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“Tedious delays—continual negotiations and intrigue—contemptible compromises of the public good.” Or, How Nations Die.

With all the commentary on the debt limit negotiations, nobody seems to be mentioning that it’s just a continuation of normal Republican tactics: when they’re in the minority, they do everything they can to prevent government from functioning unless they get their way. What we’re seeing now is just a continuation of what we saw after the 2008 election, where Republicans used the filibuster as a sort of universal veto. With the filibuster, and with their willingness to risk consequences that no sane, patriotic person would, the Republicans (the party that controls only one half of one branch of government) and the Tea Party (only a fraction of the Republicans) have created a situation where pretty much nothing can happen unless they allow it.

So either they shut down the government (which would be quick national suicide) or they get everything they want (which would be slower, but no less certain).

The frustrating part is that this has all happened before. Consider Poland, which had an elected monarchy and an elected legislature long before they were popular. The Polish constitution had one quirk: the “liberum veto,” which was sort of Poland’s version of the filibuster but even worse—it meant that every legislator had to sign off on each year’s legislation. As long as that was a mere formality, Poland was a powerful, enlightened country, but once Polish legislators—often paid by Poland’s enemies—started refusing to sign off, thus paralyzing the government, it wasn’t too long before Poland was partitioned and disappeared. (Poland was replaced as the chief power in Eastern Europe by the notably less enlightened Russia.).

The Founding Fathers, with their deep knowledge of history, were well acquainted with the Polish experience and others like it. Thus, the Constitution departs from the principle of majority rule only in very limited cases (overrunning vetoes and signing treaties are all I can think of).

This was a very careful choice; Alexander Hamilton could have been describing today’s Republicans and their filibustering ways when he said:

To give the minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision) is in its tendency to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser number. . . .This is one of those refinements which in practice has an effect, the reverse of what is expected from it in theory.

The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations of a respectable majority.

In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must in some way or other go forward. If a pertinacious minority can controul the opinion of a majority respecting the best mode of conducting it; the majority in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will over-rule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence tedious delays—continual negotiations and intrigue—contemptible compromises of the public good.

And yet in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: For upon some occasions, things will not admit of accommodation: and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impracticability of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savour of weakness—sometimes border upon anarchy.

(Federalist Papers, Federalist 17, Paragraph breaks added)

Today we’ve forgotten those lessons. How long until we re-learn them, painfully, by watching our nation collapse around us?

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