Freddie deBoer’s post on Rand Paul’s filibuster has inspired three thoughts – one about why he’s mostly right, one about where he goes wrong, and one about how this all implicates our national institutional design.

Firstly, Freddie is generally speaking on-the-nose – there is nothing about Rand Paul’s positions on other issues or political ambitions that should prevent anyone who cares about restraining executive power and preserving civil rights and rule of law from cheerfully supporting his endeavors. Anything that brings more attention to these issues is good, anything that puts more pressure on the executive branch is good. This filibuster is a distinct act (though not wholly separable) from his other political stances, and thus can and should be supported in good faith and conscience.

However, I think Freddie has somewhat blinkered himself in not broadening his view. Forget about Rand Paul’s mostly-despicable views on almost every other class of public policy issues; on this particular issue, Paul is definitively in the minority amongst his own party. That, though, is what made this filibuster so politically clever for him. The Republican Party is split between those who are (mostly) consistent in favoring reduced government power and those who simply support low taxes on rich people and bombing undesireables, and the weight is largely towards the latter. However, the GOP is very much unified on the subject of hating Barack Obama. So by spontaneously creating a dynamic by which a question that leaves Paul in an intra-party minority into a referendum on spiting the President, he managed to frame himself as a leader on the issue and bring along most of his party with him since they were motivated by not wanting to look weak on the key GOP issue of sandbagging Obama. Especially when you look at the list of key GOP contenders for 2016 – in addition to Paul, you have Rubio, Christie, Jindal, Bush, Ryan, Hunstman, Santorum, McDonnell, Walker, Daniels, Portman, Cruz…any big ones I might be forgetting? – almost every other candidate is either explicitly or implicitly on the other side of this issue. What Paul did yesterday gained him a lot of exposure while simultaneously turning a weakness that isolated him into an instance of combative, Capra-esque leadership.

This is not to say that Paul’s motivations (or his internal ranking of those motivations) are the key factors for us as citizens – to the extend Rand Paul made supporting unchecked state power to do violence more costly, it was unambiguously a Good Thing. But the dynamics also expose a serious flaw in our Constitutional institutions. Namely, it really does seem as though many of the Framers bought their own hype and believed the major points of conflict in the state they designed would be a) inter-state and b) intra-federal-governmental. But political partisanship, as in retrospect seems inevtable, ended up playing a major role in political organization in the United States and totally threw a wrench into those dynamics, especially b). The expectation that "Congress," as a body, would check "the Executive" is perhaps-fatally compromised during high periods of partisan polarization, when the Executive is unified but Congress is deeply divided, and members of Congress may prioritize supporting their party over their institutional prerogatives. So you could have a dynamic whereby, say, one party is more inclined than the other to oppose state violence, but when that party has control of the executive branch they suddenly find state violence is really useful and their co-partisans in Congress prioritize winning partisan battles. This, of course, means that these kinds of issues can quickly become corrosive to the body politic and result in the kind of self-perpetuating cynicism that further empowers state violence. I’m not sure what to do about that, per se, but I am certain that this is the correct way to understand yesterday’s events and why I am cheered but still quite wary by the Paul filibuster.

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