Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla on Senate Rules Reform and the Election
Nov 02, 2012
Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Issue #42 - The Protest Issue
If you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed that Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla released a solo record in 2008, the well-received but mostly overlooked Field Manual. And if you did pick up that album, if you didn’t listen all that closely, you might have missed that it was actually a fairly political album, with what Walla self-effacingly says are 10 “ill-fated protest songs.” Now, four years later, he admits that he realizes just how difficult the task of moving people’s hearts and minds with music actually is. But beyond music, he now has a larger goal—attacking the problems that face our country through fixing our political system and the rules that make sure nothing gets done.
[Walla was interviewed for, and is quoted in, various articles in our Protest Issue. This is the full transcript of that interview, mainly quotes that didn't make it into the print issue.]
Matt Fink (Under the Radar): Do you think the moment when music can change people’s minds is gone?
Chris Walla: I don’t think it’s gone. There are really great writers who have written really great protest songs in recent memory, but bridging that gap between a really great song and a really universal song and something that actually gets people off of the couch and away from their Twitter account and moves them into some action beyond just passive listening is a really different task and I think it takes a different kind of thinking and a different kind of writing.
When you were writing your solo record, did it feel as if you were doing something that was going to be polarizing or that people might object to what you were saying?
Not really, because it’s all kind of obscured. There’s not tons of it that is hyper-literal. I was hoping that people would like it, and the people that bought and heard it seemed to, but there weren’t many of those. I guess it did roughly what I was thinking. But it’s so impossible to measure the impact or influence of something like that. There’s no metric. There’s no registry. It’s really hard to tell. I didn’t think it was going to be polarizing. I don’t think there’s anything particularly inflammatory. There’s not even a “Don’t Kill the Whales” song.
Do you think songwriters are hesitant to jump into the political arena with their art?
I don’t think that they are hesitant, but I think American songwriters mostly mirror the American public in that it’s not that they don’t care about politics or the direction of their country, it’s just that they have other things on their mind. Songwriting is its own therapy. It is what you make it. But choosing to make something political is like choosing to run for office. There’s a lot of dedication to a kind of writing and thinking about a kind of topic and a kind of audience that is super abstract, like way more abstract than writing about your personal foibles or anything else that people tend to write songs about. Or love songs or breakup songs. It brings a second level of abstraction to something that is already really abstract, I think.
Do you feel a responsibility as an artist to make political statements or support certain causes?
I feel a responsibility to do whatever feels right and to support whoever I’m actually really invested in. I think it’s different for everybody in my band. We all have different thresholds for that. But one of the things that we have done collectively is that we’ve chosen to just concentrate on local politics and local issues. And there’s so much stuff locally that is so much less abstracted and there’s so much less corruption or perception of corruption of what happens locally because we all interface with it personally day to day that it makes it easier to wrap our heads around specific concepts and benefits. It’s easier to say yes to stuff when it’s our own community.
After the election of 2008, do you think there’s less enthusiasm for artists to involve themselves in the political process as much as they did four years ago?
I do think there is less enthusiasm than there was four years ago, and this is why I am absolutely convinced that the super shiny golden prize of American politics has nothing to do with the presidency or the candidates, but it’s the least sexy of all political topics: it’s Senate rules reform. I really believe the reason the perception that so little has gotten done in the last four years is because of how arcane and undemocratic the cloture vote and the filibuster are. The thing is, it’s so many levels under the surface that nobody who is just living their lives day to day and reading the headlines has any idea what an awful deliberate democratic body the Senate actually is. We have the only ostensibly democratic house in the world where a 41% vote can trump a 59% vote. It’s no wonder the approval ratings of Congress are at historic lows. And Democrats don’t understand why it is that even when they had a Democratic majority in the Senate and the House in 2009 and 2010 it felt like such a slog to get anything done, and that’s why. But, yes, people are definitely not as engaged, and I feel like [Senate rules reform is] the next challenge. But it’s one that senators don’t want to talk about until they retire.
Do you think there’s not much political will to reform the system since both sides have benefitted in the past, and Democrats know if the Republicans take over the Senate they’ll want to have the option of the filibuster?
Yes. And I think if you are truly committed to the concept of a bipartisan agreement on something, and if you’re truly committed to the idea that you should let whoever gets elected through a free and democratic process govern and do their job, you should support reforming the Senate rules as they are now. What I want them to do is not abolish the filibuster but turn the filibuster back into what we all think of when we think of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The objecting Senator or Senators are on the floor, holding up business, making a show, reading out of the phonebook for three or four days at a time. That is important to a democratic process. When a majority is ramming something through that you feel is absolutely objectionable to the very core of your moral being, and you’re in the minority, there has to be an outlet for you to raise your voice. And the filibuster is perfect for that. But as it stands now, the way the filibuster works is that it is not on the objecting party to hold up business. It’s on the majority party to work like hell to try and find some kind of consensus before you hold the vote as to whether to bring the business to the floor. That doesn’t make any sense.
The Senate rules get adopted every two years, and it’s a simple majority vote. And some time in the ’70s—and I forget exactly when it was—the filibuster rule that was the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington rule was changed to a version of the present rules. And it has been tweaked here and there. But in the ’70s, the sense of decorum in the Senate was enough, and the handshake agreements between the left and right was enough, that there weren’t really problems. Filibuster and cloture votes held at roughly the same rates that they had throughout history, well into the ’90s. There were little increases here and there in the ’80s, and then when the House voted to impeach Clinton in the ’90s, there was an uptick in cloture votes. Then, in the 2000s under Bush, the Democrats began to feel freaked out about executive power, and there was a substantial uptick in the number of filibusters and cloture votes. And in the last four years, there were more cloture votes than all of the previous Senates combined. Basically, when you do that, you’re preventing a bill from even getting to the floor for debate. Anything you want to bring, any piece of legislation, you have to pass a 60-vote threshold to get it up for debate. What is happening is that all it takes is 41 Senators from an intransigent, irresponsible, intellectually dishonest party to say, “I don’t care what’s in your bill. We don’t even want to talk about it.” And that’s what has been happening the last four years, though, to be fair, it was happening a bit through the Bush administration, as well. Reforming Senate rules would, I think, bring a sense of meaning back to so many things—back to voting, back to holding your elected representatives accountable for what they do. I fear that we’re in this place where every two years, we get to that sort of classic public outcry of “Throw the bums out! Bring in somebody else!” The way this government is set up, the two houses, plus judicial, plus executive branch is pretty genius, but it’s pretty complicated to navigate, too. And it doesn’t even work with a 60-vote threshold in one house, and I feel like I can’t get a sense of what the Democratic platform actually is and how it will impact my life at the federal level with the rules in the Senate as they are presently. And if it’s a tit-for-tat situation—and if the Republicans take the Senate, I feel like it will be—I won’t be able to get a sense of how the Republicans are going to govern, either.
I’m a card-carrying Democrat. I’m about as liberal and lefty as they come, but this is something that I absolutely support, regardless of who is in power. With all the calls on the right to dismantle the federal government and make it as lean and mean as it can get—like, if Rand Paul was able to dismantle the Department of Education—what would that look like? I don’t want that to happen, but I do want voters to understand what happens when—for better or worse—a governing party gets to do what they’ve been voted in to do. I feel like that’s the only way to bring accountability back to federal office and make the voting public sit up and pay attention and get invested in politics again. I feel like it’s just Senate rules reform. I could go on for hours how the most important politician in the country is Joe Lieberman! When you have 59 votes and you need that 60th vote, and it’s Joe Lieberman! It’s Garfield the Senator? It’s ridiculous. There’s such a gulf between passing a good, solid piece of legislation and getting 60 votes for a piece of legislation. They are incompatible. I’m getting fired up now. This is my passion. But you can’t write a protest song about Senate rules reform.