The Filibuster’s Ugly History and Why It Must Be ScrappedRoundup
tags: civil rights, filibuster, Senate
Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University.
The case for ending the Senate filibuster rule is based not on simple partisanship but out of concern for American democracy. Partisanship becomes a problem when normal political parties place narrow self-interest so far above all other considerations that the nation obviously suffers as a result. And, in truth, both parties have long deployed the filibuster — the provision in the Senate’s rules that effectively requires a supermajority of senators to guarantee passage of most legislation — when they find themselves in the minority. In normal times, the parties have normalized the filibuster, to the point where it appears to be a natural feature of the Senate’s operations.
In fact, however, there is nothing natural about the filibuster, and, even more important, the United States long ago ceased to have two normal political parties. For at least 25 years, the Republican Party has been in the grip of a radicalization that had led it from Reaganism — already a departure from the party’s mainline traditions — to Newt Gingrich’s scorched-earth right-wing politics and then to the authoritarian putsch-prone personality cult of Donald Trump. Instead of believing in its own appeal to a majority of voters with anything resembling ideas, the GOP relies on themes of culture-war demagogy, conspiracy mongering, and racial division. Yet even that is insufficient: Lacking confidence in that repertoire of dog whistles, Republicans have now become utterly dependent on gerrymandering and brazen voter suppression.
The Republican Party is a “normal” party only in the sense that the segregationist wing of the Southern Democratic Party before the modern civil rights era was “normal.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the Trump worshipper, has stated that his idol has some sort of “magic.” The “magic” Graham couldn’t define was the same old dark “magic” that was practiced by his predecessor, Strom Thurmond. Indeed, Republican strategy and tactics, although national rather than sectional in scope, are strikingly similar to those of the old Dixiecrats, reviving and updating the old Jim Crow politics, with restrictive ID laws and election-roll purges taking the place of the poll tax and the grandfather clause — Jim Crow 2.0.
So, these are the stakes at the heart of the current debate over the filibuster. With the tiniest possible majority in the Senate — achieved only by overcoming voter suppression in Georgia — and just a razor-thin majority in the House, the Democrats have a very small window for achieving reforms that might reverse the greatest attempted subversion of American democracy since the violent overthrow of Reconstruction. To say that killing the filibuster will come back to haunt the Democrats, as Republicans are wont to do, is to miss the severity and immediacy of the crisis. As the party of a sitting president usually suffers losses in midterm congressional elections, there’s certainly a strong possibility that the Republicans will regain the House or the Senate, or both, in 2022. But unless checked right away, Republican-controlled state legislatures will be hell-bent on curtailing voting rights and turning probability into certainty — and then imposing Jim Crow 2.0 as the law of much of the land. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln at another moment of maximum danger for democracy, the tug has to come, and better that it should come now instead of later.
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