Down With Institutionalists

Some traditions are worth defending, but only so long as they advance a defensible goal.

An illustration of politicians and the U.S. Capitol
Joe Raedle / Alex Wong / Al-Drago / Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg / Getty / The Atlantic

A peculiar creature inhabits Washington, called the “institutionalist.” The label—sometimes assigned, sometimes adopted—has been applied to characters as varied as Chief Justice John Roberts, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and President Joe Biden. Institutionalists tend to be veteran, aging members of a given government entity. They relish their reputations as defenders of hallowed traditions and norms that have supposedly kept the country intact.

Many institutionalists simply have a reflexive distaste for change, preferring the enduring, if ossified, conventions that offer them inherited credibility. But perhaps in part because they are mostly old, white men, institutionalists are afforded significant deference by the media and the general public. Their motivations are considered pure and their small-c conservatism is viewed as prudent, a necessary bulwark against a more radical politics or even chaos. Washington insiders may assign a kind of nobility to their fervent commitment—even against all logic—to the status quo. These insiders accept the institutionalist argument that the Supreme Court and Congress actually work behind the scenes thanks to labyrinthine procedures that were sprinkled with Founding magic.

But these institutions are valuable only insofar as they advance certain indispensable principles: democracy and the rule of law, for instance. Shielding them from reform even when they run counter to their fundamental purpose hardens dysfunction, and breeds cynicism in voters who are left to believe that change, even change they voted for, is impossible. Institutionalism for its own sake is not protective—it’s corrosive.

The continued existence of the filibuster is the prime example. Self-described Senate institutionalists have defended it as though it were a sacrament rather than the product of an ill-considered line edit by Aaron Burr. The result of their fervor is something between tragedy and farce.

One might think that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, always high on the list of famous institutionalists, would have sought justice after his physical institution was attacked by a violent mob of insurrectionists on January 6. Instead, he led his caucus to filibuster the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the deadly incident. In response, another institutionalist, Senator Joe Manchin, said, “That is extremely frustrating and disturbing. I know he’s an institutionalist. I would like to think he loves this institution.” And yet the day before the vote, Manchin once again voiced his opposition to eliminating the filibuster, even when used to prevent an investigation of the people who tried to destroy our government, because, by his puzzling construction, “I’m not ready to destroy our government.” The institutionalists are so committed to institutionalism that they cannot protect the institution.

In theory, the filibuster encourages bipartisan compromise, which is itself treated like an institution. Some believe that bipartisan cooperation is possible on major legislation, such as an infrastructure package, and is worth championing. Jason Grumet of the Bipartisan Policy Center argues, “Despite the intensity of the moment, neither party has an authentic mandate … as incredibly frustrating as it is for Democrats to not be able to achieve their ambitions of the moment, the premise that when one party has a tie-breaking majority, we should [abandon bipartisanship] is not in the practical interest of the country.”

Isn’t it, though? The bipartisanship that people fondly recall is a relic of an era when the parties were less ideologically sorted, when progressive Republicans and segregationist Democrats aligned on some issues. Today, party polarization is so extreme that even a bipartisan-curious Republican has no political incentive to support measures proposed by Democrats.

Bipartisanship remains a rhetorical proxy for getting things done, when, in reality, it’s a proxy for getting nothing done at all. Moderates such as Senator Susan Collins engage in performative negotiations with Democrats and the White House, knowing full well that working with the other side of the aisle is a nonstarter with their base, not to mention their leadership. To justify walking away from the negotiating table, they throw tantrums over minor slights and small missteps.

This is not new. I was a health-care staffer for a Democratic senator during the Affordable Care Act debates. We were repeatedly told that if we just waited and conceded and then waited and conceded some more, a few Republicans would eventually come around and support the bill, which was, after all, rooted in their ideas. Not a single one did.

When Democrats tout bipartisanship as a kind of moral duty, they’re setting an impossible standard for themselves and giving cover to Republicans’ bad-faith refusal to cooperate and govern.

Some institutional traditions are, obviously, worth defending, but only so long as they advance a defensible goal. Elaine Kamarck, an expert on government innovation and reform at the Brookings Institution, notes that Democrats will certainly find themselves in the minority again and in need of whatever power they can amass. Rules like the filibuster “have served democracy in the past,” Kamarck told me, “and you shouldn’t change them lightly.” But “McConnell uses institutionalism for his own policy preferences,” she said, “and congressional Republicans are refusing to negotiate with Democrats. If this is the new normal, it might be time to change the filibuster in the Senate just to get things done.”

This, to me, is rational: Protect the old ways if and only if the old ways are leading to desirable outcomes—not for their own sake. Not everybody sees it this way, however. Senator Kyrsten Sinema, a moderate Democrat from Arizona who supports the filibuster, said, “The reality is that when you have a system that is not working effectively ... the way to fix that is to fix your behavior, not to eliminate the rules or change the rules, but to change the behavior.”

This makes a mockery of the notion of self-government. Institutions work for citizens—not the other way around. Experts warn that Republicans are so endangering our democracy through systemic attacks on voting rights that Democrats must act alone to stop them. At some point, people like Sinema will have to choose. You can be either for institutions that fail to serve democracy, or for democracy itself. You cannot be for both.