OK, But What About All The Times The Filibuster HELPED Pass Civil Rights? (Spoiler: There Were None)
Gross old racist and filibustermeister Strom Thurmond. Photo by John Mathew Smith, Creative Commons license 2.0

As the conversation continues regarding killing off or at least reforming the legislative filibuster, defenders of the old relic of Jim Crow have been insisting that nah, it's not actually a relic of Jim Crow, despite it being used almost exclusively to defeat civil rights laws for most of the 20th century. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently flat-out lied that the filibuster had "no racial history," which is demonstrably untrue. Other filibuster defenders have insisted that while it was indeed used to block civil rights, the rule is necessary to protect the "rights" of the political minority, namely, the right to veto anything Democrats propose. But now, in a triumph of doublethink, the Wall Street Journal has published a thoroughly dishonest op-ed arguing that the filibuster was the very best friend of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Just like Gamera was the friend of little children everywhere, at least when not stomping their homes flat.

You don't really need to read David Hoppe's op-ed, because it's very effectively eviscerated by New York magazine's Jonathan Chait, who has little patience for Hoppe's disingenuous history flummery. Now that's worth a read! Hoppe gets things exactly wrong, arguing that somehow a rule designed to thwart progress on civil rights actually resulted in better law, apparently on the principle that the more obscene the roadblocks put in its place, the greater achievement the final law was.

Hoppe does at least acknowledge that, sure, for nearly a half century, "there were several successful filibusters of civil-rights legislation between 1917 and 1964," as if that were a curious side effect rather than the entire segregationist game. As Chait points out, until the '60s, the filibuster was used exclusively to block civil rights legislation, and that's it:

Jim Crow was the essential backdrop to its formation. The Senate never would have tolerated a two-thirds requirement for all legislation for so long. The filibuster was only able to survive this long because of a broad understanding that the white South had a special interest in blocking civil-rights laws, and the filibuster would be reserved principally for this purpose. That understanding was an outgrowth of the implicit peace between white northerners and white Southerners, which rested on the latter being permitted to disenfranchise and oppress its Black population without interference from the former.

But in Hoppe's creative telling, the filibuster was absolutely essential to passing the Civil Rights Act, mostly by blocking it for months. But hooray, that just meant it felt more earned when northern Democrats and northern Republicans finally got together the 67 votes that at long last ended debate, because all the important big ideas had been thoroughly examined, you see?

Chait ain't buying it, pointing out that nothing in the filibuster itself made the bill better or more likely to be accepted in the South. Instead,

It simply shows that civil-rights advocates managed to win enough votes to overcome the filibuster.

If you had suggested at any time during these decades either to civil-rights advocates or to segregationists that the filibuster was somehow helpful to the civil-rights cause, they'd have laughed you out of the room. Hoppe's argument is ludicrously ahistorical.

Hoppe doesn't go so far as to suggest that the cause of civil rights would have been set back if Calvin Coolidge or FDR had been able to pass anti-lynching laws with a simple majority, because, Chait suggests, "making his position explicit would reveal how preposterous it is."

Chait also dismisses Hoppe's claim that the filibuster allowed for time for the idea of equality before the law to find adequate public support.

As Adam Jentleson points out, many civil-rights bills that were blocked by the the filibuster had enjoyed overwhelming public support: In 1941, 63 percent of the American public favored ending the poll tax. In 1937, 72 percent supported anti-lynching laws.

Thanks to the filibuster, that friend of civil rights, Southern Democrats managed to block such laws again and again, in defiance of the majority. Oh, hello, 90 percent support for universal background checks for gun purchases, same for you, too!

Finally, Hoppe's op-ed "repeats the hoary Dixiecrat propaganda that the purpose of the civil-rights filibusters was to permit debate," when in reality, segregationists far preferred to deep-six any civil rights bills before they ever got debated. The dear old talking filibuster wasn't about debate, it was about delay. Dixiecrats "didn't care about debate; they wanted to kill civil rights by whatever method they could."

But maybe if enough people can just be convinced that the filibuster is a noble old tradition, progress can keep being held up. Let's not forget that Hoppe served as chief of staff for former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), who praised that great master of the filibuster, Strom Thurmond. Thurmond's 24-hour speech blocking the 1957 civil rights act still holds the record for the longest by any one senator. At Thurmond's 100th birthday party in 2002, Lott, then Senate majority leader, wistfully dreamed of what a much nicer place America would have been if the old Dixiecrat and segregationist had won the 1948 presidential election:

I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either.

That would be the campaign in which Thurmond's platform declared "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race." Lott later tried to clarify he hadn't been talking about Thurmond's stance on segregation, which was kind of the entire thing in '48, but rather about what a great person Thurmond had been. That didn't wash, either, and Lott eventually resigned as majority leader, a quaint old example of how people could once be shamed out of power.

In conclusion, the filibuster has a rich storied history as a tool of preventing progress, and no amount of perfume and sparkles will change that. Saying it "made the Civil Rights Act possible" is like saying cancer is pretty spiffy because it's so good at bringing families together.


[WSJ / New York / Photo by John Mathew Smith, Creative Commons license 2.0 (cropped)]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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