Reformers who want to end the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule in January will need to convince at least a handful of skeptical Democratic senators that it’s time to change the rules.
If Democrats win the White House, the House and the Senate in the 2020 election, the party’s legislative agenda will live or die based on whether the Senate’s 60-vote supermajority requirement for moving to a final vote is left in place, reformed or done away with entirely.
Yet a number of current and potential senators in the Democratic caucus remain skeptical of filibuster reform or abolition. It’s these fence-sitting senators who’ll need to be convinced. And crucially, they are not on the same wavelength as those of us who back reform.
Some do not share our enthusiasm for bold, progressive change. A few may believe the filibuster protects their own parochial interests, including the interests of their big donors. Still others may fear what Republicans might do if and when they win a trifecta in Washington.
We already know who some of them are.
Many of the incumbents we’ll need to persuade are either conservative members of the caucus from reddish states (such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia or Angus King of Maine) or aging, career politicians who’ve branded themselves as moderates or centrists (think Dianne Feinstein of California).
Filibuster reformers will need to create a permission structure that eases their fears and encourages them to back much-needed reform to the Senate’s rules — and political psychology offers some potentially helpful insights on how to do that.
Political psychologists who study ideology have found that moderates, centrists, neoliberals and center-right Democrats tend to share a common underlying psychology: system justification.
System-justifiers like norms, institutions and continuity. They tend to be anxious, cautious and risk averse. They see the world as changing and challenging, but fundamentally meritocratic. This worldview is an ideology, just like any other. It’s a description of reality as they see it, not as it actually is.
System-justifiers generally are against radical change.
Not only do they find big, bold reforms frightening; they typically oppose such measures because of what they say about the societies and systems they inhabit or lead: that they have failed or behaved unjustly in some fundamental way. They personally identify with the system, so attacking the system means attacking them.
Their habitual defense of the status quo is motivated not by a principled or reasoned commitment to any particular social arrangement but by a fear of change, an aversion to what they perceive as extremism on both sides and a strong preference for comity and compromise.
Over the next few months, people who are eager to end the filibuster may be tempted to focus on the prospects for bold, ambitious legislation, greater democratic representation and use maximalist terms like “the nuclear option.”
That framing may resonate with activists and voters, but it risks validating the fears of the very senators we need to convince by making filibuster reform sound big, scary and even apocalyptic.
The opposite approach — one that deemphasizes the scale of the reform, emphasizes continuity and celebrates the Senate as an institution — is more likely to build bridges with the senators who still need convincing.
Better to describe filibuster reform as an innocuous-sounding rule change. And instead of focusing on transforming the Senate — irrevocably and fundamentally changing it — skeptical senators need to hear about how reform will restore and revitalize the institution — bringing back the best version of it.
There’s also a rich history that reformers can share that emphasizes institutional continuity.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution spelled out the circumstances that they believed should require a supermajority vote, rather than a simple majority: overriding presidential vetoes, impeachment and removal from office, treaties, expelling lawmakers and constitutional amendments.
Passing legislation wasn’t one of them.
The filibuster isn’t in the U.S. Constitution, was created by accident in the early 1800s and remained largely theoretical for 140 years.
In other words, America survived most of our history — including an invasion, a civil war, two world wars, dozens of financial panics, recessions and depressions, and even a pandemic — with a Senate that, in practice, was governed by simple majority rule.
Surely, we can do it again.
The filibuster, not its removal, truthfully can be portrayed as the aberration and responsible for degrading the institution.
This shift in framing won’t overcome every objection to reform, but it’s the kind of message most likely to give the senators who need it permission to make the Senate work again.