Weakened democracy Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
On November 18, 2021, to delay a final vote on President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation, Kevin McCarthy, US Minority Leader of the House, used the “magic minute” tactic to deliver a filibuster-style speech lasting 8 hours and 33 minutes, stirring up a new round of heated discussion over the debate procedure in Congress.
As a long-established political tradition, extending the debate to obstruct legislation, usually in the form of a filibuster, has been a powerful device to practice the spirit of checks and balances in America. Defenders believe that it creates “institutional obstacles to empower a minority of Americans to prevent the whims of the majority from being too hastily enshrined in legislation.”
However, “the impulse of sudden and violent passions” worried by James Madison, the US’ fourth president, doesn’t exist solely among the majority. The system, designed as a fence against influence of the majority’s impulse, has too often been abused by the minority to block everything, be it good or bad.
Over the course of the 20th century, Southern Democrats used filibusters to kill anti-lynching legislation for numerous times. In 1957, then Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond even performed a record-breaking speaking filibuster, which lasted for an uninterrupted 24 hours and 18 minutes, in opposition to the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Not until 2018 did the Senate pass an anti-lynching bill for the first time.
In 2010, the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act died in the Senate due to a filibuster, destroying dreamers’ hopes that they could obtain permanent relief from deportation. Nearly 1.9 million undocumented immigrant youths in the US still can’t call the country they live in their home.
And in 2013, after the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which took 20 children’s lives, Democratic senators proposed a series of gun-control measures. However, threatened by a filibuster, every single bill failed to pass. Till today, “gundemic” remains a major threat to Americans’ life and safety.
US democracy is a democracy in form where public interests are ignored or compromised simply because of its naturally flawed institutional design. It is not a solution to problems, but a problem itself.
But the problem does not stop here. The filibuster system amplifies party division and polarization. To guarantee the safe passing of their own bills, both parties strive to secure a super-majority, which requires 60 seats in the Senate. To this end, Democrats and Republicans exhaust all efforts to attack and block each other in Congress. Parties simply disagree for the sake of disagreeing, resulting in congressional paralysis and government dysfunction.
Ironically, while both parties are fed up with the filibuster deadlock smothering congressional progress, they lack the political will and motivation to thoroughly reform the system. It is the narrow selfish interests of their party rather than people’s interests that dictate political calculations. The democratic vision “of the people, by the people, for the people” has fallen to be “of the party, by the party, for the party.”
Democracy is far more than a form of government. It represents sovereignty of the people. While US politicians brag about the “superiority” of their democracy, their country is deviating from the vision of its founding fathers. The Madisonian checks-and-balances political system has now degenerated into a vetocracy or delay-cracy, causing devastating consequences to the government’s efficiency. It is not surprising that a Pew survey shows that 57% of international respondents and 72% of Americans believe that democracy in the US is not a good example for others to follow. A poll released by Harvard Kennedy School indicates that only 7 percent of young Americans view the US as a “healthy democracy.”
In 2013, Republican Senator Ted Cruz recited Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, sang praises of White Castle hamburgers, and quoted TV’s Duck Dynasty during a 21-hour marathon filibuster to blast Barack Obama’s health-care law. He went even so far as to supply his family’s recipe for the dish in that serious political debate.
Such absurd and meaningless performances have now become the epitome of US democracy today: It is all about party politics, nothing about democracy itself. The author is a commentator on international affairs, writing regularly for CGTN, Global Times, China Daily, etc. He can be reached at email@example.com