I was watching the Wendy Davis spectacle last week. For those unfamiliar, the Texas State Legislature was about to put vast restrictions on abortion. There was a populist filibuster where hundreds of people spoke in the congress in order to delay the vote. This was cut short by the Chairman, but not before a day was lost. In the next session, State Senator Wendy Davis filibustered the bill for 11+ hours, until she was shut down by the Lieutenant Governor just in time for a vote to be taken. The vote was delayed by roars of outrage from the gathered audience, and the bill failed to pass in time.
Every single part of this seems crazy to me.
First, the abortion restrictions themselves – the government is supposed to pass laws for the good of the society is governs. Banning abortion is obviously a failure in this regard, it shows either that the senate has been infiltrated by radical elements (if you believe society at large is good), or that society at large has been corrupted to a degree that the government can no longer steer it toward the common good.
Second, the people’s filibuster – rather than attempting to fix the source of the problem (either a compromised govt or a corrupt society) people instead decided to exploit a vulnerability in the system. They took a process intended to help the government make good decisions via testimony and intentionally broke it to halt the law-making process.
I think this was an acknowledgement that society has broken down to the point where we can’t have nice things anymore. The government now seems to work as a fail-safe instead. It is here mainly to prevent the civil war and chaos that results when people can’t live together. We really don’t want to live in Iraq. This is the only way I can make sense of these filibusters – they are games that formalize conflict with artificial rules which, as long as both sides agree to follow them, prevent violent outbreaks. Earlier I claimed that the Diamond Invention is useful because it prevents us from wasting resources for signaling that could be better used for practical matters. In this case, the Politics Invention is useful because it prevents armed conflict.
Much of the rest of this story makes sense in this context. The opposing team made the next move – the Chairman of the House cut the filibuster short, saying the testimony had become repetitive (which was true). But more importantly – this tactic is too powerful. Either side can use it to stop any bill indefinitely, because it’s not hard to find a few hundred motivated people when pulling from a pool of millions. It’s a game breaker, and the game must continue to prevent war.
The counter-move was the announcing of a champion – Wendy Davis. This is acceptable because there is a very small pool to choose from (only the elected Representatives) and Texas rules make filibustering difficult enough (speaker cannot sit or lean on anything, cannot pause for bathroom breaks or other needs, and must stay on-topic) that it is a costly weapon (until someone like David Blaine is elected…). It is also a brilliant entertainment move – a single champion in a physical contest makes for a great narrative and allows for humans to do our much-beloved hero-worship thing. And games should always be entertaining.
It was also executed with a great eye for drama – the champion may falter twice, but is defeated upon the third fault, and has a deadline. The opposition managed to get in two strikes against the champion, one of them of extremely dubious validity. Then they ruled her in violation at third time with only minutes to the finish line! THE CROWD GOES WILD!
That was where the Republicans screwed up – they failed to account for the climax of an emotional event like this, because not only must they stop Davis, the also need to make one final move before midnight… a move which isn’t possible amidst the cacophony of raging fans. The clock ticks past midnight before a vote can be taken. Win by technicality!
This sort of thing convinces me that politics is a game. What sort of society allows their law-making body to be usurped by a loud mob that managed to delay a vote by three minutes? Seriously, three minutes make a difference here? 12:03 is an arbitrary time, and should make no difference in whether a law is “official” or not. That is the sort of rule that is fully in the providence of games and has no anchoring in reality.
Of course then the Republicans made a mistake so massive that both sides are doing their best to ignore it – they acknowledged the primacy of the game, and attempted to cheat, at the same time. But this post is long enough, I’ll get to that tomorrow.