Friday, July 17, 2020

Looking Away From The Present

Last week, the American Conservative published an article by Alberto Bufalino entitled “Calls to End the Filibuster Threaten American Democracy.”

The issue is newsworthy because Democrats are talking about getting rid of the Senate filibuster if they win back Congress and the White House in November. Bufalino’s article repeats all the arguments in favor of the filibuster that have been paraded out by whatever party is out of office (or anticipates that it will soon be out of office) since before I was born.

“The filibuster prevents the tyranny of the majority,” he says, “allowing for the minority party to have a say in policymaking and to defend their interests on a particular policy. Thomas Jefferson once said, “great innovations should not be forced on a slender majority….”

I disagree with the substance of the pro-filibuster arguments; in other words, I don’t think that requiring excessive majorities for the Senate to pass legislation actually defends minority rights. I think that it just makes Congress, as a whole, weaker, so that it’s easy for the federal courts, along with a horde of regulatory agencies, to step into the resulting power vacuum and write policies that would not have commanded even a bare majority in the houses of Congress.

That’s a line of thinking that I plan to work out in a later post. In the current post, rather than a refutation of the arguments that Bufalino deploys in defense of the filibuster, I’m going to outline why I reject his premise.

The premise on which his article is based is an old and well-worn one, and it goes something like this: American democracy, though not perfect, has survived mostly intact from 1776 to the present day. But whatever reform the Democrats are presently agitating for will, if adopted, destroy American democracy.

The irony is that whenever the Democrats win their cause du jour, conservatives immediately reanalyze what just happened as just another step in a chain of real but non-essential defeats, and then the process starts all over again with a new apocalyptic threat hanging over the imperiled republic.

This is really just a variation on one of the flawed thought patterns that afflicts the conservative mindset in general. If you’ve followed debates in politics, economics, religion, or any other field of human experience in which a division between conservatives and liberals is to be found, then you’ve probably seen it again and again. The conservatives always claim to be defending a tradition that has been handed down for a long time and successfully maintained through many generations, but which will be lost in the near future if the liberals get what they are presently demanding.

The problem with this worldview is that it depends, for its acceptance, on a considerable degree of historical illiteracy. In this respect, it is much like all the other worldviews which fail to acknowledge that the past isn’t a simple story of linear progress or the stalwart preservation of an ancient tradition, and that turning points in the past can be just as important as turning points in the present and the future.

Just consider the ongoing alarmism in the conservative media over the fact that so many millennials are now identifying as socialists. The future we are told to fear is one in which the socialists soon become a majority and, in one fell swoop, overturn the capitalist system which has made America a prosperous nation since its founding.

What we are expected to overlook is the fact that America’s economic system has been undergoing incremental changes – with occasional jolts in years like 1873, 1913, and 1933 – for a very long time, and the effects of these past changes are far greater than the effect we would have felt if Bernie Sanders had won this year’s election.

In real life, a declining nation, tradition, or form of government is gradually subverted and weakened over long periods of time. Eventually, a nation undergoing a process of decline will reach a point where the important battles lie in its past. Then, unless the conservative faction acknowledges that something catastrophic has been lost, and takes up the mantle of the reactionaries in an effort to get it back, the decline is just going to continue.

Now let’s turn away from economics and back to democratic government itself – something whose survival depends, according to Bufalino and scads of likeminded media figures, on the preservation of the filibuster.

And yet a level-headed supporter of representative government (as opposed to one stuck in the mental rut I just outlined) is likely to look back at the last century-and-a-half of American politics and conclude that his country’s democratic form of government has already been disfigured beyond recognition.

Look at it this way: in the first half of the twentieth century, major changes to America’s domestic affairs – women’s suffrage, for instance, or the Federal Reserve Act, or Prohibition, or the New Deal – had to be approved by Congress and, if they involved a constitutional amendment, by the state legislatures. Likewise, Congress had the right to vote on whether or not to go to war.

In the second half of the century, the big domestic changes – things like forced bussing, legalized abortion, and a much-reduced role for religion in public life – were largely the work of the courts, and the President could go to war whenever, and against whomever, he wanted. These conditions have persisted to the present day. Ask yourself which of the big issues of the last five years – same sex marriage, DACA, the wars in Syria and Yemen, etc. – are being decided by elected representative bodies, and you’ll come up empty-handed.

Historical illiteracy is a big factor in the acceptance, by so many rightward-leaning Americans, of a worldview in which the past is flattened out into a tale of the successful preservation of the same set of essential liberties which are at stake in the big political controversies of the present. But it isn’t the only factor; simple flattery also has its role.

People like to believe that they’re on the winning team. Tell an American that his country has done a best-in-the-world job of preserving liberty since 1776, and he will feel good about himself. The same goes for telling a Republican that his party has been in the same role since 1854. Then, tell him that all of this is at stake in the next election, and he just might go out and vote for you. Hence the popularity and frequent repetition of the “last best hope” meme in all of its variations.

When your goal is to win elections, this thought-pattern works fairly well. But as a means of understanding history, it comes up short. Being a democratic reactionary, as I discussed in my last post, involves looking away from the present and recognizing the importance of defeats that happened a long time ago. Then it involves the admission that regaining our liberties – if such a thing is to be done at all – has very little to do with the outcomes of the narrow controversies that are presently being debated in the houses of Congress.

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