Unintended Consequences: Ending Filibuster Creates Tyranny of the Minority

United States Senate Seal
United States Senate Seal (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)
"Senator Kaine espousing the radical, radical notion of majority rule. That is now on tape, sir," Chris Hayes said Thursday night (21 Nov 2013).

And he couldn't be more wrong.

In theory, the GOP could control the Senate with members elected from states representing less than 25 percent of the nation. The math is simple: win lots of small, rural states, and you have a majority in the Senate, while needing only a minority of American voters. 

Can Chris Hayes and numerous other pundits (and politicians) be so dense as to not recognize that a minority of voters nationally, but representing majorities in small aging states, could elect a GOP majority in the Senate? And no, this isn't some gerrymandering trick, since Senators are elected state-wide. It's simply a fact that the rural states could dictate policy for the majority… within two or three election cycles.

[See the MSNBC clip at: A Historic Day: Nuclear Option in the Senate]

Progressive politicians, activists, and commentators are revealing their political biases, not some inherent commitment to the (bad) idea of majority rule. "Majority rule" would change the Senate, or even abolish it. And for a group supposedly dedicated to "minority rights," I've never understood their passion for direct democracy that an old fable attributed to many sources (including Ben Franklin, without much evidence, and H. L. Mencken among others), described as two wolves and a sheep voting on what to eat for dinner. Direct democracy is not what our system embraces, and for good reasons.

Regardless of your views on direct democracy, the "majority rule" nonsense overlooks a basic, statistical truth: Republicans are likely to control the Senate within the next three election cycles, and could control the White House. This presents a quandary for those progressives claiming "majority rule" is good for the Senate and good for the United States. Do you mean a majority of Americans, or a majority in the Senate? Right now, those might be the same, but that's not likely to hold true — just as it isn't true in the House.

Republicans are unlikely, for many reasons we can debate, to hold or win Senate seats in California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and several other states. But, they are likely to hold or gain seats throughout the sparsely populated middle-regions of the nation. There will be a GOP majority in the Senate, representing a minority of voters. Caring more about President Obama getting his way, progressives have set the table for the GOP to do whatever it wants in the near future.

I don't like either party having a lot of power. I like stalemates and gridlock.

Thanks to the Democrats ending the filibuster on judicial and cabinet nominations, the GOP will likely kill it off entirely. And, with reconciliation and other parliamentary maneuvers, it isn't as if the filibuster was strong on legislative issues anyway.

A president could, therefore, appoint justices, ratify treaties, and approve agency regulators without California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, or other populous states having any voice in the choices.

Rural America could (and likely will) dominate the policy choices affecting urban centers that are political mirror images to their rural brethren.

Welcome to "tyranny of the minority" brought to you in the name of "majority rule" in the Senate.

As Richard Arenberg wrote in August:
Should the Democrats choose to trigger the nuclear option, a majority of senators might represent as few as 17 percent of the population using their own counting methodology. Stretching the hypothetical a little farther, a quorum requires only 51 senators. Therefore, 26 senators from 13 states representing a mere 4 percent of the population could provide the simple majority to change the rules!
— from "Save the Filibuster"

Sen. Tom Harkin has led the charge to "reform" the Senate. His argument is that the current situation is undemocratic because Republicans in the House and Senate represent a minority of voters. That is true, as the GOP representatives actually won 1.4 million fewer votes than the Democratic minority in the House. But, Harkin's call to end the filibuster is based on a flawed premise. Again, he overlooks that the Senate grants Wyoming and Idaho the same power as California and New York.

Sen. Harkin once stated:
"We simply cannot govern a 21st Century superpower when a minority of just 41 senators, representing potentially as little as 11 percent of the population, can dictate action — or inaction — not just to the majority of senators but to a majority of the American people."
Okay, Sen. Harkin, but will you at least admit you're not promoting "democracy" so much as your political ideology and the current president? You have not created a more democratic Senate — and you might have done quite the opposite. Will Sen. Harkin protest when the GOP has 51 senators, mostly from small states? What if 40 percent of American's elect a majority to the Senate? Is that democratic?

As Arenberg argues, advocacy groups are making similarly mistaken arguments:
The advocacy group Common Cause, arguing that the filibuster is unconstitutional, told the federal court that the Senate's cloture rule requiring 60 votes to cut off debate gives, "senators elected from 21 states that may contain as little as 11 percent of the U.S. population an absolute veto power over bills, resolutions and presidential appointments supported by senators who represent 83 percent of the people of the United States."
I do not support direct democracy, for many reasons. The Founders gave us an Electoral College, a bicameral legislature, indirect appointment of senators (something lost to the 17th Amendment), three branches of government, and many other impediments to sudden "mob rule" in this nation. Majorities tend to trample minority rights, with the best of intentions.

As a libertarian, classical liberal, I prefer to limit the power of government. Changing the filibuster will make it easier for government to pursue bad (but trendy) ideas. The new rules give more power the executive branch, which is always a bad idea. The new rules also give more power and influence to the extremists in both parties, since those voices are the new "filibuster" within each party.

Consider a president with 52 or 53 senators from his or her party. The loud radicals will demand ideologically pure appointments to cabinet posts, regulatory agencies, and the judicial benches. The radicals, representing the most loyal and active party voters, are likely to become all-powerful. So, you end up with tyranny of the majority even when the party in power does represent a majority of voters. Most voters are centrists, not party loyalists… and those centrists have lost the power to be heard as of this week.

Thanks Democrats for supporting a non-democratic, non-republican, non sequitur of a reform.
Tangent: The quote about sheep and wolves, like so many "quotes" has at least six "sources" according to books and websites. Maybe we can vote on which is the "correct" source — democracy in action, determining "truth" even if it is wrong.  In the end… we just don't know the source for certain, only those retelling the fable. With reasonable certainty, we can conclude it was not first said by Ben Franklin.
—  See: Fake Quote: Lunches with Wolves  
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