Kyrsten Sinema & Filibuster: Valid Defense

Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.) departs after attending a bipartisan task force meeting on an infrastructure bill at the Capitol in Washington, DC on June 8, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

In his speech defending the filibuster, Kyrsten Sinema warned that an “underlying disease of division” was troubling American democracy. Placing the recent political unrest in a broader context of growing polarization, she argued that eliminating the filibuster would make this deeper “disease” worse.

Sinema’s remarks hint at a broader underlying tension for a democracy. On the one hand, democratic governance often does not mean that everyone shares the same point of view; instead, the democratic process can be a means for sometimes extremely opposing views and interests to compete for power. The democratic process works in part through difference.

On the other hand, excessive division can also threaten democracy. If factions see the other side as an existential threat, they will become impatient with the constraints and legitimizing practices of the democratic process. Accusing your opponents of sedition, attacking the legitimacy of elections, trying to bend the constitutional machinery to the whims of factions, warning that a crisis will occur if you don’t get your way – it all sounds very familiar.

Navigating inherent factional tensions has been central to American politics since at least 1776. The United States has responded to these challenges in part through decentralization; Due to the heterogeneity of American life, many checks are placed on the federal government.

The internal nature of federal institutions also bears witness to this diversity. By establishing protections for individual senators, due order in the Senate weakens the risk of partisan escalation and polarization. Internal limits on party discipline help preserve federalism by making it harder for a narrow majority to pass transformative national legislation. The effort to find at least a partial consensus helps to stabilize American institutions, and this stability in turn helps the United States to act as a ballast for the “international order”. Blowing up the nuclear option to overthrow the regular order endangers the protections of senators and would fuel the dynamics of polarization. (It’s easy to imagine the electoral chicanery possible in a post-nuclear Senate, as partisan majorities could make it easier to throw out a state’s electoral votes.)

The past two weeks – full of accusations that opponents are siding with Jefferson Davis and that the US election is a “rigged game” – illustrate how the nuclear option campaign is the escalation of a politics of polarization .

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