Concurrent Majority?

April 16, 2005

The current feeding frenzy over judicial nominations and the filibuster is operating in a serious absence of context, especially on the right side of the blogosphere.

What the right is forgetting, and the left is hammering on, is that the House and Senate have, in recent years, altered their standard operating procedures so as to freeze out the minority party. Judicial nominees have not been filibustered in the past because there were so many other moments where the minority party, or indeed individual senators, could put a hold on objectionable nominees. Those internal checks and balances have been eroded as conscious and intentional Republican policy, leaving the filibuster as the last refuge of the minority.

John C. Calhoun, elitist, racist, and brillian logician, argued that society should be governed by a "concurrent majority, that in any situation where society was clearly divided into to distinct and differing interests that any major decision must be approved by both. He was thinking both about the politics of lowcountry-upcountry South Carolina and the politics of slavery within the union. In effect, the concurrent majority gives a majority of the minority party, or a mere fraction of the whole polity, a veto over legislation. It is a recipe for inaction.

As part of the Northern concession to the South during the Progressive Era, the concurrent majority was added to a number of Senate procedures. Judicial appointments were one of the items where the interests of national unity meant that it was better to tilt the field towards the unobjectionable and against the divisive.

As a procedural matter, the concurrent majority lowers the stakes for any particular election or any particular regional coalition. If, win or lose, your friends are guaranteed to retain some say in legislation and appointments, especially appointments made for life, then it is much easier when you lose to say "we will get them next time." If, on the other hand, the majority of the moment can make changes that will last for decades, then every election is a crisis, every loss a catastrophe, and the higher stakes make it more likely that people will ignore the process in order to achieve a victory.

Thus, even though the concurrent majority and the senate filibuster were used by a racist minority in order to maintain local elites, they also served, and could still serve, a larger purpose as a stabilizing flywheel for the republic.

The debate we should be having is to what extent we want to move our republic towards a democracy, in the language of the founders for whom democracy was a bad word. Do we want the victors every two years to have total control over events and procedures, or do we want to see slower, more consensual change?

More precisely, which parts of governance do we want to see dominated by the victors of the moment, and which parts by the concensus of the entire nation?

The religious revolutionaries who dominate the Republican Party. (They are not conservatives. Edmund Burke was a Conservative. DeLay, Dobson, Frist, and Rove are Revolutionaries.) The religious revolutionaries and recipients of corporate rent-seeking want to increase the power of the moment. In doing so I fear that they are weakening those aspects of the American Republic that were meant to be a contract between those who went before, those now living, and those not yet born.

And I worry, I worry a lot, that after raising the stakes and invoking the infinite in behalf of short-term political goals, that they, or more realistically their more radical supporters, will not be able to accept future election losses. That instead of "wait until next time" we will see "to the barricades!"

Posted by Red Ted at April 16, 2005 12:03 PM | TrackBack