The filibuster and Electoral College are often grouped together as institutions necessary to prevent swings in popular opinion having undue influence over federal policy. On the surface, they both seem to fit into America’s unique brand of federalism, where laws governing the whole of the country need to meet a higher threshold of approval than simple majority rule.

While these arguments have merits in isolation, how do they stand up when discussed in their historical context?

This was one of the bigger questions that came out of my discussion with Michael Miller of Barnard College. You can listen to the full episode below, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you happen to get your podcasts.

Show Notes

When Trump won in 2016, conventional wisdom said it was due, in part, to his targeting working class voters in the Upper Midwest who’d been the hardest hit by decades of globalization. I included this as part of a series of arguments for preserving the electoral college in a blog post a few months back.

Research shows, however, that the anxiety that put Trump in office was more racial than economic, as views on issues such as racism and sexism were better predictors of one’s vote.

The same trends show in the historic use of the filibuster. While today’s usage is really more of a stall tactic to keep the majority party from passing any legislation, its first use was to prevent debate over slavery and, later, the passage of the Civil Rights Act. 

In Miller’s opinion, the lopsided representation the Senate provides less populous states with is enough to offset the threat of the tyranny of the majority. There are also other historical examples of such institutions failing to prevent it - such as the placement of Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War 2 or the decision to declare war on Iraq under false pretenses in 2002.

Abolishing the filibuster would give voters an opportunity to elect senators based on what they did in office, rather than what they prevented the majority party from doing.

Getting back to the original arguments for both institutions - while neither are without merit, their usage has largely been to subvert the democratic process. Miller sees this as part of a larger trend, which includes the slew of changes to election law being proposed in Republican led state legislatures across the country. 

As it turns out, the best way to improve democracy might be to let the majority of voters have a larger say in how the government is run. Who would have thought?