Sounds crazy, right? Indulge me. Imagine this scenario: Joe Biden wins the presidency, and Democrats take the U.S. Senate. After enjoying a whirlwind of Biden’s executive orders, progressives grow frustrated. Despite controlling everything, Democrats still can’t pass most of their top agenda items (on the Green New Deal, say, or police reform, or immigration reform, or gun control) because of congressional gridlock as Republicans launch filibusters—the only tool at the minority party’s disposal. And so Democrats, declaring that they can’t let the party that gave us Donald Trump continue to impede progress, simply eliminate the filibuster, which can be done with a simple majority vote.
If you’re a progressive, this all sounds great. By adopting any means necessary to advance your goals, you believe you are defeating Trumpism. I see it differently. I would see such a move as embracing Trumpism—or, at least, a form of it. That’s because Trumpism is also about advancing authoritarian tendencies, prioritizing your base over the nation, and violating norms and institutions to consolidate power. That’s not a “return to normalcy,” and it’s certainly not change we can believe in.
This scenario is not a fait accompli, but it is plausible if not outright likely. The pressure to eliminate the filibuster will be immense, particularly because Democrats’ agenda will be deemed urgent and inherently virtuous, and they will be able to claim, wth reason in this scenario, that the people have given it a popular seal of approval. As Ron Brownstein explains at the Atlantic, “Leaders of the burgeoning racial-justice movement are unequivocal in warning Senate Democratic leaders that they risk an eruption if they achieve unified control yet allow Republican filibusters to kill civil-rights initiatives that pass the House, as bills on police reform, voting, and other issues have in this session.”
You might be thinking that getting rid of the legislative filibuster would never happen in a party led by Joe Biden, a centrist former senator who cares about the institution and its rules and traditions. But consider that it was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, who set this inevitable trend in motion by pulling the trigger on the “nuclear” option in 2013, eliminating the filibuster for the confirmation of nominees (except to the Supreme Court).
Or consider these recent comments by a friend of the legislative filibuster and a friend of Joe Biden: “I will not stand idly by for four years and watch the Biden administration’s initiatives blocked at every turn,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) said recently. “I am gonna try really hard to find a path forward that doesn’t require removing what’s left of the structural guardrails, but if there’s a Biden administration, it will be inheriting a mess, at home and abroad. It requires urgent and effective action.”
More importantly, consider Barack Obama’s comments last week at John Lewis’s funeral: “If all of this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.” (Never mind that Obama utilized this “Jim Crow relic” to try and stop Samuel Alito from reaching the high court. The point here is that no less a figure than Barack Obama is now setting the stage to close the curtain on the filibuster.)
If you’re a conservative (or even a centrist) then you should probably be rooting for senate Republicans to serve as both a check and a balance on the Democrats’ monopoly of power.
Here’s why: (a) Some parts of these virtuous-sounding progressive bills won’t be quite so virtuous, and (b) once the legislative filibuster is shunted aside (even if initially we are told it’s a one-time thing to pass some great-sounding legislation), it’s only a matter of time before all sorts of left-wing policies will be pushed through by a simple majority vote. Progressives have ambitious goals and diverse constituents, so it’s difficult to imagine that they will use this only once (likewise, it’s difficult to imagine Republicans could or would make enough compromises and concessions to prevent this from happening).
This would be less than ideal, but tolerable, were it not for something else Obama said at the John Lewis funeral: “Once we [kill the filibuster and] pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better… By guaranteeing that every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington, D.C., and in Puerto Rico; they’re also Americans.”
What he’s describing is (c) Democrats killing the filibuster to add two new states, and four new Democratic senators—essentially giving them control of the senate, indefinitely. At that point, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to convince them to start packing the Supreme Court.
Why do this? It's simple. Democrats have figured out that they will have a very narrow window for getting anything (and everything) done. As Brownstein reminds us, “The last four times a president—of either party—went into a midterm with unified control, voters have revoked it.”
So some Democrats think that the one way to prevent history from repeating itself, yet again, is to rig the system—to erode our norms and institutions to guarantee the outcome they want (because their goals are noble, of course).
The other week, I warned Never Trump conservatives who aren’t content with claiming Donald Trump’s scalp, but who also want to defenestrate the entire GOP, that “Losing the Senate would leave Republicans with little power to block a progressive, pro-abortion Supreme Court Justice nominee, oppose raising taxes, or whatever else Bernie Sanders meant when he said Biden would be ‘the most progressive president since FDR.’”
The bigger danger is that we end up with a country where one party violates norms and institutions to consolidate power. In a sense, it’s similar to what Republicans have been accused of trying to do. But if progressives do it, the ends will justify the means, right? Of course, they will.