The Corner

Politics & Policy

On the ‘Disease of Division’ and Democratic Stability

Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.) departs after attending a bipartisan work group meeting on an infrastructure bill at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., June 8, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

In her speech defending the filibuster, Kyrsten Sinema warned that an “underlying disease of division” was troubling American democracy. Setting recent political turmoil in a broader context of escalating polarization, she argued that eliminating the filibuster would worsen this deeper “disease.”

Sinema’s remarks allude to a broader underlying tension for a democracy. On one hand, democratic governance is often not about everyone coming to the same view; instead, the democratic process can be a way for sometimes wildly contrasting viewpoints and interests to wrangle for power. The democratic process in part works through difference.

On the other hand, excessive division can also threaten democracy. If factions see the other side as an existential threat, they will grow impatient with the restraints and legitimizing practices of the democratic process. Accusing your opponents of sedition, attacking the legitimacy of elections, trying to bend the constitutional machinery to factional whims, warning that a crisis will happen if you can’t get your way — this all sounds very familiar.

Navigating the inherent tensions of faction has been at the heart of American statecraft since at least 1776. The United States has responded to these challenges partly through decentralization; because of the heterogeneity of American life, many checks are placed on the federal government.

The internal character of federal institutions speaks to this diversity, too. By establishing protections for individual senators, regular order in the Senate weakens the risk of partisan escalation and polarization. Internal limits on partisan discipline help preserve federalism by making it harder for a narrow majority to pass transformative national legislation. The effort to find at least a partial consensus helps stabilize U.S. institutions, and that stability in turn helps the United States act as a ballast for the “international order.” Detonating the nuclear option to overturn regular order endangers the protections for senators and would feed into the dynamic of polarization. (It’s easy to imagine the electoral chicanery possible in a post-nuclear Senate, as partisan majorities could make it easier to throw out a state’s electoral votes.)

The past two weeks — rife with accusations that opponents are on the side of Jefferson Davis and that American elections are a “rigged game” — illustrate how the nuclear-option campaign is the escalation of a politics of polarization.


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