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The Tide Is Turning Against the Filibuster

During his eulogy for John Lewis, Barack Obama seemed keen to bury the Senate's procedural relic once and for all.

Alyssa Pointer/Getty Images

At Thursday’s funeral for Georgia Representative John Lewis, former President Barack Obama delivered a eulogy that’s made political waves and might very well shape a Biden presidency. The best way to honor Lewis, Obama said, would be to continue the fight for the democratic rights he’d stood up for during the civil rights movement. That would include passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which repairs the damage the Supreme Court did to the original Voting Rights Act in 2013 and revamps the federal government’s ability to regulate election laws. But Obama also pressed for much more, including automatic voter registration, an end to partisan gerrymandering, an Election Day holiday, and statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. “And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster—another Jim Crow relic—in order to secure the God-given rights of every American,” he concluded, “then that’s what we should do.”

If the speech winds up becoming as consequential as many hope it will be—a tipping point that pushes hesitant Democrats and Biden himself to finally voice open support for ending the filibuster and making Biden’s agenda possible—it won’t be because Obama hadn’t previously spoken out against the filibuster. He argued for eliminating its “routine use” in an interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein in 2015, and in a 2018 interview with David Axelrod, he said that the filibuster makes it “impossible for us to effectively govern,” given the intransigence of Republicans.

Rather, Obama’s remark on the filibuster this time around was made significant by the novel framing: the argument, made at the funeral of a civil rights hero, that the filibuster should be understood by Democratic voters and leaders alike as a vestige of our racist past. This isn’t strictly true. While it was used to great and notorious effect against civil rights legislation, the filibuster first emerged essentially as a procedural accident and began its evolution toward its current form in a dispute over arming merchant ships during World War I. But highlighting the filibuster’s role in sustaining institutional racism dramatizes the issue in a way that gives it a new political valence⁠. From here on out, Democrats who oppose eliminating the filibuster will be asked to explain their defense of a practice that the most revered figure in Democratic politics has called a “Jim Crow relic.”

Obama’s eulogy might have offered some clarity, too, about when the actual moment of truth for the filibuster might finally arrive. It’s been speculated that a Democratic Senate could do away with it in the course of advancing healthcare, climate, or coronavirus relief legislation. Obama’s eulogy, the emphasis Democratic leaders have placed on voting rights over the last few years, and the likelihood that November’s election will be a logistical debacle all suggest instead that the final showdown might occur over a popular Democratic reform package. This makes a great deal of strategic sense: It would presumably be harder for Democratic moderates to uphold the filibuster and functionally block a bill on gerrymandering and expanding voter registration than it would be for them to do the same on a more contentious policy bill.

It’s nevertheless possible that they’d still buck the party and defend the filibuster all the same, particularly if, as Obama advocated, the reforms in question include statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico. No matter what happens, agitation from progressive activists will be critical. And, perhaps crucially, the eulogy will make it more difficult for the press and moderates to frame them as naive radicals at odds with the party, at least on this particular issue.

As ought to have been expected, figures on the right have already begun accusing Obama of rank hypocrisy and of fomenting division. Tucker Carlson called him “greasy” and “one of the sleaziest and most dishonest figures” in American political history on Thursday. More substantively, Representative Matt Gaetz pointed out in a recent Fox interview that Obama had endorsed and used the filibuster as a senator during the Bush administration. It’s possible that line of criticism—that the filibuster’s elimination will be a power grab rather than an act of principle—could find some purchase among the public beyond conservative circles once a filibuster fight gets underway. A Hill/HarrisX poll last year found that most voters, including nearly half of Democratic voters, opposed limiting the filibuster’s use. Those numbers might shift with a partisan transfer of power, but as it stands, most of the data we have suggests that voters generally aren’t terribly supportive of or invested in the most ambitious structural reforms progressives have been discussing since 2016.

Only time will tell whether most will be convinced that the filibuster is a racist relic as easily as Democrats probably will. And another extant mainstream justification for its elimination, the Republican refusal to compromise, may be actively counterproductive ⁠as it reinforces the political mentality that has made the filibuster so durable in the first place—that compromise is inherently good and a goal worth striving for. The rhetorical project for progressives to take on is dismantling bipartisanship as a political value by convincing ordinary voters not only that the current Republican Party can’t be worked with but also that our politics in general should be about implementing policies that serve the American people well, rather than consensus for consensus’ sake. For reasons that should be obvious, Obama isn’t an ideal messenger for that particular idea.