Filibuster, personal style

The filibuster, which is now virtually automatic under Mitch McConnell, was introduced in the Senate over two hundred years ago by the advocates of a free market that included slave labor, men like South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun (pictured below), spokesman for the Peculiar Institution and perfecter of the modern filibuster [1].   It is a parliamentary device designed to defeat any proposal by cutting off all debate in the Senate [2].  The filibuster doesn’t just stop a vote on a proposed law, it blocks public discussion of the proposal in the Senate.  

Think about that for a second, the tyrannical nature of that parliamentary move, an increasingly popular political ploy, with no constitutional support, that can presently be launched by any one senator in the minority party and requiring a super-majority to defeat.   It rests on the idea that if people heard the argument, heard the reasons the policy was desirable, our side would lose.  The only way to prevail, particularly if the act would be wildly popular, is to kill the idea before it can make its case.

So it is between people sometimes.  If I am afraid of something you have to say, for any reason, I can filibuster you simply by making clear my refusal to talk about it.  End of story.  Good night and have a very nice day.


Mitch McConnell’s claim that “the filibuster is the essence of the Senate” has been tossed aside by his opponents as bad history, violently inconsistent with how Jefferson, Hamilton or Madison aimed to structure the Senate, and perhaps even unconstitutional. All true. But what McConnell’s screed should remind us is that the filibuster has always been the essence of the politics of white supremacy — even as it now poses a broader threat to democracy itself.

McConnell draws on a playbook stretching back to John C. Calhoun, who as vice president in 1841 forged the filibuster into a conscious instrument to block majoritarian democracy as part of his project of creating a durable framework for slavery in a nation he knew would eventually vote against it. Calhoun, generations of Southern senators and now McConnell have shared a determination that majority votes should not be the last word in the United States. Privileged minorities should be able to override the will of the entire people — if their interests are endangered. Yes, Calhoun was focused on slavery and race, but his first filibuster was over national banking. The interest he sought to  protect from a national majority was that of the South as a region, extending beyond slavery to issues like tariffs. . .

. . . While  the filibuster — the essence of Mitch McConnell’s Senate — is the most powerful weapon the right-wing opponents of democracy have seized, Republicans in 2020 are deploying the full panoply of anti-democratic strategies devised over two and a quarter centuries by Calhoun’s followers. The most important campaigns being waged by conservatives at this moment emphasize the spread of gerrymandered districts, purged voter rolls, legalized bribery, a politicized judiciary, state pre-emption of local home rule and crippling the executive authority of majoritarian governors, even Republican ones.



Gardenier was one of the earliest champions of the filibuster, a term that refers to the use of obstructive tactics such as long, dilatory speeches and the repeated introduction of parliamentary motions to block or delay legislation. Today, filibustering is almost exclusively associated with the Senate, where individual Senators wield extraordinary power over debate. In the modern House, on the other hand, the majority party rules, and individual Members have little influence concerning the course of debate; over the years, the House, which is more than four times the size of the Senate, has developed rules which strictly control who can speak and for how long.

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