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Brown and the death of the super majority

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The reaction to the victory of Scott Brown in the Massachusetts, both from the media and the blogosphere, reminds me of election coverage you often see in the Third World. It often makes sense on the surface, but is divorced from your experience of reality. And in thinking about it, it reveals some deep and uncomfortable flaws about our current politics.

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It is important to start by saying that while I am not sure that Scott Brown deserved to win, Martha Coakley definitely deserved to lose. It isn't just that she was uninspiring -- there are plenty of politicians who are dull placeholders. But the air she exuded was incredibly undemocratic.

She came across as the entitled politician, the dues-payer, the ticket-puncher, someone who thought her steady game-playing made the seat hers, pesky voters be damned. It smacked of the working of the machine: this was her turn. She and the Democrats took the seat for granted, and whatever your partisan leanings it is kind of refreshing to see such entitlement get smacked down.

That aside, it strikes me as very strange and deeply weird that, for the Democrats, having "only" 59 seats out of 100 is functionally the same as having 49. I think this reveals a lot about our system, and about the two parties who operate within it as a duopoly.

It all comes down to the filibuster. I am ambivalent about the institution of the filibuster. It is good, in theory, in that it attempts to keep down the whims and passions of the day. The Senate as a body is supposed to be grinding and slow, and its members, facing election less often, are supposed to be a little more removed from burning heat of politics than their House counterparts, making the filibuster a redundancy. However, it seems to be doing the opposite of what it is intended.

Between 2006 and 2009, the Democrats were the beneficiaries of one of the largest sea changes in American history. From a Republican permanent majority, the country switched parties in the House, Senate and White House in overwhelming victories. Now, they are unpopular. The economy is bad, and they have made mistakes. But I am not sure why one election in one seat -- the very definition of momentary anger and local annoyance (regarding Coakley) -- should in effect overturn all the previous elections.

What this boils down to is Republican unity and/or intransigence (your call). There is zero give from the party out of power, and they have mounted filibusters in record-smashing numbers since gaining the minority three years ago. It is a solid block of no. Instead of having to get 60 out of 100 votes -- a daunting task -- the Democratic leadership, if you can call it that, has to get 60 out of 60 votes. To their credit, the Dems have conservatives like Ben Nelson, Jim Webb and Mary Landrieu in the party, making it all but impossible to wrangle the votes.

But it is a mistake to say this is a problem exclusive to Republicans. They may be taking it to an extreme, but it is a difference of degree, not type. The filibuster has been rising steadily for years. We as a country need to ask ourselves if avoiding a tyranny of 51 votes is enough to accept that having a majority is merely a decent place to start.

Brian O'Neill, a former writer and editor at The Yemen Observer, is currently an independent analyst and Yemen security expert based out of Chicago.

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