Retired Star Tribune columnist Lori Sturdevant has joined the growing chorus of intelligent voices — which lately includes Sen. Amy Klobuchar and maybe President Joe Biden — calling for dismantling obstructions to majority rule such as the filibuster, the Electoral College, a Supreme Court of nine members with lifetime appointments and Minnesota's requirement of a supermajority for bonding bills ("The politics of obstruction," Opinion Exchange, April 4).
The question is whether more streamlined government is really the best way for us to live well together.
Sturdevant carefully details the costs of minority rule, like the partisan wheel-spinning on gun control, immigration reform and health care. She may be right; certainly the filibuster is being overused and the Supreme Court appointment process is broken. I can only imagine the frustration of legislators and others who have had to live with the current system.
But I don't see Sturdevant or anyone else also carefully considering the potential costs of bare-knuckled majority rule to our fragile union of diverse citizens.
For much of the 20th century, two world wars and the Cold War provided something of a unifying bond for Americans. What unites us now? Not ethnic heritage, culture, or religion as they do many countries. We are united only by institutions of government and the ideals behind them: freedom, fairness and equality of opportunity.
And that means that all of us, including the disfavored minority of any given moment, must feel served by those ideals and must have a seat at the table in those institutions. Loyalty is otherwise too easily withdrawn.
Without the filibuster, in recent years each party would have been forced to swallow laws that are simply anathema to them. For example, the Republicans filibustered expanded public campaign financing, but the Democrats filibustered a ban on abortions after 20 weeks.
When it prevails, brute majority force hardens opposition. Lacking the bipartisan legitimacy of any Republican votes, Obamacare has generated over 70 congressional challenges and a decade of court cases and state legislative repudiations.
Why are familiar anti-majoritarian obstacles so hard to negotiate right now? Why are we in an era when ideological and intensely partisan politicians seem to flourish? It seems that both of the forces that usually drive historical change — technology and demographics — are converging on this.
The technological explanation is straightforward. I recently had the opportunity to ask eminent British anthropologist and primatologist Richard Wrangham why we had become so politically polarized. Without skipping a beat, he summed it all up: The internet permits "cost-free linguistic aggression."
Both chimpanzee communities and human hunter-gatherer groups are extremely aggressive toward outsiders. But they weigh the costs and benefits of every attack. Unless there is a prospect of minimal losses because they have overwhelming numbers or complete surprise on their side, they control themselves.
But now the internet is a playground for our inner sociopaths. Vent your spleen, ignore the truth, stoke conflicts and conspiracy theories, all in the privacy of your own home concealed with your own internet identity — there are no consequences.
Asking tech companies or regulators to somehow define unacceptable speech and control is futile. What would work is what anthropologists know is the mechanism of self-control used by all homo sapien societies — scrutiny and reputation.
All people act better when they are being watched. Supermarket lines are more polite than highway traffic.
Before dismantling our proven system of checked and balanced government, we should require author identification for all internet posts. Let's see if the rhetorical temperature doesn't cool down.
The demographic explanation is more complicated. By 2045 the U.S. will be a majority nonwhite society. In the arena where most people spend most of their time, the workplace, that demographic shift will happen by 2032. And social scientists have documented for many years that as minority population increases, whites feel more threatened and express more negative social attitudes.
Strident, obstructionist politics are being fueled by the growing anxiety that the America of the future will not be white. Negotiating the shoals of this demographic transition will be tricky, and I suspect that naked majority rule, as opposed to seeking a common future everyone wants, will make matters worse.
What makes me hopeful is an experience I had many years ago that showed me the great capacity we have to open up to each other.
I grew up in Duluth and Albert Lea in the 1950s and '60s and never met an African American until I went to college, and then only rarely. But after college I joined VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America, the predecessor to AmeriCorps). As part of my orientation, I was sent to live for a few weeks with a family in a public-housing project in Brooklyn that was 99.9% Black.
Ms. Blackwell and her family and neighbors treated this pale Midwestern do-gooder so warmly that any sense of being in a precarious minority quickly evaporated.
I am asking the confident proponents of more majority rule to seriously consider whether they want to ride roughshod over an anxious minority at a particularly sensitive time. But that certainly does not leave us voters off the hook — we have to turn away from professional obstructionists and ideologues and elect leaders who are as practical and reasonable as the American people.
Maybe instead of identifying with an interest group called Democrat, Republican, Black or white, we can all start calling it "American."
Bruce Peterson is a senior district judge and teaches a class on lawyers as peacemakers at the University of Minnesota Law School.