THE SPINE MARCH 7, 2010
When I was growing up, the filibuster was hardly ever used--except, of course, by the Dixiecrats (southern Democratic senators, racists mostly) and some conservative Republicans. When civil rights legislation was introduced by liberal Democrats, the right wing of the party would mobilize and stage real filibusters, senators often orating for a dozen hours at a time and then leaving the podium only for another recalcitrant. These legislators did not much disguise their intentions in procedural balderdash. They made it clear that they wanted no change in the political or social status of the “nigras,” which is how the more civilized of the southern solons referred to the Negroes for whom the less civilized senators used what they knew to be an uncivilized nomenclature.
The use of the filibuster has a long history, and it was an issue in the platform deliberations (yes, there were actual debates and real votes back then) at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, at which a civil rights leadership formed under Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey, and the nomination of Harry Truman was secured. But desegregation was still to struggle on. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown. v. Board of Education. Still, the struggle went on and was repelled by the old filibuster and the filibusterers. One significant coda to this fight was the Southern Manifesto attacking the judicial ruling. It was signed by that pompous and insincere “great liberal,” J. William Fulbright. Fulbright also participated in the filibuster against civil rights legislation finally passed and won by President Johnson.
Filibusters came up from time to time in the Senate after 1964. But they were widely seen as antediluvian, even by Republicans. And an embarrassment.
Of late, the filibuster has been threatened and used with greater frequency and fervor, as the editorial in the current issue of TNR points out--mostly by Republicans, although Democrats also organized such anti-democratic rumps before they retook the Senate in 2006.
These rumps are a great reverse for the political culture, in that they cripple the process which free discussion and orderly negotiations had tried to safeguard. Of course, this inflammation of procedure is the result of the inflammation of the political community, which used to assume and accept the triumph of majority rule.
No one can say that, in this health care debate, the president and his (mostly flatfooted) allies in the Senate and House have not put forward and accepted from the opposition all kinds of compromise. That these have not been enough suggests perhaps not the defeat but a long sleep for majority rule.