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A blow for the Democrats and democracy in the USA

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Monday, 25 January 2010

The Republican victory in the Massachusetts Senate race brings home two points about American politics. First, American liberalism - the politics proudly promoted by FDR, JFK and LBJ - is in a sorry condition. Second, the American system of government with its peculiar state-by-state rules and its special elections, pork-barrelling, filibusters, and gerrymanders is poorly placed to enable effective policy making in the 21st century.

American liberalism’s long demise shows little signs of reversing. Tuesday’s election provided another example of this, with Edward Kennedy’s legacy and death failing to provide the coat-tails for the election of another Democratic Senator from Massachusetts. (This defeat for the Democrats is somewhat analogous to the ALP’s loss of Bob Hawke’s seat of Wills when Hawke retired from the parliament in 1992. In other words, a rebuke from a party’s political heartland.) Instead this once solidly liberal-Democrat state has bucked historical trends and recent voting patterns and sent Republican Scott Brown to the US Senate.

Not since the days of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. have the Republicans had a Class 1 Senator from Massachusetts in the US Congress. From 1952, when JFK defeated Lodge, until Edward Moore Kennedy’s death in 2009 the Kennedy family reigned supreme. According to US constitutional rules, Edward Kennedy was not old enough to take over after his brother’s death in 1960 but to continue the Kennedy reign, close Kennedy friend Benjamin Smith warmed the seat until Teddy turned 30 and could run and win in 1962.


Now Massachusetts has a newly elected Republican in the seat formerly held by Jack and Ted Kennedy. Brown is the first Republican from Massachusetts since Edwards Brook, the Class 2 Senator and first ever popularly elected African-American Senator, lost his seat to Paul Tsongas in 1978 (John F. Kerry replaced Tsongas in 1985). So instead of a Kennedy and a Kerry from Massachusetts, we have a Kerry and a Brown. For many Democrat true believers the sky is not just the wrong colour, it has fallen in.

Why is this political history significant? Massachusetts is arguably, along with Minnesota, the most important breeding ground in the nation for future Democratic talent. It has provided liberal America with icons and ideas; with hope and names. It is worth remembering that Obama beat McCain by 26 percentage points in Massachusetts in November 2008. Brown’s victory is a 31 point turn around. Even for someone as supremely confident as Obama the result is deflating. Democratic Senator Evan Bayh put it best for his party when he said: “If you lose Massachusetts and that’s not a wake-up call, there’s no hope of waking up.”

In my view, Barack Obama exemplifies much of what is wrong with American liberalism today. Since being elected president his dazzling rhetoric and oratory have raised hopes in America and elsewhere (most dangerously in the Middle East). The problem is that the rhetoric is not being matched by policy change: instead of being translated into concrete plans or positions the words vanish into thin air as soon as Obama faces losing political capital. As a result Obama’s governing style increasingly looks like a better stage managed version of Bill Clinton’s Third Way presidency. In other words, political calculations are once again being put time and again before policy principles.

On the institutional level Scott Brown’s victory will highlight the dysfunctions of the US legislative system more than ever. The US political system has looked arcane and a long way off world best practice since the 1970s. The oddities are increasingly taking their toll. In Australia and elsewhere outside of America there is so much focus on the president and as a result his powers are often misunderstood and exaggerated. Elections like the Massachusetts Senate race are a useful reminder of the power of Congress and the strange rules its inhabitants work with, such as the filibuster, cloture, and reconciliations.

At the procedural level the Democrats only have themselves to blame for Tuesday’s nationalised special election. If the Democrats had not subverted the normal tradition of allowing the state Governor to appoint a replacement Senator, the election would have been held in November this year along with numerous other Senate elections. However, in 2004 the Massachusetts Democrats changed the state laws to stop then Republican Governor Mitt Romney from being able to appoint a Republican replacement to the US Senate if Democrat John Kerry was elected president. Kerry of course lost and the cynical law change ticked away waiting to go off when Edward Kennedy died. Talk about the law of unintended consequences.

So instead of Massachusetts being at the heart of a Democratic party super-majority of 60 votes in the US Senate, the state provides the Republicans with the “no” button to any new Democrat-promoted legislation. Senator Scott is calling himself “41” and this is significant because at least 41 votes are required if you want to mount a filibuster. This legislative procedure allows a Senator to make a speech that is so long that it prevents a vote being taken. If the majority party has 60 votes cloture occurs and the Senator has to end their speech.


The filibuster tactic was infamously used in 1957 by Strom Thurmond with his speech of 24 hours and 18 minutes preventing a vote on the Civil Rights Act. Perhaps it is better known as the tactic used by Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 film Mr Smith goes to Washington. The word derives from the Spanish word for pirate. In the US context the term has been used to refer to US mercenaries who were involved in attempts to overthrow various Latin American governments. Like the mercenaries and pirates of yesteryear, Senators wanting to mount filibusters should be told to butt out (and sit down).

Democracy should largely be driven by majority decisions (50 per cent plus 1 vote), particularly in legislative chambers. The need for super-majorities in the US Senate (60 votes out of 100) makes it far less effective than it needs to be. With the challenges the US faces domestically and internationally one can expect much more strain on the US system of government in the year ahead.

The result is likely to be that, aside from healthcare reform, only piecemeal reforms will emerge. As a result frustration will only increase among the general public: this could well lead to volatile election results at the end of 2010, with the outcome being an even more divided US Congress that grinds to a near stalemate, leading to even more limited change.

This is a rather sad prediction a little over a year after the “change you can believe in” election of Barack Obama. If only change was as simple and commonsensical as candidate Obama made it sound. However, it is hardly surprising that things turned out to be a lot more complicated and change a lot tougher to achieve.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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