Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Democracy in America: Chapter 2

I'm skipping chapter 1, because it's an overview of the physical geography of the United States. Things don't really get interesting until chapter 5 or so, but we'll go one at a time anyway.

In Chapter 2 Toqueville deals with the original colonists in the United States. He barely touches on the South, I suspect because even by Toqueville's time the political power of the North had become controlling in the Union. It could also, though, be because the political philosophy of the Puritans most conformed to Toqueville's ideals. At any rate he deals with the South principally by saying that the men who came there were gold seekers and adventurers without resource or character and that the institution of slavery defines the early South.

The North, however, was populated by Puritans and Pilgrims. These Puritans (I'll ignore the difference, since he does) were upright citizens, generally of independent means, who were leaving their mother country not to pursue a quick buck but to escape the religious turmoil of the seventeenth century. Additionally the Puritan ethic extended not just to conventionally religious matters but also, importantly, to the view that men owned themselves and the product of their labor. Views that are essential to the establishment of modern democracy and republicanism.

Monday, December 21, 2009

More US Democracy

From E.J. Dionne today (h.t. Ramesh Ponnuru):

In a normal democracy, such majorities would work their will, a law would pass, and champagne corks would pop. But everyone must get it through their heads that thanks to the bizarre habits of the Senate, we are no longer a normal democracy.

Because of a front of Republican obstruction and the ludicrous idea that all legislation requires a supermajority of 60 votes, power has passed from the majority to tiny minorities, sometimes minorities of one.

Ramesh noted the inconsistency between Dionne's prior support for judicial filibusters (and though Ramesh doesn't offer a citation, I will. Washington Post Feb 20, 2003 (I can't find it online, but Dionne's column in that paper was justifying the Democrat filibuster of Estrada)) but I want to go somewhere else. We're now not a normal democracy? What changed? Lets go through some history of the Senate:

At the founding the Senate is elected, not by the people, but by the State legislatures. The rules of the Senate do not allow for a filibuster
Under a question by Aaron Burr, the Senate changed its rules and it became possible to refuse to cut off debate. In theory at this point a single Senator could prevent a vote on a bill
The first filibuster occurs
circa 1850
In the first half of the 19th century states started conditioning their election of state representatives to their choice for the US Senate.
The Constitution is changed to formally allow the citizens of a state to directly elect Senators (still not possible to force a vote on a bill if even a single Senator refuses)
At the urging of Wilson, the rules of the Senate change to allow a two-thirds majority (66 votes) to overcome a filibuster.
Lead by Strom Thurmond, the Senate changes the rules to the current three-fifths majority

So, now that we've had our little stroll down political memory lane, at what point in the past does Dionne think we ceased to be a normal democracy? When a Democrat made it possible to filibuster in 1806, when the progressives changed to direct election of the senate, when a Democrat changed the rules to make it a two-thirds majority to stop a filibuster, or when a Democrat changed the rules again to make it a three-fifths majority? Or was it, perhaps, when Democrats (including Dionne) decided it was acceptable to filibuster not just legislation but also nominations?