The Senate, parties, and misidentification

The moment the dust settled enough, from the November 2020 election, to see that Democrats’ best hope in the Senate was a 50-member pseudomajority, I knew that it would be an awful mess. I was right.

The perpetuation of a bipartisan-majority “filibuster” caucus, in combination with the guaranteed perpetuation of total obstruction of everything by Republicans, cripples Democrats’ ability to govern and pretty much confirms that America’s political crisis is terminal. That’s very bad.

What’s almost more frustrating, though is that no one seems to have any idea how to talk about this nightmare or even a readiness to try talking about it honestly. I grant that it’s very complicated for a culture which wants everything simplified and preferably familiar, too.

Today I made a chart and even this condenses various details:

Part of the problem is that American politics’ map of parties makes as little sense as its geographic map.

What’s completely missed by people who complain that “we need a new party” is that America is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of parties. State and county parties are basically all independent PACs which are typically uncoordinated individually, let alone with one another. But nearly all of them use just one of two party labels. This system of labeling is very unhelpful, and another instance of conceptual infrastructure so obsolete and decayed that it’s harmful.

Within political infrastructure which corresponded more to actual alliances and fissures, we would recognize that there is no Democratic Senate majority, right now, but rather a coalition government in which minor parties have a strictly limited agreement with Democrats, providing Chuck Schumer with some managerial powers but not providing Democrats with votes to implement most of their policy agenda. This would at least be a story which made internal sense. Democrats could control committees and (when all of their coalition allies backed them) confirm Biden appointees, without having a “Senate majority” which defies good answers about why legislation is still as blockaded as it was under Republican control.

As it is, Democrats are just trying to maneuver around this massive obstruction, rhetorically, with contortions which are increasingly stupid and painful to watch.

So far we have had “hey can we talk about American Rescue Plan money, and vaccines,” along with ongoing la la land touting of legislation which is dead-on-arrival in the Senate. Now—perhaps feeling pressure mounting to explain why everything is stalling in the Senate even as evils of voter suppression and gun violence are amok in the land—Democrats are trying out just blaming the Republican obstruction. Within just a few days I have seen this from Democratic Senate hopefuls in Ohio, and Florida, and even sitting Senator Elizabeth Warren whose contribution to this bad fudge is particularly gobsmacking.

I worked my heart out for Warren’s campaign mainly because of her clarity about the scale and dire nature of America’s systemic problems, so her resort to smudging the crisis in the Senate is very disappointing. It’s also ridiculous in at least a couple of ways. First, within the span of three tweets, Warren bemoaned that Republicans won’t let Democrats act, and celebrated that “It’s good to be back in the majority.” Maybe that’s partly the work of congressional staff, I don’t know, but it still shows the difficulty of even attempting this kind of bluff. Meanwhile Warren did more than anyone to make it impossible to pull off, by emphasizing that we can and must dispense with the entirely optional Senate “filibuster.” Just as you can’t un-ring a bell, you can’t now try to pretend that these things most Democrats support aren’t happening because the filibuster is simply “the rules,” curse those awful unreasonable Republicans! Vote blue in 2022.

I really don’t think Democrats are going to pull off running in 2022 against the do-nothing Congress. (I don’t even want to go into Democrats’ outrageous play-acting around a restored Voting Rights Act but good fucking grief.)

In general, I think that the great majority of Congressional Democrats still want to do the right things on many pressing issues. Unfortunately that is not enough, which is a problem when our simplified, outdated and misleading conceptual infrastructure tells us that Democrats control the presidency, House and Senate. A big problem which becomes a fiasco when supposed leaders are unwilling to confront the problem, honestly, and prefer instead to intensify the muddle with fantasy and disingenuousness.

I have spent enough time among politicians to know that for all that they seem quarrelsome, most develop early on a reflex to smooth over awkward issues, delay confrontation, and hope like Mr. Micawber that something will turn up.

In this case, however, I would argue that something has turned up and Democrats rebuffed it. Reflecting on the past decades’ political unraveling, I have already reflected that 2009 was kind of a last chance for fixing the system within the system, but lately I have also begun to see this as a catastrophic injury to American democracy even worse than that of 2000. With things going to shit under the toxic Bush government, and Democrats largely stumped for any response, voters turned up and basically tried to fire Republicans from national government. Across 2006 and 2008, voters not only gave Democrats the U.S. House and presidency but sixty fucking Senate votes; even allowing for its coalition nature mentioned above, this was a resounding, historic mandate to stop consulting with Republicans and just deliver big change. Instead, America’s elite political culture simply overruled voters, insisted that a de facto power-sharing agreement with Republicans continue, and a coalition which was three-fifths of the Senate act nonetheless like it had zero margin to spare.

I have not actually read all that much Dickens. Mr. Micawber might, having frittered away the opportunity of a century, remain every bit as certain as Democrats that something will turn up again, anyway.

I have spent more time among the ruminations of Oshii and Miyazaki, such as The Wind Rises, and its untranslated but fitting quotes from “Das gibt’s nur einmal.”

It only happens once

It doesn’t happen again

The chance has turned up and gone again, and now things are “going to blow up.”

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