False Equivalence Comes Home to Roost

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I awoke this morning (Friday a.m., on the other side of the Pacific) to find a slew of emails asking whether I had slacked off in proselytizing about my anti-"false equivalence" campaign to other members of the Atlantic's staff. And apparently I have!

For those joining us late: in the five-plus years since they lost control of the Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Republican minority have dramatically ramped up the modern trend of subjecting almost everything the Senate does to the threat of a filibuster. Since it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster, versus only 51 to approve a bill or a nomination in the usual way; since the Democrats enjoyed a 60-vote coalition for only a few months in late 2009 and early 2010*; and since in modern practice the mere threat of a filibuster, rather than the full-blown Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style speechathon, suffices to prevent a vote, through most of the Obama era the Republicans have been able to block unprecedented numbers of nominations and bills.

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The "false equivalence" problem, as applied to the filibuster, is the media's acquiescence in and routinization of the process. This happens when news accounts say that it takes 60 votes to "pass" or "approve" or "enact" a bill, rather than that we're talking about the once- exceptional tool of the filibuster being applied day in and day out. After a while, people forget that it's not so. The Washington Post has done this; so, occasionally, have NPR and the New York Times.

And so, today, has the Atlantic Wire. The analysis of a very interesting chart (below), showing the extreme polarization of the Senate, includes this line: "the Senate -- with its reliance on supermajority procedural votes -- was not designed to be a partisan, majority rules body like the House of Representatives."

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Nope! The Senate is indeed lumbered these days with supermajority requirements. But it was unambiguously designed to be a majority-rule body. You can look it up! The Constitution lays out a few narrow super-majority requirements: treaties, impeachment, etc. Otherwise, the majority rules, or is supposed to. The clearest evidence is the provision for the vice president to break a tie, if the two sides are "equally divided."

What reassures me is knowing that the Republicans and then much of the press will remind us of the sacred importance of majority rule when control of the Senate changes again, as sooner or later it inevitably will. Meanwhile, we at the Atlantic will look, at least for a minute, at the beam in our eye rather than the mote that is anywhere else.

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* The Democrats got their 60th vote in July, 2009, when Al Franken was sworn in after the bitterly contested and frequently recounted Minnesota Senate race. That 60-vote "Democratic" bloc included two independents, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, plus Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who had switched to the Dems a few months earlier. The Democrats fell back to 59-vote "minority" status early in 2010, with the death of Edward Kennedy and his replacement in Massachusetts by Republican Scott Brown, who beat Martha "Who is This Curt Schilling You Speak Of?" Coakley.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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