Listening to President Obama's angry diatribe against the gun lobby Wednesday night, you'd think the Senate majority failed to pass his modest legislation.The president railed against those who trumped the 90 percent of Americans who favored gun control, and he assailed individual senators for not meeting "the test." But the outrage was not that a majority of the Senate had defeated the overwhelming majority of the American people who embraced background checks; it was that a 45 member minority had defeated the 55 member (substantial) majority that had actually "passed" the legislation -- if majority rule had been in effect. The Senate agreed with the American majority: both went down to defeat at the hands of a rabid, deeply undemocratic minority abusing Senate rules.
The problem is with the filibuster, and its evolution from a sometime instrument of supposedly very special causes that occasionally merit slowing down a fast-moving and reckless majority into the everyday recourse of reckless minorities who hold democracy itself in contempt.
The Senate had the chance to change the rules at the opening of the current Congress (when it can alter its own rules by majority consent), but did not. The Democratic majority presumably once again worried that it might one day be in the minority and might want to avail itself of the blunt instrument now being used against it by the Republicans.
The Senate is already enormously skewed, with some Senators like those from North Dakota representing a group of citizens numbering in the hundreds of thousands able to outvote Senators from states like California representing tens of millions of citizens. The filibuster skews further an already deeply skewed chamber. Forty Senators representing less than a third of the population can vote down legislation favored by those representing two thirds -- and nowadays does so routinely, more or less paralyzing government even when substantial majorities favor change.
This means taking an instrument created by the Founders to prevent a worrisome and ancient "tyranny of the majority" from misusing power and turning it into an instrument to enforce a novel and perilous tyranny of the minority. It not only prevents the passing of legislation favored by large majorities, and thwarts the democratic will, but creates deep cynicism about democracy itself, leading citizens to increasingly view their government as dysfunctional. What a perfect recipe not just for undermining the progressive agenda but for destroying trust in democracy itself. For those who want to prove government doesn't work, what better tactic than to use the filibuster to assure it won't.
If we want the American majority to be able to pass legislation it favors, it's time to stop scolding frightened senators and moneyed lobbies like the NRA and start fixing democracy -- beginning with the runaway filibuster. Until majority rule means once again what it says -- majorities decide outcomes -- the public good will be stymied, the American majority thwarted, and the rights of citizenship annulled.
When democracy works, gun control legislation will pass. It's that simple.
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