Democrats working to dismantle the filibuster as a major impediment to their legislative agenda say the procedural maneuver is a threat to civil rights.
They are working to reframe the push to abolish the 60-vote procedural hurdle as a fight to protect those rights and follow through on promises Democrats made to voters — particularly Black voters — who helped deliver them the White House and control of the Senate.
“The question will be for Democrats who were powered into office on the strength of Black and brown voters what they will actually do to make sure racial justice can actually rule when it comes to policies,” said Rashad Robinson, president of the civil rights advocacy group Color of Change.
“2020 showed us what racial justice can do for an election,” he said. “And now, 2021 has to be the time in which those who are in power can show us what an election can do for racial justice.”
The coming battle over the filibuster illustrates the difficulty Democrats will have in persuading their entire conference to support the action in a Senate divided evenly with Republicans. It also highlights the messaging Democrats will use — and Republicans have pushed back against — to erode the procedure viewed by many Senate traditionalists as a way to protect the minority party.
But Robinson said moves to restrict voting access in states such as Georgia have elevated the filibuster fight as Democrats try to pass federal voting protections. Senate Republicans are threatening to filibuster that legislation, requiring 60 votes for it to pass.
Democrats and Republicans each control 50 votes in the Senate, and Vice President Harris can only step in to break a tie. That means that most legislation is subject to a filibuster by Republicans.
For many Black Democrats, such as House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the threat of that blockade recalls a history of senators using the filibuster to block anti-lynching legislation and keep Jim Crow laws on the books.
“Their efforts are designed to gain power for their party by suppressing political participation by minorities,” Clyburn said. “Today, Republicans are using the big lie about the 2020 elections as a pretext to advance a litany of minority voting suppression laws.”
It is a message that many Democrats have been primed to hear for months.
Former President Barack Obama opened the door to ending filibuster in July when he advocated for federal voting rights legislation during his eulogy at the funeral of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., himself a legendary civil rights advocate.
“Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for. And by the way, naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, that is a fine tribute,” Obama said, going on to list ways voting rights could be protected.
“And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster — another Jim Crow relic — in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” he said.
Obama’s phrase, “Jim Crow relic,” has been adopted by activists and elected Democrats all the way up to President Biden. Democratic strategist Joel Payne said it is an effective way to reach people.
“Time will tell whether it is a more successful message,” he said. “But I can tell you it is a message that has more connectivity.”
Payne said the campaign against the filibuster is transforming from a technical argument into a tangible political demand to deliver things such as voting protections and pocket book issues such as a $15 minimum wage.
“We could do all these things for middle-class people,” he said. “If only we could do it with the 50-vote threshold, I think it makes it real for people as opposed to just saying, ‘Hey, the Republicans are playing unfair.’ ”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has insisted that the filibuster is neither racist nor unfair. He told reporters last week that the racial framing of the filibuster was about Democrats trying to push an election-law power grab.
“If it were related to civil rights, why were Democrats using the tool last year and the year before that and the last six years?” McConnell asked. “Why is it all of a sudden a civil rights issue when it wasn’t for them as recently as last year?”
McConnell is correct that Democrats also used it to block legislation when they were in the minority and increased the use of the filibuster in the Trump era. But historians disagree with his framing.
Kevin Kruse, a historian and professor at Princeton University, said it’s true that the filibuster was not created to block civil rights bills. But that obscures the reality of how it was used, he said.
“It’s not that the filibuster itself is inherently racist, but it has been the favorite tool of racists,” he said. “It certainly has a deep racial history.”
Kruse said both parties used the filibuster to block bills to protect the rights of Black Americans. He said people who say the filibuster forces compromise ignore that history.
“In the 1930s, the Democrats use the filibuster repeatedly to kill anti-lynching legislation,” he said. “The result of their effort, they were successful, was that that measure was dropped entirely.”
Kruse listed other examples, including efforts to filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“The result of that wasn’t some compromise,” he said. “The bill wasn’t watered down to meet their needs, instead in fact was strengthened. So this idea that the filibuster leads to compromise is simply ridiculous, and if you look at the racial history of it, you can see that entirely.”
The shift in framing of the filibuster may be energizing activists and some within the Democratic Party, but the question remains if it will move filibuster defenders such as Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Democrats would need to vote unanimously to get rid of the procedural blockade.
Robinson of Color of Change said the decision to keep the filibuster or dismantle it to pass progressive policies could make a significant difference in maintaining the coalition that elected Democrats in 2020.
“We’ll be watching,” he said. “We’ll be pushing, and we will be there in 2022 to fight, but the question will be, is what will Democrats give us to fight for?”