The World’s Greatest (Un)deliberative Body

This innocuous looking Politico article (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0212/73417.html) about the planned resignation of Senator Olympia (R-Maine) at the end of her current term began with the following statement:

“In one fell swoop Tuesday afternoon, Olympia Snowe may have not only crushed Mitch McConnell’s dreams of taking over the Senate, she also wrote the epitaph for political moderates in the world’s greatest deliberative body.” [my emphasis in bold]

The world’s greatest deliberative body. This is a phrase used frequently by American political pundits when describing the upper chamber of their legislature, and like many tropes it spews from their mouths and pens without much thought. Which is a shame, because its continued use is starting to make them look ridiculous. The greatest deliberative body in the world? To which any sane person, once successfully divested of the notion that everything in America is automatically the best example of its kind in the world, would surely have to say:

Really?

The writers at Politico are a smart bunch though, so I am sure before making such a bold and boastful proclamation, even as an aside, they carefully studied the British Houses of Parliament, the Israeli Knesset, the German Bundesrat and the legislatures of all the other major democracies, in addition to the histories of those from the ancient empires of Greece and Rome. But let’s just assume for a moment that they didn’t.

Deliberation can be defined as “long and careful consideration or discussion”. This, in turn, would suggest that some form of debate has to take place between opposing viewpoints to either conclusively disprove one and approve the other, or to forge a working compromise between the competing ideals. None of this has happened in the US Senate for a long time now. There are no “debates”. Members from the two political parties (and the few independent members) take turns standing at a lectern and reading pre-prepared speeches full of leadership-approved talking points that no one else in the chamber listens to, before sitting down and making way for someone from the other side of the aisle to do the same thing. Sure, legislation has to pass through the Senate before it can become law, but to suggest that it is deliberated is a woeful overstatement of what happens. No, the deliberation as it still exists now happens in polls and focus-groups before the parties even draw up legislation, and by the cable news and talk radio pundits who drive public opinion before legislation even reaches the house floor. Now, some of this is good (the public engagement part) and some is undoubtedly bad, but one would certainly need rose-tinted spectacles of a very strong prescription indeed to look at the US Senate today and call it a deliberative body at all, let alone the world’s greatest. There are high school debating clubs more worthy of the title.

Add to this failure to properly debate issues the fact that individual Senators can block key governmental appointments on a whim without giving a valid reason (though personal grudges and a desire for lucrative earmarks for their states usually feature quite highly on the list), and the existence of arcane Senate rules requiring a “super-majority” of 60 votes in order to pass anything remotely contentious (surely just as the founding fathers intended), and the greatest deliberative body in the world appears to be on even shakier ground. Let us also not forget that this hallowed institution currently enjoys a 13% approval rating with the American public (http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/01/congress-hits-a-new-low-in-approval-obama-opens-election-year-under-50/).

The larger theme that I want to touch on is the idea of American exceptionalism. I am a firm believer in this idea, but not in the blind, unthinking way that many – especially in today’s Republican party – seem to do. I was born in 1982 and history was taught exceptionally badly in British schools when I was younger, so my knowledge of the mid century is not all that it should be – though I am striving to correct this. But it is my belief that Americans of previous generations made their country great, yes, because they believed in the exceptional nature of their country’s founding and its unique mission in the world, but also because they didn’t just talk about being great all the time. They just quietly got on and did it, with much less boasting and chest-thumping than is often now the case.

A country that can betray its Constitution by passing such laws as the Patriot Act, allow torture to take place under its jurisdiction, or whose presidential candidates receive warm applause by accusing the sitting incumbent of either subverting or “apologising for America” is fundamentally more insecure about itself than has been the case for many years. And, in some ways, so is a country whose political class willingly overlooks the mounting pile of contrary evidence to declare their dysfunctional, hyper-partisan upper house the “greatest deliberative body in the world”.

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