James Fallows: the GOP Pulled Off an Institutional Coup With the Help of Enablers in the Media
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In California, my home state, a super-majority requirement has had a very destructive effect on its ability to govern itself. We’re seeing it now on a national level and there was no Constitutional amendment; it just happened. And the press has endorsed it.
JH: Today, you can’t name a post office after a war hero without 60 votes. This gives people a very skewed idea of who is responsible for this dysfunction. There’s something that you wrote about this that’s very interesting.
You wrote, “liberal democracies like ours depend on rules, but also on norms. On the assumption that you’ll go so far, but no further, to advance your political ends.” Adherence to those norms, you write, “implies some loyalty to the system as a whole that outweighs your immediate partisan interest. Not red states nor blue states, but the United States of America.”
Can you unpack that for us and just explain what you mean by institutional rules and institutional norms?
JF: Our Constitution, as everyone knows, was set up in all sorts of ways to balance the majority’s interest in getting things done with the minority’s interest in being protected against a majority running roughshod over them. It’s a very carefully crafted work. In the 200 years since that balance was set many things have become askew. For example: when the Senate was created the difference between the biggest state in population and the smallest was only 10-1. Now it’s almost 70-1 in California versus Wyoming, and yet they have the same rights in the Senate. There is a change in the balance that way.
Also there’s been a change in behavior. The right to filibuster has been around forever -- for more than 100 years -- but until very recently was used only sparingly. The senators only did it when there was something that really mattered and it didn’t get in the way of basically all the routine business of Congress.
There’s always been partisan division, but not the idea that the only thing that mattered was blocking whoever had won the last election. There’s been an effort to nullify the election by a Republican minority in the Senate. Rules have been there for a long time, but the abuse of loopholes has reached a new level that creates a different kind of problem for the government. When this is described in the newspaper as being a “dysfunctional Senate,” it leads to the sense that there’s a coming-from-nowhere failure of government -- as opposed to an actual strategy by one side to hamstring the other, and slow down the process of government.
JH: I think that’s a really important point. One problem with the idea that both sides do it is that Republicans have a story that government simply doesn’t work. One result of that is that they benefit from that idea being reinforced – that the government is dysfunctional and you can’t get anything done.
I think this is one reason that progressives are often frustrated by what they see as Democrats capitulating on the issues. Yet when it comes right down to it, the Democrats have an inherently weak hand because they want to govern. Dysfunction government doesn’t reinforce their own overall narrative as it does that of the right. Do you agree with that?
JF: I agree entirely with that. There is a price Republicans pay for seeming obstructionist – they suffered some damage in this crazy and irresponsible debt ceiling showdown last year. But they see the price they pay to their reputation as smaller than the price the Democrats pay for not being able to get things done. The Democrats, on balance, would like to use the government in more activist ways, which I say not in the pejorative sense but a positive sense. Having a national healthcare system, building infrastructure, having trade policies that can do something about the erosion of the middle class. The Republicans are willing to take the hit in looking unreasonable for the larger pain they exact from the Democrats’ not being able to do things. Unfortunately that creates, in my view, comparable pain for the country as a whole. It’s a lose-lose-lose bargain, with the greatest loss being for the nation.