The modern filibuster is the greatest impediment to progress our nation faces. Rooted in decades of racism, the filibuster is a longstanding tool of white supremacy that has been perverted and abused to uphold systems of oppression. Today, without stepping foot into the Senate, a single senator can write an email stating they intend to filibuster and hold up critical legislation supported by the majority of the American people, just by hitting send.
As a kid, I remember learning about the filibuster in public school as teachers taught the basics of civics and how legislation is passed. My grade school understanding went something like this: When one powerful person does not like the direction of progress, he stands up and talks for hours on end to bring it all to a screeching halt. I'm guessing you were taught something similar. It wasn't until recently I came to understand the deep roots of oppression that drive the detrimental use of the filibuster. As a surprise to no one, our grade school lessons left out the central organizing principle: racism. As it turns out, filibusters are much more than impassioned speeches. They are a deliberate way to suppress progress.
The filibuster, which is not a part of the Constitution, first came into practice in the mid-19th century. With a system of government functioning as the Founding Fathers intended, there was one issue before the Senate that pulled at the heartstrings of the white male leadership so deeply, that the filibuster emerged: The abolition of slavery. Just as there was a shift in public opinion regarding slavery in the United States and the abolitionist movement gained steam, John Calhoun a senator from the South, adamantly defended slave owners and the interests of white Southerners. Calhoun so loved slavery that he often argued it was "a positive good" for slaves themselves and began to stymie all legislation that challenged the institution of slavery. And so the filibuster was born as a tool to block any sign of progress for Black America.
For 87 years, as the United States fought for freedom, civil rights bills that came before Congress were met with the obstructionist fury of the Southern filibuster, which was used to impede every path to progress and prevent the federal government from intervening in racial segregation. During those years, it was the only category of legislation in which the filibuster was used to actively thwart bills. And there we learned that a racist senator can speak for hours on end to keep a Black woman from riding the bus. For many years, the filibuster was an extraordinary action only used on specific issues, and it wasn't until more recently with an increasingly polarized divide between parties that the use of the filibuster became the new normal. America's first Black president, Barack Obama, met more filibusters aimed to thwart his legislation than in the '50s, '60s, and '70s combined.
Today, any senator who objects to a bill has the power to completely derail its progression through the filibuster. Instead of needing a simple majority of 51 votes, the filibuster creates a need for at least 60 votes to pass almost every single piece of legislation. This empowers the minority to block the will of voters and the American public. Even if one party holds the House, the Senate, and the White House, the will of the American majority who elected them can't move forward with the filibuster in place. This is an undemocratic process that our broken democracy continues to uphold. What we have now is a system that no longer works, one where democracy struggles to function, and progress has been rendered nearly impossible. The United States faces major crises demanding urgent legislation on universal health care, climate change, criminal justice, and immigration reforms, housing affordability, living wage, the growing child care crisis, and critical democracy reforms.
Today, the filibuster's racist structure is rearing its ugly head once again as Republicans aim to use it to dismantle the voting rights of millions of Black Americans. Republicans across the country, including right here in San Luis Obispo County, are hard at work to oppress the vote. Republicans are aiming to use their power to make it more difficult to vote, as well as redraw congressional maps in their favor in the 2021 redistricting process, a desperate move to manipulate electoral outcomes heading into the 2022 midterm elections and for years to come. Landmark legislation like the For the People Act (H.R.1/S.1) and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would bring about the most sweeping reform of our electoral laws since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If passed, the For the People Act would implement nonpartisan redistricting commissions, end gerrymandering, expand voting rights, and enact campaign finance reform, giving us our best shot at meeting these systemic challenges and creating an inclusive path forward. But with the filibuster in play, such legislation will never pass with the narrow majority held by the Democratic Senate.
These reforms are not radical. Expanding voting rights benefits everyone and would allow America to build the practical, inclusive democracy that the filibuster has kept us from. If America is to be a democracy at all and a place that works for the people, the filibuster must go. Δ
Quinn Brady (she/her) is a community advocate, organizer and mother on the Central Coast. Send a response for publication to email@example.com