Friday, May 20, 2005

Nuking the Senate

We'll soon learn the outcome of the political wrangling in the Senate. I haven't commented much on this topic (mainly for lack of time), but after mulling the issue for the last few days, I've come to the conclusion that, overall, I don't have that much of a problem with nuking the filibuster.

Let me elaborate. On many grounds the end of the filibuster will be a bad thing. First and most importantly, the short-term policy impact of getting rid of the filibuster, namely the recasting of the judiciary in a much more right-leaning way, will obviously be a bad thing for people who value things like defendant's rights, the separation of church and state, or the ability of malpractice and negligence victims to seek recompense. Second, it's hard not to feel disgust at the brazen hypocrisy of the Republicans' bogus claim that a senatorial rule and a practice that has been accepted for hundreds of years is somehow unconstitutional. (Josh Marshall has hammered this point repeatedly.) Third, on political grounds, it's a bad to lose a mechanism that can stem the flow of GOP absolutism, especially after having put a lot of political effort into the fight. (Just in terms of politics, however, the worst outcome of all would be some "compromise" that allows the Republicans to once again claim victory while labelling the Democrats flip-floppers.) Finally, there's the distasteful spectacle of watching so-called "conservatives" erasing rules desgined to, er, conserve existing institutions and political practices.

So, obviously there's a lot of bad stuff associated with the probably incipient end of the filibuster. However, at the end of the day, I still can't get very execised about it. And the reason is that I am pretty compelled by the technical argument that democracy should be about majoritarianism. Anyone who really believes in democracy needs to take that argument pretty seriously. Virtually all of the Senate's procedural rules (and there used to be lots more, beyond the filibuster) are designed as anti-majoritarian (i.e. anti-democratic) mechanisms whereby the Senate could "moderate the passions" of the much more populist Congress. In short, all of these rules are anti-democratic ruses, and indeed, when you get right down to it, the very existence of the Senate is an anti-democratic ruse. So as someone who believes in democracy, it's hard to really get behind any of these rules, the filibuster included. Even a brief glance at the history of how the filibuster has been used should make any progressive blanch.

But there's another reason I don't mind seeing the filibuster go, and that's because I believe (or rather, hope) that it will accelerate the incipient civil war that is building within the Republican Party.

From the perspective of the Republican Party, what's happening is fundamentally a debate about the nature of "conservatism." On the one hand, you have old-line conservatives, who largely conform to the classic understanding of that word, meaning that they are suspicious of rapid social or political changes, and believe in limiting the role of government in the private sphere. (Such conservatices notably include corporate life as part of the private sphere, whereas most progressives generally regard corporations as part of the public sphere -- and thus the appropriate subjects of government regulation.) Conservatives in this category more or less accept the New Deal compromise as the status quo, and prefer to nibble at its edges rather than engage in wholesale, radical revision.

On the other hand, the Republican Party also includes what for lack of a more elegant phrase can be called populist social reactionaries. This cadre, which today appears to represent the sizable majority of the Republican Party, is seeking to use its Party's narrow electoral majorities to push through a radical remapping of the countours of the public sphere. Its aim is to redefine the role of government away from economic regulation and more into moral regulation, and to rebalance the lines of responsibility and accountability between churches, the government, corporations, and private citizens.

The real question the Republican Party faces is whether the first category of conservative will go along, for reasons of political solidarity, with a program which is essentially anathema to their conservative principles, namely using the government to radically and rapidly remake society. In other words, the end of the filibuster is showing the category one conservatives that, in fact, the category two guys aren't really conservatives at all, despite their noisy claims to the contrary. And then the question will be, what happens to those people? Will the elitist conservatives go along with the populist program?

A "conservative populist" is pretty much an oxymoron. It's true that Populism has always had right-wing and left-wing flavors, and like all other political forms, populism has always made its nod toward "tradition." But simply claiming the mantle of the past does not make you a true conservative. The main thing that defines populism is a rhetoric of anti-elitism. Whether one is a left-wing or right-wing populist mainly depends on which elites you line up against: scientific elites, cultural elites, religious elite, political, economic, ethnic elites, or what have you.

In short, populism, of which majoritarianism is a mere expression is, by defition, anti-elitist; by contrast, Anglo-American conservatism, as John Derbyshire and Jonah Goldberg recently pointed out, has always been squarely committed to "elitism." That's why it seems to me very difficult to square majoritarianism with conservatism: any conservative worthy of the name has always been suspicious or worse of the intentions and capacity of the masses. And the Senate and its rules exists precisely to ward off those intentions and to guide those capacities.

The main argument against democratic absolutism (majoritarianism) has always been that the people lack the virtue necessary to be trusted. That argument is pretty compelling today, given what the (admittedly narrow) majority wants to accomplish. But in the end, as I say, I don't buy it. For a mature democracy like the United States, majoritarianism is a position I can't in good faith gainsay.

But of course, that's easy for me: I'm not a conservative (except in foreign policy). If I were, I'd be deeply troubled by what's happening in the Senate today. Taken as a whole, I think it's quite likely that the filibuster issue, like the Schiavo issue, may be one of those indicators of an oncoming crisis of "conservatism" that will in significant ways echo the crisis that "liberalism" began to experience in the 1960s. In other words, the various contradictions of the coalition will be exposed by a failing war and an inflationary economy, and the realization of the economic wing of the movement that they actually really dislike and perhaps even fear the cultural wing of the movement.


Anonymous said...

I can only hope you're right, Nils. My worry is that there are very few of the conservative conservatives left, and that they wield very little power. None of these people is exactly Edmund Burke, and most Republicans of any political relevance have fallen into line with nary a peep with the populist reactionary agenda. I think you'll start to see the cracks only when the opposition can field a reasonable candidate with a coherent agenda and enough political savvy to exploit wedge issues.

Nils said...

As I said....