(This is cross-posted from ProgressiveFix.com, the new online face of the Progressive Policy Institute, where I will be posting regularly.  Give 'em a look.)

I was going to title this post, “Ed Kilgore, You are Dead to Me,” but then again, I like Ed a lot, and he’s far more knowledgeable about politics than I am, and I don’t disagree with much of what he’s said about the filibuster.

Just as Ed isn’t “hell-bent on eliminating the filibuster,” neither would I shed many tears if it were to go away. I, too, object to how routine filibuster threats have become. That said, I do think that its elimination would have the potential to hurt progressive aims. Saying that the Senate “has a built-in red-state bias” makes the point — get rid of the filibuster and that bias means that red-state priorities are more likely to benefit from its elimination.

What I’d like to do here is start the first of a couple of posts on political polarization to defend my position that the filibuster wouldn’t be such a problem if we could make the Congress more representative of the nation. I think this point is actually implicit (almost explicit!) in commentary from Mark Schmitt and Ezra Klein that notes how the routinization of the filibuster is a recent phenomenon that owes its timing to the completion of what Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck have called “The Great Sorting-Out.” Over the past 40 years, liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats have gone the way of the dodo bird, making the parties more polarized along ideological lines.

LBJ could count on Medicare passing in 1965 because the existence of liberal and moderate Republicans made the successful deployment of the filibuster unlikely. On the GOP side, conservatives would have had to court a sizeable number of right-leaning Democrats to make a filibuster threat credible. The difficulty of doing so (particularly with a southern Democrat as intimidating as LBJ applying countervailing pressure) gave Republican moderates little incentive to go along with such a threat. On the Democratic side, the opportunity for a single senator to engage in grandstanding or deal-making in exchange for his vote was limited by the same dynamics — the ability to get moderate GOP votes would have allowed the leadership to ignore such threats. Unless the issue was one as momentous and controversial as civil rights, southern Democrats and conservative Republicans would not collaborate across the aisle.

Fast-forward to 1994, when there were far fewer conservative Democrats and far fewer moderate Republicans. In such an environment, the filibuster became an obvious strategy — because it could work. The filibuster was not a problem until the completion of The Great Sorting-Out. (And yes, Republicans have deployed filibuster threats far more often than Democrats have, largely because the Democrats are more dependent on their moderates than the Republicans are on theirs — a point to which I’ll return in the next post.)

Now, Ed is right that the power that party primaries give the least-moderate voters is not solely to blame for this (though let’s not discount the likelihood that the primary reforms between 1968 and 1972 accelerated the ideological sorting between the parties). But a solution to political polarization need not address its causes.

The key questions, it seems to me, are (1) whether one thinks that the parties are ideologically representative of their supporters or members and (2) whether one thinks that that is true on both sides. Kicking (2) to my next post, I’ll just say that Morris Fiorina’s research definitively shows that the obvious political polarization among elites, political junkies, and elected officials is not reflected among Americans as a whole. The reason that we have more political polarization — even between presidential candidates — is because the candidates on offer have been chosen by less-moderate primary voters and activists. Because relatively moderate voters still have to choose between two options, the growing polarization of party activists and primary voters translates into growing polarization among elected officials — even as the electorate has remained relatively moderate.

Whether you think the electorate is, in its heart of hearts, moderate is irrelevant in some sense, but what is fairly clear is that at least by the measures available, it has not become more polarized. And to circle back to my original contention that progressives should think twice before wanting to throw out the filibuster, political polarization makes the filibuster more important as a check against small majorities. The less moderate the two caucuses are, the more unrepresentative of popular preferences will be the legislation that can pass with narrow margins.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of the Progressive Policy Institute.

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