The Huffington Post just posted a link to a very interesting interview of Chris Matthews talking to Elizabeth Warren:
The reason this interview is so interesting is because it perfectly sums up the main problem on the left today and as a consequence, the main reason why a lot of progressive and even moderate issues that polls time and again show that a majority of the American people support, cannot be signed into law and implemented even with a Democratic President and only 45 Republicans Senators (i.e. a majority of Dems in the Senate).
As a progressive myself, I cannot but strongly support and stand behind everything Elizabeth Warren was saying we should do in this interview: we need to start acting based on the fact that the trickle down social experiment started by the Republicans in the 1980s has been proven wrong, we need to reinvest in our education and infrastructure and jobs again, we need to stop passing one law after the other shifting even more money from workers to the wealthiest stake holders, etc. And as Matthews himself admitted at the end: Elizabeth Warren is a fine Senator.
All these things we progressives know, and it’s not what made this interview so very interesting.
Just like when a conservative is interviewed by Fox News, Warren was clearly preaching to the choir. She knew from the very beginning that Matthews would agree with her on everything when it comes to policy, as well as most of the people watching the show.
What was so interesting, however, is the fact that on one point, Matthews and Warren were constantly talking past each other. Matthews would ask his question again and again, becoming each time more aggressive, while Warren responded by being even more fired up but nevertheless not answering it, and almost not addressing it directly.
And that question was perfectly clear: why is it that with a Democratic President and Democratic Senate, all the important job bills that are so urgent aren’t getting passed, even when many Dems are constantly telling us how important they are?
Today, four and a half years after Scott Brown became Elizabeth Warren’s predecessor and replaced Ted Kennedy as Massachussets Senator, Chris Matthews still asks this kind of question and many people (as polls show) agree which confirms that when it comes to the most important aspect of how a democracy works, Progressives, who adore to believe that they’re much smarter than conservatives, remain completely illiterate. And that illiteracy, much more than any power that the 1% could buy in DC, is the most important cause of the fact that the Congress that a majority of the American people elected, year after year sees its approval rate go down to historic, single-digit depths.
Of course, every cause is itself caused by another cause, so I’m not trying to blame one or the other group here. I’m just focusing on one specific element in the chain of causes, which is the blind spot in how many progressives tend to see politics and as such is risking to make the entire system dysfunctional. Changing this one specific element could take Congress – and as a consequence the country – into an entire different direction, if people accept to at least start talking about it.
So, what is that one single issue, that is crippling ordinary citizens’ power in DC?
What Warren repeated over and over again during the interview is correct: people have to start realizing that the solution that the GOTP continues to defend, will not create jobs and we need this awareness in order to build a grassroots movement that can convince those Americans who still believe in the trickle down myth or still hope that some day in the future, the trickling down will finally happen. But that’s a conversation we Progressives and moderates need to have, on a grassroots level, with those who still believe this kind of myths. Warren is right, having this conversation is absolutely crucial.
But it’s only one thing. What Chris Matthews was showing, is that we urgently need to have a totally different conversation, especially (but not only) among progressives, about a totally different issue that is not about policy (on which most of us agree) but on strategy: How do we use our constitutional power, as citizens of a constitutional democratic republic, in order to obtain new laws that correspond to what we want?
Of course, Warren knows the answer to this question, but Chris Matthews clearly not. How do we Progressives want to obtain any progress, if we can’t answer it? And how will we become a little bit more politically literate, if Democratic politicians (and ordinary, politically literate citizens) don’t see explaining the answer to this question as one of their biggest priorities?
Here’s the answer in a nutshell: in a democracy, the three branches of government are entirely independent. A President has no direct power on Congress, it’s his job to implement (= execute) the new bills Congress passes and the bills previous Congresses have passed, whether he likes those bills or not. He can negotiate with Congress, and try to find a compromise. But if Congress refuses to compromise, he’ll have no bill at all, or he’ll have to veto the bills Congress sends to his desk. Congress, on the other hand, has two houses. A bill has to get a majority of at least 50% in the House and the Speaker of the House has to decide to allow a vote on it, in order for the bill to get passed. The same bill also needs at least 50% in the Senate, and the decision of the Majority leader to start voting on it, and, as a third condition, the absence of any single Senator filibustering the bill, in other words, blocking the vote in itself. In case of a filibuster, 60 Senators have to support voting on the bill before the voting can start again.
Since Obama became president, the GOP Senators systematically filibustered the most important bills the American people wanted, but in 2009 Democrats and Independents together had the legal power to break a filibuster. As soon as Scott Brown was elected (Jan. 2010), however, Republicans also got the number of Senators needed to make it impossible to break a filibuster and start voting on a law, and they also used that power systematically. One of the most outrageous examples is the fact that they’ve blocked a vote on a gun control bill, even when more than ninety percent of the American people and a majority of their own base supported it.
There’s absolutely nothing illegal in doing so, even if it’s totally unprecedented. They’re still respecting the system and the way a democratic Congress works. So in this sense, you can not blame the Republicans for the fact that Congress is not doing what the majority of the American people want them to do. Once elected, every Senator and Representative has the legal right to do this.
It also doesn’t make any sense to blame the elected Democrats, however, as Chris Matthews continues to do (and as the HP often does too). As soon as you analyze the legal power the system gives them, you cannot but observe that they cannot possibly do more than writing bills that correspond to what the majority of the American people want, and try to start voting on it. In this country, a minority can legally block the majority from doing its job, day after day. All that is needed is a minority that has at least 41 Senators, and the decision to block the majority day after day.
Realizing this is crucial, because if we continue to blame Democrats for the fact that nothing happens, concretely, we are actually giving the GOTP a perfect reason to continue to block all bills, especially when a majority of the American people support those bills. Indeed, the more the GOTP blocks voting on such a bills, the more people will imagine that it’s the Democrats who ‘refuse’ to do something, as the Democrats control the White House and the Senate.
Realizing a second fundamental fact is equally crucial: we, ordinary citizens, have, already today, the constitutional power to change this absurd situation. And it’s only we who will be able to change is. How? The solution is simple: if we want the bills that Elizabeth Warren just mentioned to be signed into law and implemented, we urgently need to vote for a Senate where 60 Senators support the bills the majority of the American people support. As long as we continue to give the Democrats and Independents together less than 60 votes, we are not giving them the legal power necessary to pass a bill, even when Democrats control the White House.
Unfortunately, Elizabeth Warren did not focus on this issue. She rapidly mentioned it at the end of the interview but if you want to correct the error Matthews and so many other people have been making for years now, you will have to stop talking policy for a moment and start explaining strategy and the way a democracy is basically functioning. And Warren should do so not only during one ten minute interview, but time and again, until a majority starts to understand it, especially when she’s being interviewed by a Progressive and when repeating our ideas about policy means not telling anything new and merely preaching to the choir. Yes, the battle Warren is fighting is important, but it’s a battle that has as its main goal to inform ordinary citizens, and first of all non-Progressives, of the necessity of certain policies Progressives support. A totally different battle, however, is the battle among progressives themselves, in order to stop the horrible political illiteracy that characterizes many of us, so that we can finally start using our constitutional, democratic power, and learn how to write those policy ideas into law.
We still have four months to go.
Let’s hope that especially people like Warren will start to get it, and use their outstanding rhetorical talent and intelligence to fight against the most important form of illiteracy in our time.