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.