While democracy in the United States has never been perfect, it has been a model for the rest of the world. Yet, lately, it seems like there may be reason to worry about the state of democracy in America. In recent years, politics in the United States has become increasingly polarized. This intense polarization has threatened democratic institutions and has manifested in ways such as attempts to pack the court, antagonization of the media, distrust in the electoral system, and most recently, efforts to remove the filibuster.
The recent attempts to alter or eliminate the filibuster by Democrats in the Senate is a good example of recent attitudes and developments in the capital. Attempted changes to these institutions seem to be enough to place America on a democratic backsliding watch list.
Although it is not formally written in the Constitution, the filibuster has been a congressional norm for centuries. The filibuster is an unlimited debate on a proposed bill. In practice, the filibuster is used to prevent voting in the Senate and effectively block legislation. Famously, senators watched Representative Ted Cruz read Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham to his daughter during his 21-hour filibuster against Obama’s health care law. Senators can end a filibuster with a three-fifths majority, or 60 votes. However, in this age of polarization it is nearly impossible to garner enough bipartisan support to end a filibuster; thus, the mere threat of a filibuster is enough to kill legislation.
The current senate is split 50-50. Democrats have the advantage since they also have control of the House and presidency. Despite having a united government, the Democratic Party has been almost entirely unable to pass any meaningful legislation during this term due to lack of cooperation from the Republican Party. So, the Democrats in the Senate have decided their best course of action to get what they want is to alter the rules of the filibuster. They suggest changing it from a three-fifths majority to only a simple majority needed to end a filibuster. In essence, they want to be able to completely override any Republican dissent.
For obvious reasons, this is worrisome. Like scholars suggest, an imperative component to maintaining healthy democracy is keeping democratic norms in place . The filibuster is not a law. It is a rule the senate made for themselves to preserve fairness. Rules are easy to change. However, the filibuster has never been eliminated or heavily altered in order to protect the democratic norm. Breaking from this norm is a serious warning sign of possible democratic decline.
In a healthy democracy, we expect politicians to show some restraint and not violate the democratic spirit in order to gain benefits for their party. If the Democrats are successful in eliminating the filibuster or reducing the cloture requirement to a simple majority, then it would be a prime example of straying from democratic norms. Once the filibuster is essentially null, the Democratic Party could practically pass any legislation it wants considering it has a united government. This would be a big cause for concern.
With the elimination of the filibuster, the American government would essentially be run by a single party. A key factor of American democracy is the party system which allows for different voices to be represented as well as for a peaceful transition of powerful. In America, power is not usually consolidated into the hands of one party. The checks and balances system ensures that power will not consolidate, but with the elimination of filibuster, the senate is removing its own institutional checks and balances. Removing checks and consolidating power are two very clear warning signs scholars look for when considering democratic erosion in a regime. America is practically flashing with warning signs.
Furthermore, the reason that the elimination of filibuster is even being discussed is because of the inability for bipartisan agreement in Congress. Every year, the United States watches as our party system becomes increasingly polarized. While there has always been polarization and staunch disagreement in the American party system dating back to our foundations with the Federalist and Anti-Federalist parties, it has never come to the point where cooperation seems impossible — until now.
Polarization can destroy democratic norms. Many regimes used intense polarization as their catalyst to break down democratic norms and institutions. It is not absurd to wonder if America is on the same path. The polarization between the two parties in America is so strong that it is venturing into the realm of enemy rather than rival. Instead of acknowledging that the political opponent is a worthy, fair rival, the two sides are increasingly viewing each other as evil, unpatriotic enemies.
This switch in perception can be seen as a decline in what Levitsky and Ziblatt describe as mutual toleration. Without mutual toleration, politicians paint the other side as threats to democracy and in turn the whole democratic system is threatened. America seems to be inching closer to total intolerance every day and the filibuster debate is just another example.
In sum, democracy in America is not as picturesque as it seems. There are serious reasons to be concerned for the wellbeing of democracy in the United States. From increasing polarization to the challenging of democratic norms, the United States seems to be experiencing many of the early signs that propelled other nations into democratic backsliding. Other nations have seen people or parties use strong polarization as a chance to intervene and lead the government into a near authoritarian state. Hopefully the gap between the two warring political factions in America can be bridged enough to ensure that a strong political leader will be unable to come in and completely tear down the fragile walls of democracy.
I enjoyed reading your post and thought it gave a great analysis of how the removal of unwritten rules, such as the filibuster, can be indicative of democratic backsliding. While I would argue that the filibuster has fundamentally transformed since its inception, it is almost inarguable that the Founding Fathers intended for the senate to be a body of compromise. Famously, George Washington compared the senate to a cooling saucer that would diminish the passions of the majoritarian House of Representatives. Furthermore, it is interesting to consider what legislation could have been enacted if Republicans in 2016, who possessed full control of the government, eliminated the filibuster. The construction of a southern border wall, the elimination of the Affordable Care Act, and other conservative priorities would have likely been enacted if the filibuster had been altered during the Trump administration. Senator Mitch McConnell has claimed that he refused to eliminate the filibuster while in the majority, despite requests from President Trump and others in the party to do so, because it would remove a distinct feature from the Senate that separates it from the House of Representatives. Without the Senate filibuster, the minority party in the Senate would have little ability to influence legislation and moderate more extreme proposals by the majority.