Reforming—Not Abolishing—the Filibuster Could Improve Our Politics

The past few years have made clear that most of American politics—not just progressive politics—has become centered around identity and not governance. A recent New York Times piece by Stephanie Muravchik and Jon A. Shields documenting Rep. Liz Cheney’s primary loss drives this point home, noting that Republicans “are succumbing to the same impulses they associate with their liberal opponents: a shrill hostility to different viewpoints, an obsession with virtue signaling and a willingness to purge their own ranks.” So too with the increasing contempt that Republicans and Democrats feel for one another. As Jonathan Rauch memorably put it in National Affairs: “We are not seeing a hardening of coherent ideological difference. We are seeing a hardening of incoherent ideological difference. … What if, to some significant extent, the increase in partisanship is not really about anything?”

This uniquely abstract form of politics likely cannot go on forever, as the Times authors note, because “any party that elevates symbolism over governing risks stirring mass revolt down the road. … Results matter even in the age of identity politics.” But an awful lot of damage can be done in the interim before reality comes crashing down. 

Localizing more issues might help concretize our politics—to make it more about real policies than symbols, resentments, and identities. But even if our nationalized status quo doesn’t budge an inch, there are reforms to be had at the federal level—particularly in Congress—that could help make politics more about something again. 

One step that could work is to transform the Senate filibuster. Calls from the left to abolish the filibuster outright have become louder and more frequent, and are the result of frustration among progressives that they can’t easily push their agenda through Congress. Ending the filibuster altogether has its problems, but if done properly, reforming the filibuster could make it a tool for fostering a politics that is grounded more in issues and less in identities. 

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