An Historical View of the "Nuclear Option"

The inimitable Lee Harris weighs in on the filibuster issue going on in the US Senate lately. He sketches a history of the filibuster (showing that it is not the age-old, venerable institution that Democrats claim it to be), and in so doing puts things in a bit of context:
The Achilles' heel of all democracies, and the explanation for why so many of them fail, lies in this ceaseless struggle. Each party, each faction becomes increasingly preoccupied with getting power or holding on to power. But because power comes from the rule of the majority, the trick to obtaining power is to get the majority of the population sufficiently worked up and disturbed over a "hot button" issue, and then to artfully channel their emotional agitation into support for a political candidate. But, obviously, such a policy, while beneficial to the interests of the parties that exploit it, is disastrous to the interests of the nation as a whole. Politics, instead of being the art of compromise, becomes the tactic of the demagogue, while politicians, instead of working to settle differences between opposing parties, devote themselves to inflaming their partisan passions, in order to exploit their quarrels for their own purposes.

According to Calhoun, the only defense against this fatal tendency within any democracy is to make it extraordinarily difficult for any partisan faction -- even when the faction constitutes a numerical majority -- to obtain control over the central resource of governmental power. And how else to achieve this goal than by setting up a series of obstacles on the path that leads toward the consolidation of central power, thereby lessening the odds that the citadel of power will fall into the hands of zealots out to impose their own will on the rest of society.
He summarizes by noting the following:
American politics has been repeatedly punctuated by the threats that constituted the nuclear options of their day. In addition to the impeachment of Judge Chase and the Nullification Proclamation of South Carolina in the 19th century, there is FDR's threat to pack the Supreme Court in the 20th century; yet each of these threats, while failing to achieve their official purpose, ended up, nevertheless, by playing a decisive role in the working out of a generally desired compromise. The Supreme Court did get more liberal after FDR threatened to pack the court, just as the tariff of abominations was drastically reduced after the nullification threat. Each nuclear threat helped, in its own way, to bring about an acceptable compromise -- and a compromise, it should be noted, that would probably not have been achieved if the nuclear option had not been threatened in the first place. Bluffing is often rewarded, precisely because bluffs are invariably fraught with the danger that they might be called.

If there is a sacred tradition in American politics, it is the willingness of otherwise prudent men to bluff their way up to the very brink of disaster, and then back down. We have done so over and over, and let us hope that we will do so again. The alternative, after all, is nothing short of a divided society, and an uncivil war in which the very political process itself is nullified by an excess of partisan passion.
Indeed. It is easy -- perhaps too easy, in this age of instantaneous mass culture -- to get caught up in the flames of partisan passion. However, we can hope that our political leaders have a little more sense, and that as individuals they are able to bear the pressures from their constituents and copartisans, and work something out. It has, after all, been reported that Senators Reid and Frist have been working on compromises behind closed doors. To date, nothing has been successful, and the two men often demonstrate that in their news conferences. Also clear from their addresses is that the Democrats are in the weaker position, and that the Republicans feel more confident of theirs. Finally, we can see the motivations behind each man's political constituency: Those behind Reid are partisans for whom it would be acceptable, even a victory, to allow to pass (only) seven out of the ten nominees; those pressuring Frist not to compromise are partisan ideologues for whom nothing but unconditional victory would suffice. The weaker side is resorting to tradition, while the stronger side is appealing to fairness.

We're fortunate to live in a society where politics can be treated as innocuous theatre. But it is a veil over the real work that needs to be done. So Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen, do us all a favor, sit down and get to work. Otherwise the people might just demand to shove you all into a Conclave with less and less rations each day until you get your jobs done.

(Hat-tip: Andrew Sullivan)

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds and Chicago Boyz]

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