Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, in filibustering what would have been the most restrictive abortion bill in the country, was bucking more than just pro-life politicians and the conservative media, but also the solidly democratic principle of majority rule. After all, she was holding back the efforts of Texas’ democratically-elected, Republican majority to pass a bill that, ostensibly, most Texans support. According to a University of Texas poll, only 36% of Texans believe that abortion should be a matter of personal choice, with the vast majority preferring varying amounts of increased regulation, including 46% who think abortion should only be legal in cases of rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother (fully 62% of residents supported SB5’s 20-week ban). Unfortunately for Sen. Davis’ critics, minority obstructionism is, whether you like it or not, as American as apple pie.
Of course, Americans today are well-acquainted with what minorities can stop. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, universal background checks were polling above 90%, and Washington seemed poised to enact the slate of gun reforms proposed by the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey bill, at least until a successful GOP filibuster defied us all. In 2009, a threat by conservative Democrats to filibuster the Affordable Care Act effectively killed the public option, though it was widely supported both within the party and throughout the country. Today’s emerging immigration bill would, according to some, turn our southern border into the most militarized border since the Berlin Wall, all to overcome the threat of a GOP filibuster in the Senate. Everywhere you look in America, on both sides of the aisle, you see evidence of minorities subverting the will of the majority, and whether or not it is cause for celebration depends largely on who you are rooting for. Triumph if it’s us, crime if it’s them.
The other side never misses an opportunity to be scandalized. After the vote, Texan Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst stated that, “An unruly mob, using Occupy Wall Street tactics, disrupted the Senate from protecting unborn babies,” describing the efforts of peanut gallery protestors to disrupt the bill. After the gun vote, Obama asked, almost in disgust, “How can something have 90% support and yet not happen?” Whenever a majority fails, half of the country is outraged, its very faith in our system shaken. Unfortunately for our idealism and our nerves, this is exactly what our Founding Fathers designed our system to do.
Despite the monopoly freedom and opportunity have on flowery political language, political unity was just as much a founding principle in America, and just as much coded into the constitution and our political DNA. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison describes the corrosive effect unchecked majorities can have: “The public good is disregarded in the conflict of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” Minority rights are written into our political system not just in the form of checks and balances between the branches of government, but checks and balances within them in the form of amendments, filibusters, and more. Apocryphally, when Thomas Jefferson, seething at the Senate’s obstructionism, brought his complaints to President Washington, he was told that the Senate, like a milk saucer for tea, is a place for things to cool down. In other words, the Senate is a place for radical legislation to become watered down enough for half of the country to swallow it.
Minority rights are the reason that the American constitution is the oldest, longest-serving constitution of any major government in the world. Even in GOP-ruled Texas, Sen. Davis can filibuster a bill into the night, and, though in the minority, Senate Republicans are ensuring that American conservatives have a voice in Congress. Today, we are taught by Aaron Sorkin and political commentators to expect a politics where idealism prevails, where compromise is hemlock, where politics is combat. In this climate, we must remember that we are not descended from dogmatic men. Next time your favorite bill or issues become unrecognizable to your personal values, remember the other half of America, and that it is their country too.