A recent Pew survey found that only 26 percent of Americans know that it takes 60 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster. Matt Yglesias takes this as evidence that the GOP’s strategy of “obstructionism,” meaning their tendency to vote to block anything that the Democrats try to enact, is not only effective in defeating Democratic legislation and making the president look useless, but is also cost-free because the public doesn’t know that the only 41 Republicans are to blame.
You never hear the impact of public ignorance about the filibuster discussed as a factor in the president’s fortunes. But I’d say the fact that people don’t understand how this works is an important element of what makes it so effective. To a small slice of Americans, the GOP’s minoritarian obstructionism is a heroic stand. To another small slice of Americans, the GOP’s minoritarian obstructionism is an undemocratic disaster. But to the majority of Americans it’s completely invisible and all they see is a Democratic Party that can’t get things done.
It’s not clear who the polling sample is in the Pew survey. In general, though, the people who don’t know the basics of legislative procedure are the same people who don’t vote. They are uninformed and that’s partly the fault of journalists for persistently overestimated how much background knowledge their audience has, as Yglesias suggests. But I don’t think it’s as free a lunch for the GOP as Yglesias seems to think. Who knows exactly on what basis uninformed voters make their decisions, but surely their attitudes are shaped by knowledgeable people’s overall view of the political landscape. If someone only catches 10 minutes of political coverage per week, but in those 10 minutes they are exposed to an anchor or reporter whose general attitude is resentful of the “obstructionist” GOP, that will probably shape their approval of the GOP even if that anchor or reporter doesn’t explicitly mention the GOP’s use of the filibuster.