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The Filibuster and Post-Modern Democrats

If hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, then calling Harry Reid, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden hypocrites for abandoning their previous “principled” defense of Senate filibusters is an insult to hypocrites. Hypocrites, after all, recognize the power of principles and try to squirm out of the vice of violating them, but today’s post-modern Democrats feel no shame in making contradictory “principled” arguments because they no longer pay any tribute whatsoever to the virtue of neutral, non-partisan principle.


These Democrats are practicing the philosophy of post-modernism preached by liberal theorists for nearly a generation. For example, Stanley Fish, one of the most influential of these theorists, discovered that to defend racial preferences, it was necessary to reject the widely held principle that everyone should be treated by the state without regard to race, and that in order to do that, it was necessary to discredit the very idea of principle itself, which he proceeded to attempt:

  • In The Trouble With Principle (Harvard, 1999), Fish wrote that “[t]he passion I display when debunking the normative claims of neutral principle ideologues is unrelated to the passion I might display” the next day, when “I might turn around … and use the same rhetoric in the service of a cause I believed in. Nor would there be anything inconsistent or hypocritical about such behavior. The grounding consideration in both instances . . . would be my convictions and commitments; the means used to advance them would be secondary, and it would be no part of my morality to be consistent in my handling of those means.” (p. 8)
  • In There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing, Too (Oxford, 1993), Fish wrote in the same vein that “‘Free Speech’ is just the name we give to verbal behavior that serves the substantive agendas we wish to advance…. [S]o long as so-called free speech principles have been fashioned by your enemy . . . , contest their relevance to the issue at hand; but if you manage to refashion them in line with your purposes, urge them with a vengeance.” (pp. 102, 114)

Whether or not the Democrats and their acolytes in the mainstream media have actually read Fish, there can be no doubt that their filibuster reversal perfectly followed the Fish-y post-modern script. Consider, for example, E.J. Dionne, the liberal Washington Post columnist, who argued in March 2005 column, “Will Republicans Go Nuclear?,” that the effort to restrict the filibuster then being considered by Senate Republicans “is a historic fight over the structure of U.S. government that could affect almost every issue in the public realm” and “a blatant effort to twist the rules and … ignore the traditions of the Senate.”

Now that it is the Democrats who have gone nuclear, however, Dionne is marching to the tune of a different drummer, admitting in a November 24 column that he “might take back the ‘traditions of the Senate” line, which he attempts to trivialize as merely “a rhetorical attempt to call conservatism’s bluff,” but then comes the justification for his inconsistency that smells exactly like rotten Fish: “But what animated my argument then is the same concern I have now: This era’s conservatives will use any means at their disposal to win control of the courts.” Ignore my actual arguments, Dionne implicitly tells readers, my only principle (“what animate[s] my argument”) is that liberals are right and conservatives are wrong. The rest is mere rhetorical fluff.

Thus Ezra Klein, the Washington Post’s occasionally thoughtful but currently disappointed Obamacare cheerleader, is demonstrably silly when he writes that “if and when Republicans recapture the White House and decide to do away with the filibuster altogether, Democrats won’t have much of an argument when they try to stop them.”


Of course they will! Perhaps Klein has forgotten that Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Joe Biden, etc., not only supported the filibuster before they found it convenient to oppose it —  flip-flops, after all, are not rare in politics, on either side of the aisle — but argued as a matter of high principle that the fate of the republic, protecting the vision of the Founders, the integrity of the Senate, the independence of the judiciary all depended on preserving the filibuster against the power-mad aggression of zealous partisans who would callously discard it. Their argument was not for a mere policy preference; it pretended to be highly principled.

A few examples:

Barack Obama, 2005

[The American people] don’t expect … one party —be it Republican or Democrat — to change the rules in the middle of the game so that they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet…. [E]veryone in this chamber knows that if the majority chooses to end the filibuster — if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate — then the fighting and the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse….

I believe some of my colleagues propose this rules change because they can get away with it rather than because they know it’s good for our democracy…. [I]f the right of free and open debate is taken away from the minority party and the millions of Americans who asked us to be their voice, I fear that the already partisan atmosphere of Washington will be poisoned to the point where no one will be able to agree on anything. That doesn’t serve anyone’s best interests, and it certainly isn’t what the patriots who founded this democracy had in mind.


Harry Reid, 2005

The filibuster is … part of the fabric of this institution….

Mr. President, the filibuster is a critical tool in keeping the majority in check. This central fact has been acknowledged and even praised by Senators from both parties….

Republicans have sought to destroy the balance of power in our government by grabbing power for the presidency, silencing the minority and weakening our democracy….

For 200 years, we’ve had the right to extended debate. It’s not some “procedural gimmick.” It’s within the vision of the Founding Fathers of our country. They established a government so that no one person – and no single party – could have total control.

Some in this Chamber want to throw out 217 years of Senate history in the quest for absolute power.

And then, as usual in a class by himself, there is Jumpin Joe Biden (“Jumpin,” because he jumps with such noteworthy alacrity — and verbosity — from supporting to opposing any given principle based on whether or when it helps or hinders the Democratic Party).

In a mind-bogglingly stupefying April 27, 2005, floor speech Jumpin Joe sang the praises — through a seemingly unending litany of verses: the speech was just under 19,000 words!  — of the near-sacred filibuster, providing extensive chapter and verse from the Founders. “The Framers,” he intoned,

sought not to ensure simple majority rule, but to allow minority views — whether they are conservative, liberal, or moderate — to have an enduring role in the Senate in order to check the excesses of the majority…. I believe [the nuclear option] has the potential to do more damage to this system than anything that has occurred since I have become a Senator. History will judge us harshly, in my view, if we eliminate over 200 years of precedent and procedure in this body and, I might add, doing it by breaking a second rule of the Senate, and that is changing the rules of the Senate by a mere majority vote.


The “nuclear option,” Biden continued, “completely eviscerates minority rights. [It is] the most important procedural change during my 32-year Senate career, and one of the most important ever considered in the Senate; a change that would effectively destroy the Senate’s independence in providing advice and consent. [It would] would gut the very essence and core of what the Senate is about as an institution.”

Predictably, the nearly 19,000 words were not enough, and a few weeks later in a May 23, 2005, floor speech Biden returned to praise the holy filibuster and castigate those would crucify it.

The nuclear option abandons America’s sense of fair play. It is the one thing this country stands for: Not tilting the playing field on the side of those who control and own the field.

I say to my friends on the Republican side: You may own the field right now, but you won’t own it forever. I pray God when the Democrats take back control, we don’t make the kind of naked power grab you are doing. But I am afraid you will teach my new colleagues the wrong lessons.

God, in His  infinite wisdom, did not heed Biden’s prayer, perhaps because of entirely justified doubts about the sincerity, or at least the longevity, of his commitments. God no doubt noted that in his April 27, 2005, floor speech Biden apologized for the fact that in 1975 he had been “part of a slim bipartisan majority that supported jettisoning established Senate rules and ending debate on a rules change by a simple majority.” Cooler heads prevailed, and the threshold for cloture was lowered from two-thirds to three-fifths, and Biden acknowledged in his 2005 speech that his 1975 “decision to support cutting off debate on a rules change by a simple majority vote was misguided.”


Biden, of course, now supports the current nuclear option, and his 2005 apology has thus now become “misguided.” In perfect post-modern fashion, Biden supported the nuclear option before he opposed it before he supported it.

Ezra Klein need not worry. Once the tables are turned on the Democrats, as they surely will be, they will have plenty of arguments opposing the nasty Republican attempt to destroy what the Founders intended, etc., etc., but what I wrote about Stanley Fish applies with equal justification to today’s Democrats and the arguments they will predictably make in the future: “I’ve never understood why anyone bothers to argue with Fish. Since he’s announced in advance that he doesn’t necessarily believe what he says, why should anyone listen to him?”

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