularly bad time, because it's the moment when America is losing—as eventually it had to—its unique post-World War II economic primacy. Global competition now poses a threat to middle-class living standards. The adjustment to a world of rising economic powers would be stressful even if we had fabulously competent and effective public institutions. Needless to say, that's not where we are.

Instead, we're in a race between (1) the threat posed to middle-class living standards by global economic integration and (2) the ability of America's public institutions to promote those aspects of national renewal achievable only through public action.

In such a race, the lack of majority rule may prove fatal. The Constitution already disperses power in ways that make purposeful federal action difficult under any circumstances; to impose an additional straitjacket in the name of honoring "traditions" that outlaw majority rule will be seen by historians as an inexplicable failure of vision.

California, where I live, offers a depressing lesson in the dangers of supermajority requirements (and then only for budgeting). By now everyone knows the story—from Golden State to broken mess in a generation. One of the nation's best K-12 school systems to one of its worst. Yes, the state is still beautiful and the weather is great. But California's decline—due in no small part to lack of majority rule and the state's associated descent into ungovernability—has been painful.

It would be nice if we had a political party interested in majority rule, and it's a little shocking that we don't. But it turns out neither party really cares. Democrats and Republicans are interested in the near-term outcomes they want and in preserving whatever tools seem convenient to secure them. Sure, they dress it up with noble rationales to make it sound better to civics students like my daughter, but she's not fooled.

During a "Twilight Zone" marathon on the Syfy channel over the holidays, there was an episode in which folks in a typical town turn against one another when the power goes out. At the end the camera pulls back to show two aliens on a hill, observing the chaos. "This is what they always do," one says clinically to the other (I'm paraphrasing). "You turn their lights off, sit back, and pretty soon they turn on and destroy each other."

I know the analogy isn't precise, and this is hardly the work of aliens—we're doing this to ourselves. But I can't shake the feeling, as yet another pseudo-debate plays out, that American preeminence is entering . . . the Twilight Zone.