The Filibuster Harms America’s Global Reputation

Much has been made of the damning impact that the January 6th insurrection had on America’s global standing, and rightly so. Seeing the halls of one of the world’s most celebrated democracies overrun by a mob is jarring for America’s biggest fans and haters alike. The conversation about these events and their consequences is also far from over. Indeed, as AEI’s Kori Schake recently pointed out in the New York Times, halting congressional duties in the face of ongoing threats tells would-be insurrectionists that they too can delay Congress through violence.

To take it one step further, shuttering the Capitol also tells America’s adversaries that democracy is unable to function in the face of adequate danger and that civilian control of government merely results in chaos. China was quick to run with such claims of democracy’s comparative weakness to its authoritarian system in the wake of the insurrection.

While admittedly less glaring an image than a physical attack on the Capitol or its barbed-wired aftermath, does the continued use of the Senate filibuster not send a similar message to the world about democracy? Rather than allow the winning party to govern and face the consequences of its agenda at the ballot box, the filibuster makes legislating on non-budgetary issues virtually impossible due to the necessity of winning 60 votes — a task especially difficult in today’s hyper-polarized climate.

While defenders of the Senate relic argue that it promotes greater cooperation between parties to achieve the Herculean 60 vote margin, the filibuster’s use is fundamentally justified out of fear: the opposing party is too dangerous and too radical to legislate unencumbered. “They would destroy America,” so the argument goes, while selectively omitting the fact that bills must pass both houses and receive the president’s signature to be enacted into law, something every fan of Schoolhouse Rock! is well aware of. If both parties are confident in the superiority of their agenda over the other’s, eliminating the filibuster would allow them to test that theory in real-time. In keeping the filibuster alive, they profess a lack of belief in the strength of their policies and their ability to win votes through a platform.

Democracy is, in a word, trust. Trust not only in one another but also in institutions and political opposition forms the bedrock of any democratic system. For democracy to survive, citizens must trust each other not to violate their civil rights, and political parties must trust other parties that they will play by the rules when in and out of power. In using the filibuster to stonewall virtually every non-budgetary piece of legislation, the U.S. sends the message to the world that, again, democracy is unable to function in the face of “adequate danger,” despite the numerous safeguards created by America’s Founders. In this case, the imminent danger is the other party.

The result, however, is not a safer country: the filibuster hamstrings the ability of the government to respond to major issues, such as climate change and gun violence, and shifts the prerogative to legislate to the executive and judicial branches. Those who simultaneously support the filibuster while opposing mounting executive orders or “judicial activism” can’t have it every way. Neither can those who want to support democracy elsewhere while also stifling it at home.

It is naïve to think that a change in the Senate’s rules will have an immediate and measurable impact abroad. Yet, by continually inhibiting legislation from passing based on partisan ire, America tells the world that political parties do not have to curtail their policy agendas to the voters’ desires. If a party is stripped of the majority, they can simply sit back and inhibit the other party from legislating until the next election cycle. In the meantime, rather than create a more appealing agenda, they can double-down in attacking their opponents and concocting fear to drive voters to the polls. The cycle continues, and we are left with a politics increasingly characterized by rancor towards the other party rather than a belief in the agenda of one’s own party. This is not democracy. It is a dangerous slide towards a political system rife with demagoguery, animosity, and toxic behavior justified out of distrust towards one’s political opponents. It is not a sustainable path, and it must be reversed.

If America wants to instill confidence in the viability of democratic government for Afghans fearful for their country’s future, crafting a Congress where political ideas are genuinely tested and experimented with would not hurt. If America wants to give hope to Hungarians who desire a political system not characterized by fear and unchecked partisan dominance of institutions, adopting measures at home that force politicians to be accountable for the policies they propose, rather than their ability to whip up partisan fervor is a clear place to start. If America wants to show China, and those seeking to maintain their freedom from its grasp, that representative government is an effective way to solve problems, it must demonstrate that America’s parties can govern effectively when they have won elections and that the loser can have confidence in the country’s well-being while out of power.

The same is said for countries in Africa and the Balkans desperate for a politics that can develop better infrastructure and deliver a higher standard of living for its citizens — something China is eager to demonstrate its model can handle. America must show, both through its domestic political institutions and commitments overseas, that the democratic model should win their confidence instead. The longer the filibuster remains, the more implausible a task this becomes.

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