Sen. Kyrsten Sinema thinks the filibuster protects bipartisanship. That's a myth

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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema speaks about the filibuster and voting rights legislation on Jan. 13, 2022.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema speaks about the filibuster and voting rights legislation on Jan. 13, 2022.

U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has found some celebrity in national politics for her opposition to revising the legislative filibuster.

The Arizona Democrat argues that eliminating the filibuster will undermine institutional incentives to compromise and work toward bipartisan solutions in the U.S. Senate, to which she was elected in 2018.

Prominent voices in Arizona’s GOP establishment are likely reinforcing this message – that the filibuster (perhaps Sinema herself) is our last hope for overriding our partisan impulses and protecting a bipartisan future.

However, as political scientists who study democracy and U.S. congressional politics and who are constituents of Sinema, we urge her to resist the calls of colleagues, who represent an increasingly small proportion of Arizona voters, and to embrace her yet-to-be-realized power to help usher in a new bipartisan future and reject what we call the Bipartisan Filibuster Myth.

Filibuster actually blocks real bipartisanship

Senator Sinema has demonstrated the unique ability to serve as a bridge between parties in this highly polarized era of American politics, and she has clearly used this ability successfully already.

Would a shift in her position on the filibuster effectively burn that bridge? The Bipartisan Filibuster Myth says yes.

But the Bipartisan Filibuster Myth is just that – a myth. It is a folktale passed down from former leaders of shrinking parties to scare leaders of the future into protecting the status quo.

In fact, the current filibuster obliterates opportunities for real bipartisanship, partly because of the rise of what political scientists call “negative partisanship.”

Negative partisanship is when members of the public choose their political party based not on positive evaluations of one party or set of candidates, but instead on disdain toward another party.

Unfortunately, the data suggest stoking fears of what the other party might do in power pays off for politicians by mobilizing voters.

GOP leaders are more partisan than GOP voters

What does this mean for bipartisanship?

It means that parties have little incentive to be proactive and solve problems. That is a less powerful tool for ensuring reelection than tearing down the other party and obstructing anything they try to do (at least when you are the minority).

Destruction beats creation. Of course, the filibuster is the central tool with which the minority party can wield the power of negative partisanship.

It is crucial to distinguish between the GOP elite and Republican voters. The polarization we see is largely among elites rather than the public, and is driven mainly by congressional Republicans moving farther and farther right.

Many current Republicans in state legislatures are pushing for anti-democratic policies that do not reflect the opinions of voters. These policies go beyond even what we saw in the Jim Crow era and would allow state legislatures to overturn state election results in a partisan manner.

This is simply unacceptable in a country that claims to be a democracy.

Revise the filibuster, push lawmakers to solutions

The anti-democracy push, protected by the Bipartisan Filibuster Myth, is on full display, but fortunately, it is unpopular. Sinema did not support the anti-democracy push, but without some concrete action against such things, her future may be bleak.

Meanwhile, many of the policies being blocked by the filibuster now are widely popular across parties. The “filibuster version” of bipartisanship is failing.

So, what might bipartisanship look like under a revised filibuster? It looks like bipartisanship in the public rather than among elites, among constituents who are sold solutions rather than obstructionism by elites drunk on negative partisanship.

Hyper-partisans are the exception rather than the norm, and so, passing popular policies – rather than watching them all die – would be the bipartisanship and quest for common ground that Sinema seems to be pursuing.

Further, without pure obstructionism to run on, such extreme candidates will have little to grasp onto other than trying to pull legislation in their direction through compromise. What incentive would the majority party have to engage with them?

Well, with the newfound responsibility of actually having to bear responsibility for the policies they pass, extreme partisan policies representing only a narrow slice of voters would not be good electoral strategy for the majority.

In other words, the best way to incentivize compromise is to get rid of or alter the tool that makes obstructionism so easy: the filibuster.

Frank Gonzalez is an assistant professor in the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona. Suzanne Dovi is an associate professor of the UA’s School of Government and Public Policy.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema must reject the 'bipartisan filibuster' myth

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