In 2013, United States Senate Democrats went nuclear. That is, they changed the rules so that it would take only a simple majority to override a filibuster and confirm nominees for cabinet posts as well as federal judgeships (CBS News), save for the Supreme Court. They did this in order to prevent Republicans from blocking presidential nominees, a tactic the latter often employed to do so. Despite threatening the same thing a decade earlier, Senate Republicans lamented this move. In 2016, they famously refused to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, as “GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell instead waited for the 2016 election, hoping a Republican would be elected president and nominate Scalia’s successor” (CBS News). The Republicans would eventually reciprocate the Democrats’ 2013 tactic in 2017, after President Trump was sworn in, by invoking the nuclear option for Supreme Court nominees. When the Democrats altered the rules, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid defended the decision by asserting that the Republicans have created gridlock in the Senate, and that “it’s not only bad for President Obama, bad for this body, the United States Senate, it’s bad for our country” (Reid). Mitch McConnell said essentially the same thing in 2017. Not everyone felt the same way, including those in his own party; “‘Bad day for democracy,’ fumed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as he entered the Senate chamber” (Everett et al). Whether or not the nuclear option is overall beneficial or detrimental to democracy in the United States is an important question, the answer to which I find tends towards the words of Senator McCain. Although the nuclear option enables parties to confirm judicial appointees more easily with a majority, the rule is ultimately harmful to democracy as it polarizes an excessively polarized system and degrades the democratic norm of institutional forbearance.
The nuclear option contributes ultimately to the erosion of democracy in the United States in part because it stimulates and perpetuates polarization in a country that is already experiencing what Jennifer McCoy and Murat Somer call “pernicious polarization” in their work “Toward a Theory of Pernicious Polarization and How It Harms Democracies: Comparative Evidence and Possible Remedies.” The work references a study conducted by McCoy herself and Alan Abramowitz that examined “how racial resentment in the United States helps to explain voter realignment after the 1964 Civil Rights Act and to predict the vote for Trump in the 2016 U.S. elections” (McCoy and Somer 239). They found that the 2016 candidacy of Donald Trump “reinforced some of the deepest social and cultural divisions within the American electorate—those based on race and religion” (239). Such a dynamic, say McCoy and Somer, “creates potential for pernicious polarization, which should worry democratic social and political actors from both sides of the aisles” (McCoy and Somer 240). That there is already a potential for pernicious polarization makes the polarization brought about by the nuclear option even more destructive to democracy in the United States. And because the polarization in the United States is already harmful in nature and worsening with time, by invoking the nuclear option Senate Democrats and Republicans only reinforce a harmful cycle in which extreme action taken by one side begets equally or, in this case, more, extreme action by the other. This helps only to inflame existing hostilities between the two parties and their supporters.
Also fueling hostilities is “the winner-take-all logic produced by institutional rules in majoritarian electoral systems, combined with the psychological elements of the ‘us-versus-them’ discourse employed in severely polarized party systems” (McCoy and Somer 256). When each major U.S. political party invoked the nuclear option, the Democrats in 2013 and the Republicans in 2017, it illustrated “zero-sum perceptions of such systems” (McCoy and Somer 261) that incentivised the majority party to take legal but extreme action, such as altering procedural rules, to obtain the power necessary to carry out their agenda. In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that this type of extreme action violates an important democratic norm. The authors call this norm institutional forbearance, which “can be thought of as avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit” (Levitsky and Ziblatt 106). It is the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives. This exemplifies an informal rule that Levitsky and Ziblatt contend is necessary for the successful and sustained operation of democratic institutions. Rules like these are not written. Rather, they are “widely known and respected” (Levitsky and Ziblatt 100). When the latter is not the case, argue Levitsky and Ziblatt, “democracy is in trouble” (Levitsky and Ziblatt 116). Likewise, when Senate Democrats first invoked the nuclear option in 2013, they used their institutional powers to an unprecedented extent in order to achieve their institutional prerogative; Senate Republicans did the same in 2017. By invoking the nuclear option, each major political party in the United States disobeyed the vital norm of institutional forbearance completely. And because these norms are necessary to upholding the legitimacy of democratic institutions, employing the nuclear option is ultimately harmful to democracy in the United States.