Joe Manchin and trap of the Senate filibuster 📊 June 6, 2021

We cannot expect a minoritarian institution to put itself on a path towards more proportional representation

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Joe Manchin and trap of the Senate filibuster

I turn 25 tomorrow. As such, today’s email will be brief. Before that, my one note on “aging” is that I have found it harder to lose weight conditional on the same amount of exercise. Yes, I am aware I am too young to complain about this.

Moving on to politics: Most of you will have seen Joe Manchin’s announcement that he will oppose HR 1 and any attempts to repeal or reform the filibuster. He has called the legislation partisan and won’t vote for legislation that isn’t supported by Republicans too. You will know that I oppose pretty much any measure that keeps the filibuster intact or doesn’t take the threat of subversion in the near future seriously.

To be clear, I do not think HR 1 really even comes close to meeting the threats to responsive, representative, republican self-government that ail our democracy today. The legislation’s fixes to the systems that govern voting and election rules and (some aspects of) Congressional redistricting are worth doing on their own but do not address, eg, state legislatures removing power over certification from election officials and giving it to partisan legislatures. But opposing reforms because you want a “bipartisan” deal with the minority, anti-democratic faction is not a good way to combat these problems.

I think Manchin’s opposition to HR 1 could also end up being extremely short-sighted in the future. That depends on how the next 4 years play out, but the probability of backfire seems high. Republicans could always nuke the filibuster in 2022/24 to pursue their own legislative goals. Exchanging correctives that put us on a path towards electoral legitimacy for a tiny chance of future bipartisan engagement from the other side also looks pretty silly when Republicans can basically pass their entire agenda through reconciliation, whereas Democrats usually need 60 votes to pass things their constituents want. Manchin will run up the same negative scores if Republican state legislatures and House Republicans manufacture a GOP electoral college win in 2024.

The final point is obvious, but worth repeating because of its severity. Some people say that Manchin’s actions here are democratic because they are responsive to policy preferences in his deep-red state. That is entirely the problem! That a group of legislators all acting “democratically” in response to opinion in their own states, would vote down a bill that is favored by a broad plurality of the public proves it is too favorable to minoritarian interests — what political scientists call malapportionment.

This is a bad situation. But my conclusion is the same as it was last week: It remains unlikely that biased institutions can be corrected by reforms that make their way through the systems they govern. In this particular matter, it is hard to push a minoritarian system to vote for policies the minority favors. And that is the case for “radical” reforms in a nutshell.


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Links to what I’m reading and writing

  • I revisited this Atlantic essay on Walt Whitman, democracy and unity and found it again recommendable. Here is a more academic but similarly insightful read.

  • This “Political update for cicadas” is also a delightful concept, even if only really nerdy politicos (and cicadas) will find the piece that interesting.


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