Think Democrats would pay a political price for ending the filibuster? Think again

Think Democrats would pay a political price for ending the filibuster? Think again
Image via Screengrab.

For an issue that has so dominated the media during the past two weeks, the views of ordinary Americans toward the legislative filibuster have received remarkably little in the way of polling. What emerges most noticeably from those polls that have been conducted is a remarkable degree of indifference, one that most likely stems from Americans' overall lack of knowledge of what the filibuster is and what the Senate rule regarding cloture of debate about a specific piece of legislation really means.

I always found it curious when a Democratic senator frets about changing a procedural mechanism that the vast majority of his or her actual constituents could not even explain if you asked them to. Are there people in West Virginia, for example, who as they entered the voting booth in 2016, said to themselves, "I'll vote for that Manchin guy again, but if he ever decides to change that cloture rule, he's history?" Or put another way, is there any Manchin voter in West Virginia who, when offered the prospect of a huge waterworks or road repair project to bring jobs and improvement to his hometown or county is likely to say, "Well, those things would be wonderful but I just can't reconcile that with changing the filibuster rule?"

Of course not. People may have different rationales to support their voting decisions, but the retention or modification of arcane Senate rules is not one of them—and that's historically true for either party. Perhaps more basic (but just as obvious): People elect their senators to get work done. That's also generally true for partisans of either political persuasion (although it may be more so for Democrats).

Washington University political science Professor Steven S. Smith wanted to find out how concerned the American electorate actually is about reforming the filibuster, and whether there was an actual, partisan breakdown, either for or against it. In a paper released this month titled "Partisan Differences on Filibuster Reform in the American Public," Smith, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a distinguished professor of political science at several other institutions, examined the past polling on the issue, and found—not surprisingly—that pollsters tended to ignore the issue except when a particular piece of legislation was publicly and noticeably subject to the filibuster. The fact that issue of filibuster reform was even raised during the 2020 campaign, almost wholly in the context of the Democratic primary, was an anomaly.

Smith writes as follows (footnote omitted):

A fair generalization is that only a few Americans show real familiarity with the filibuster and cloture and that, in the aggregate, the balance of opinion shifts with attitudes about the legislation or nomination at stake. Moreover, the public favors both majority rule and minority rights, with preferences about the right balance affected by which party benefits from majority rule at the moment. But attitudes about the filibuster are transient.

The number of Americans who know even enough about the filibuster to say how many votes are required to end one varies wildly from survey to survey. Based on a Pew Survey from 2018 the number was as high as 40% who could "identify" that number as 60. But when asked in a 2020 survey to say exactly how many votes were required to end debate, only 15% responded that 60 votes were required. Overall, in terms of their actual views about it, whether it is a "good" or "bad" thing, Americans views are, as Smith describes, "weak."

That's mainly because polling on the issue invariably requires asking lengthy, confusing questions that many people simply don't comprehend: Smith cites a 2013 CBS survey that asked respondents to say whether simply the means to end a filibuster was a "good thing," but was so vaguely worded that respondents could have felt they were being asked whether the specific 60-vote threshold required was a "good thing." Overall, there was a small majority in favor of retaining the rule as is. But then came 2020, when discussions about the filibuster began to percolate through the media, and now people's perception of the filibuster has changed: "A reasonable working hypothesis, based on elite commentary over the past year, is that Democrats and liberals favor reform while Republicans and conservatives do not."

But that, of course, is dependent on which party is in power at the time. It makes perfect sense that Republicans would disfavor a change that reduces their party's ability to obstruct, when Republicans are in the minority. And vice versa for Democrats. But the more interesting observation is the degree of utter indifference by Americans overall: When asked whether they would support a reform of the filibuster so that legislation could simply get a vote with 51 (majority) votes, 45% of respondents "chose "neither support nor oppose" reform or did not answer the question." In other words, as Smith points out, "Indifference seems to run deep."

Smith essentially concludes from his review of the polling that neither party is likely to pay any discernible political price for reforming the filibuster:

While Democrats clearly favor reform more than Republicans do, the lack of knowledge about the current rule surely must make the issue difficult to understand for the average citizen. Strong procedural preferences, independent of partisan or policy considerations, are likely to exist for only a few Americans. The result is that party and opinion leaders have a quite malleable audience for their procedural moves and are not likely to suffer a political price for those moves on whatever grounds motivate their strategies.

(emphasis added)

It is probably too obvious to point out that for those few who would strongly object to such reform, nearly all would be from the party against whom such reform is being sought—in our Manchin example, it would be those Republicans who would never have voted for Joe Manchin in the first place.

In other words, neither he nor anyone else in the Democratic Party would pay a political price for reforming the filibuster.

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