Our country’s history suggests that Americans prefer political leaders who enact policies that the majority of people find reasonable, which is to say, those policies which are acceptable to most and hated by few. We are made uncomfortable by sudden or major shifts in policies or actions to either the far right or far left. Rather, we are more likely to accept policy changes that result from bipartisan consensus, changes that are made thoughtfully and incrementally. Think of the country as a ship: the crew and passengers are willing to change direction, but not so quickly as to cause damage.
The political polarization roiling our country today has made bipartisan consensus difficult, if not impossible. Those on the left and right extremes are convinced of the virtues of their positions, reinforced by their own tailor-made echo-chambers, either unwilling or unable to find the common ground on which collaboration and consensus is built. All the while, those in the middle — moderate Democrats, moderate Republicans and independents who make up the quiet majority — are underrepresented.
The most telling and significant demonstration of the move toward the fringe is the changes that have been made to the Senate’s decades-old filibuster rule. This rule requires the support of 60 percent of the Senate to move legislation or appointments forward. Since it is very rare for one party to control more than 60 percent of the Senate seats, the filibuster made compromise a practical necessity. This is especially the case when one party controls both the White House and the Senate.
Both Democrats and Republicans have contributed to weakening the filibuster. Sen. Reid, the Senate majority leader at a time when Democrats were in the majority, eliminated the filibuster for lower court judicial nominees. Sen. McConnell, the Senate majority leader when Republicans were in the majority, eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees. There is loud talk today about eliminating the rule entirely so that the party in power can legislate without having to compromise at all.
This would be a mistake on several levels. First and foremost, it would lead to a set of public policies favored by a minority of citizens: The extremes on one side account for fewer people than moderates plus opposing extremes. Secondly, it would lead to generic instability in laws: One party would pass something this session of Congress that the other party would reverse in the next session. This occurs today with executive orders and has tied up the courts while delaying implementation of policy and effectively running out the clock.
Finally, it would make it virtually impossible to deal with other countries, which would be unable to count on a set of rules being in place for more than a few years. Make no mistake: Stability in government and in the rules we follow has been a key reason our nation has become an economic powerhouse.
For these reasons, our political leaders should restore the filibuster and write it into law. It’s hard to be optimistic about this, because it will take personal and political courage not seen in decades. The leaders of the House and Senate and the president will need to work together with their respective colleagues in both the majority and minority. Some back-room deals and compromises will have to be made. It may be opposed by the vocal minority of each party. But it is right for us as citizens, it is right for our country and it is right for the continued opportunities that democracy affords all of us.