The Politics of Obstruction

When blocking beats building

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I suppose you’ve heard the one about the little man who was offered anything his heart desired on the condition that his worst enemy would get it double. The man chose one blind eye. Today, such people are called “Republicans.”

Creating a system of government is difficult. Bad people are always seeking to game the system, to use its rules against it. That’s what gerrymandering is about — using the ballot box to destroy the ballot box. Gerrymanderers are traitors, not in the strictly legal sense, but in the everyday sense that they give aid and comfort to our enemies, because in many ways, they are our enemies. (OK, maybe they are not traitors; maybe they are usurpers. Same difference.)

A viable political system gets things done. But action only happens when power is exercised, and power, we all know, tends to corrupt. Consequently, the power that causes things to get done in a stable polity must arise in a way that is not fatally corruptible. (There will always be some waste, abuse, and fraud; the perfect is the enemy of the good.) One such source of power is the consent of an educated electorate. If good, well-informed people decide who will wield power in their name, good people will seek to wield that power, because bad ones won’t be able to get a toe-hold, and good things will get done.

An educated electorate is essential to getting things done because an uneducated electorate will not understand what makes democracy tick — the ability to get things done despite disagreement as to what should be done. We tend to think of our government as becoming better throughout its history. Once upon a time, only male property owners, almost all of them White, voted. How benighted. But those voters created the Missouri Compromise, the Tariff Compromise of 1833, and Compromise of 1850. One can criticize the outcomes of compromises — they are compromises because no one likes them — but they kept the system going. The alternative became clear in 1860, when compromise failed. (Some issues cannot be compromised.)

In the way wars long over leave unexploded ordnance, the Civil War left permanently armed rhetorical bombs. Slavery proved that are issues on which compromise is not possible. In 1860, as the old joke goes, we found out what kind of girl we are, and we’ve just been talking price ever since. Abortion? Socialism? Deficits? How can we “compromise” on such important issues? Indeed, how can we compromise on allowing anyone who is on the other side of these issues even to hold office? Preemptive action is required. An educated electorate understands that “slavery-adjacent” is not a thing, that for the system to work, issues that cannot be compromised must be like hundred-year storms. They cannot arise everyday, however passionate some may be about them.

Our electorate is not so educated. Our electorate has show over the past twenty years or so that we prefer not to compromise on anything. The proof is Congress’s approval rating, which, except for occasional spikes when it responds to a crisis, has been falling rather steadily. We don’t like that nothing gets done, but we refuse to vote out those whose intransigence causes nothing to be done. This tendency was noted by potential politicians, which is why the Tea Party obstructionists emerged to run and why their foolish constituencies voted them in. Then, to the amazement of no one and disapproval of everyone, nothing got done. But, not grasping how things work, the uncompromising electorate just re-elected the uncompromising legislators (with the help of the gerrymandering traitors), and nothing continued to get done.

By now, enough of our legislators have doped out that the best path to reelection is not to get things done but to stop things from getting done, that it is better to deny credit than to get credit. Is there any doubt that we would have cracked the healthcare nut and rebuilt our infrastructure if the Republicans in Congress had not made denying Obama and the Democrats credit their highest priority? Would Trump be President if Congress had done its job? Even McConnell’s failure to deny Obama a second term just caused the GOP to double down. In Obama’s second term, Congress’s approval rating never topped 20%. No wonder the Republican party rejected all of its politician candidates in 2016 and the electorate rejected Hillary Clinton. Nice work, Mitch.

It would be naïve to suggest that the modern GOP has a monopoly on obstruction. Things don’t get done “in an election year,” largely because the outs do not want the ins to get credit for actually accomplishing something. But not every year is an election year. The news is that making the President look bad is a good permanent strategy, no matter how low Congress’s approval sinks.

One contributing factor is how easy obstruction is to accomplish. If there is no political price for obstruction, why not do it? Remember the filibuster? I’m not talking about the current rule that makes sixty votes necessary to pass any bill, and so makes obstruction painless for the obstructor. I’m talking about the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington filibuster, the one that required senators to hold the floor while nothing else happened in the Senate, the filibuster with a political cost. By eliminating that filibuster and replacing it with the low-cost “virtual” filibuster, the Senate made obstruction easy and cheap. It took forty years or so (the big filibuster rule changes took place in the 1970's), but the GOP eventually figured out how to win by denying the majority credit for using its majority effectively. (I still wonder what Lyndon Johnson might have done with Mitch McConnell.)

People like to talk about a fatal flaw in our Constitution. If there is such a flaw, it’s that only an educated electorate can fix a feckless Congress. We must vote out the obstructionists rather than cheer them on. So long as “We stopped them” is a better claim than “We helped you,” our politics will not heal. And so long as those who are turned off by our politics stay home, while those who are destroying our politics vote, “We stopped them” will beat “We tried to help you.” Happily, in a sad sense, Mr. Trump seems to be getting out the vote. Hopefully, he will lose bigly and have very strong coat-tails. Even then, it remains to see whether the GOP will see that its obstructionism led to its downfall. And, even more important, it remains to be seen whether the American people will see it.

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