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Steven Hill: When puzzled Europeans ask me to explain the American voter, the best metaphor I can give for understanding the American electorate right now is that of a coyote with its leg caught in a trap, suffering in pain, so now it is chewing off its own leg to get out of the trap.
Taksim Square

Taksim Square

The Filibuster Dragged Down American Politics

Yesterday when I was in Istanbul, a bomb went off in Taksim Square, not far from where I was staying. As Taksim is one of the main thoroughfares of this energetic city of 13 million people, chaos ensued and suddenly police were everywhere. My taxi driver, speaking only a few words of English, was able to communicate that he was in Taksim when the bomb went off. “Grand BOOM!” he says, shaking his head, looking grave. He indicates that it was a Kurdish suicide bomber who attacked a police stand, killing 10 cops, but news reports are not so certain. There is much speculation that it could also be an Islamic radical, and the initial news reports say either two, or possibly zero people are dead, but quite a few are injured. Yet within an hour or so, people seem to be back to “shopping normal” in the trendy areas around Taksim Square, though Taksim itself remains shut down.

Later in the day I arrived in Frankfurt airport to the headlines that the German police had found a bomb on a cargo plane (it was later determined that the flight passed through Germany on its way to the UK, where the bomb actually was found). In both the Frankfurt and Istanbul airports the security seems to be about the same, no extraordinary efforts visible to the passing eye, which is surprising but also a relief. Airports already are such a hassle to get through, a constant reminder of the advantage of taking trains in Europe whenever practical distance-wise, since the security is less draconian and you don’t have to arrive an hour or more in advance.

Any Americans who think that Europe’s efforts in the war on terror (perceived as inadequate by many Americans) results from them not understanding or appreciating the impact of the September 11 attacks in New York City aren’t appreciating the fact that Europeans have lived with this kind of low intensity conflict for years. Indeed, blowback from unwise American foreign policy decisions in the Middle East during both the Obama and Bush administrations washes up on Europe’s shores first, since it is in much greater proximity to the zone of conflict. Europeans have learned to live with this kind of insecurity in a way that Americans are still getting used to.

Europe contemplates America’s return to Bush-lite. For the past couple of weeks there has been much speculation in the European media about the U.S. election on November 2. I also have received a lot of questions about it during my speaking tour, both from audiences and journalists. Europeans are perplexed, to say the least: how could Americans have turned away so dramatically, with the election of Barack Obama, from the policies of the Bush-Cheney administration, only now to contemplate a return to them? They also are puzzled by the Tea Party movement, which seemingly wants to roll back the last two years and return to how things were at the end of the Bush-Cheney years, which Europeans pretty uniformly regard as a disastrous time, both economically and foreign policy wise.

Even conservatives in Europe are scratching their heads over their transatlantic allies (“What, Americans don’t want health care?”). Asked one Swede, “How can these Tea Party people say ‘Get government out of my Medicare -- don’t they know Medicare IS a government program?” If Europeans could vote in America’s November 2 election, there is no doubt how they would vote.

This in some ways is the greatest measure of the divide in the transatlantic alliance. Even the so-called “far right” in Europe is nowhere near as conservative as the Tea Partiers or GOP Congress members; indeed, in most ways the far right is to the left of the Democratic Party, which is fairly startling to contemplate.

So it has been one of my tasks to have to explain to puzzled Europeans what is happening to American politics. My view is that it mostly boils down to the overuse and abuse of the filibuster in the Senate, which has fostered a toxic obstructionist politics. The filibuster has been used by Republican Senators on average twice a week to stall everything, but it used to be deployed only a few times a year.

Obama hasn't even appointed numerous positions a president typically appoints because the Republicans would have filibustered those nominations, thereby clogging the Senate's calendar and leaving less time for his legislative agenda. Paralysis has become the norm. In my view the obstructionist filibuster is the single greatest reason for the gridlock that is frustrating so many Americans.

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As proof, I would offer this thought experiment: imagine how different things would have been if Obama only needed 51 out of 100 Senators’ votes instead of 60. The health care bill wouldn't have been so weak, AND wouldn't have taken so long to pass, leaving more time for the rest of his legislative agenda. The same with financial re-regulation; the climate change bill would have passed; as well as possibly a second (smaller) stimulus more precisely targeted at infrastructure, shovel ready jobs, etc.

I don’t believe that many Americans agree strongly with the hard core Tea Partiers who grouse about a “government takeover of health care, return of big government,” etc. What most Americans are upset about is the sense that not much has been done for them personally or for people they know (at this point just about every American, or someone they know, has lost their job or their house or both).

There’s a feeling that the noose is tightening, even as banks and auto companies got bailed out. The banks and CEOs have returned to raking in handsome profits, but virtually none of it is trickling down. And that has led to a great sense of frustration, anger, even betrayal that Fox News/Tea Party types have exploited effectively (a type of populism that is not all that surprising -- recall the early 1990s recession, which gave a boost to populists like Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan and his "peasants with pitchforks" speeches, etc, -- we should EXPECT to see an increase in populism at this point in an economic downturn, whether in the U.S. or Europe. Their influence will last no more than one or two election cycles unless this downturn proves to be particularly long lasting).

For example two of my GOP family members voted for Obama, even though they didn’t necessarily agree with him on everything; but because generally speaking they saw him as the best candidate for moving the country past the Bush years, i.e. in a new direction. Now they are upset at Obama, not necessarily because they disagree with what he has done but they view him as INEFFECTIVE.

To people like them, the Tea Party is a thumb in the eye to the system, a pox upon both the Dem and Rep houses. They are not very tolerant of excuses e.g. "blame the filibuster," and the fact that throwing out Dems brings back the same crowd they voted out last time requires a depth of thinking that they aren't willing to engage in. That's the problem with populism/"thumb in the eye" politics -- it's a gut level response that lacks any memory or historical insight.

Like a coyote chewing off its own leg. But the Tea Partiers have little in the way of solutions to offer toward the challenges that America faces. It’s mostly a nostalgic movement, looking backward toward some golden age that never existed. And so the American electorate is going to careen from one side of the aisle to the other, not finding satisfaction, and will only get more frustrated and angry. The best metaphor for understanding the American electorate right now is that of a coyote with its leg caught in a trap, suffering in pain, so now it is chewing off its own leg to get out of the trap. Grisly, I know, but that's about as accurate a description as I can think of.

And just think, much of this situation could have been avoided if only 51 votes were needed in the Senate. I am not generally so reductionist in my thinking, but in this case I really do think the filibuster is the elephant in the living room, in terms of understanding what has dragged down American politics into the current cesspool. That’s what I have conveyed to my European audiences.

Steven Hill

Steven Hill
New America Foundation

Originally published in the International Herald Tribune. Republished with the author’s permission.

Copyright 2008, World Policy Institute