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Filibuster: Protecting Majority Rule?

February 8, 2010

In recent months, calls for the abolition of the filibuster have been growing, mainly from progressives decrying the undemocratic influence wielded by a collection of small-state senators (in terms of population, not size). I agree completely that at the current time the filibuster exacerbates the anti-democratic nature of the Senate and I’ve been supportive of efforts to abolish the filibuster. An analysis from Slate today should given filibuster abolitionists pause as it reminds them (myself included) of previous instances of the filibuster which actually protected the majority’s will:

When Republicans have been in the majority, the filibustering minority has actually represented the majority of Americans 64 percent of the time. When Democrats have been in the majority, that figure plummets to 3 percent. So the charge that it is somehow hypocritical for Democrats to decry Republican filibusters as affronts to majority rule—if they also stand by their past decisions to filibuster the Republicans—is easily answered. When Democrats have filibustered Republicans in recent years, they have very often represented more Americans than the Republican majority; the same is almost never true in reverse.

Essentially, when the Republicans are in power, the filibuster represents the will of the majority of Americans, as they are represented in the Senate. When the Democrats are in power, as they are currently, the filibuster does not represent the will of a majority of Americans. The author Ben Eidelson suggests changing the cloture threshold to 55 votes instead of 60, a calibration that would ensure that more filibusters actually represent the majority’s will.

Unfortunately, this (theoretical) recalibration will only be helpful to democratic rule as long as the current relative state populations stay the same, a situation whose permanence is uncertain. Ultimately, the only truly democratic solution would be the dissolution or reapportionment of the Senate. Since both of those options are exceedingly unlikely in the short run, I’m forced to assume that our country will remain a semi-democracy for the foreseeable future.

A truly representative Senate is the purpose of this intriguing hypothetical map:

S.F. Bay could be Chrysopylae, or at least something as interesting as the other names.

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