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"The Democrats"

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An interesting and somewhat puzzling argument has been cropping up in comments from (amongst others) esteemed LGM commenters drip and John Emerson.

drip:
the existence of the filibuster gives the democrats some cover for a distinctly non-progressive agenda and they lack motivation to change it

JE:
The Democrat seems to use the Republicans as an excuse not to do things that they don’t want to do. Ending the filibuster would take away their excuse.

I am in substantial agreement with most of the views expressed by these and other sympathetic commenters–The filibuster ought to be eliminated, it probably won’t be, and even if it were it would not make democratic legislation, as drip puts it, “all super-progessive.” The precise position taken in these two quotations doesn’t make sense, and it simultaneously gives “the Democrats too much and too little credit.

A substantial number of viable progressive bills that fail have the support of a majority of Democrats. Likewise, a substantial number of anti-progressive bills that succeed do so despite the opposition of most democrats. The position advanced here seems to be that we should assume that the Democratic legislators on the right side of these votes should be presumed to be entirely insincere, that they’re voting for this bill for some unspecified reason, despite the fact that they really don’t want it to happen. The existence of a few Democrats to vote the way “the democrats” really want them to gives them cover to pretend to vote progressively.

I find this view….odd, and lacking in even basic evidentiary support. Part of the problem with the claim is that it treats “the democrats” as an actor with both intentions and capabilities they simply don’t have. It becomes a somewhat more plausible claim when we substitute “Democratic leadership” for “the Democrats”–leadership has on occasion worked against the preferences of a majority of Democratic legislators, perhaps most shamefully on FISA. But instead of assuming that means most Democrats don’t want better FISA legislation, one might assume that the leadership is more conservative than the rank and file, which invariably leads to such clashes. Given that the filibuster rules make it a necessary part of Reid’s job to win over non-trivial GOP support, it’s perhaps not surprising that his leadership is more conservative than the rank and file.

Too little credit: Assumes Democratic legislators’ intentions when voting progressively aren’t serious, without evidence. I see no more reason to doubt the sincerity of, say, Kerry and Dodd on FISA than I do Tancredo on immigration.

Too much credit: “The Democrats” aren’t the kind of agent capable of this degree of intentionality and devious action. Democratic legislators have their own reasons for doing what they do, and their collective actions don’t add up to the kind of collective actor with that kind of power to act in such a intentional (and devious) way.

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