While our politics is quite nasty and unproductive right now, we would be wrong to think it is an unprecedented moment for small-minded political crankiness.
But this doesn't make explaining it any easier. I tried stepping back from the maelstrom and looked for a lead in science at things like Godel's "Incompleteness Theorem" and Heisenberg's "Uncertainty Principle," but the most accessible scientific thing I could find was some graffiti in a pancake house bathroom in Princeton that said, "Einstein peed here." Then below that it said, "Heisenberg MAY have peed here." That didn't help either.
Finally, going through old government books I rediscovered John C. Calhoun's plan for "Concurrent Majorities." The essence of the concurrent doctrine is that in order to pass law, Congress needed a super majority that consisted of a majority of the majority party and a majority of the minority party.
This raises an important question: What's the point of elections? More important, what's the purpose of representative government?
Nonetheless, the idea of concurrent majorities is always going to find a sympathetic ear from the party in the minority, whether is't the Democrats or the Republicans. While it would perhaps please the minority party, it didn't find support outside Calhoun's South Carolina back then. So, South Carolina introduced the Ordinance of Nullification that stipulated that states could decide what national laws would apply to them and which wouldn't. Again, this may well appeal today in some places; however, it simply failed to become law.
So, America has replaced the Ordinance of Nullification with the filibuster. The advantage of the filibuster is that the support of a state or congressional majority is unnecessary for bringing the Congress to a dead halt. It requires a super majority (60 votsd today--not as tough as Calhoun's plan) to stop a filibuster. The odds of many Democrats agreeing on anything is embarrassingly small. So the minority has decided to use the threat of the filibuster to stop or slow virtually every initiative of consequence before the Congress. It's their right and may be quite a clever technique. But as such, it also runs the risk of confirming that the only place in America where pouting is protected by law is the U.S. Senate.
That's what a filibuster is about most of the time. It is an honored technique because of Jimmy Stewart's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." And, yes, there have been some fine filibusters in life and in the movies.
But the filibuster is the strategy of a spoiled child pouting and threatening to stop anything and everything from happening in Washington because on a straight-up vote they would lose. A filibuster is like Little Lord Fauntleroy holding his breath as a punishment to an adult. As we all know this can only be a very short-term victory, especially if done all the time because one will eventually implode into what is likely to become a dishonorable splat on the Senate floor and on our TV and computer screens.
Why Democrats are so afraid of the filibuster threat is amazing. Even without a filibuster-proof Senate, they still have a bigger majority than President Bush had.
To get simple up or down votes the old-fashioned way, the first thing to do is to call their bluff. Whomever it is. Let them filibuster their brains out. The second thing is to see who tires of the game first, the parched senators of the American people who eventually demand that Little Lord Fauntleroy get over himself.
The mid-term elections typically go in favor of the "out" party and it's going strongly in that direction now. Why would the minority party risk that win by purposefully manifesting petulance and holding its breath?