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John C. Calhoun and the Racist Roots of the Senate Filibuster

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Friday, January 22, 2021

Following are excerpted portions of the in-depth interview, which may be read in its entirety, or heard, via the link at the end this entry.

Book ‘Kill Switch’ Examines The Racist History Of The Senate Filibuster

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Congress is trying to return to normal after the insurrection. But what is normal? There are more threats of violence surrounding the inauguration. The norm-breaking that became the norm during the Trump presidency is about to change with the Biden administration. Another change will be the new Democratic majority in the Senate. After newly elected Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are sworn in, the Senate will be evenly divided, 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats. But Vice President Kamala Harris will have the tie-breaking vote.

But how much power does that actually give Democrats in the Senate? A majority is not enough to pass legislation anymore and hasn’t been for a long time because of the modern use of the filibuster. It takes three-fifths of the Senate to override a filibuster, which means the minority only needs 41 votes to prevent any bill from even coming to a vote. My guest Adam Jentleson says the modern use of the filibuster has crippled American democracy, enabling the minority to systematically block bills favored by the majority. He’s the author of the new book, “Kill Switch,” about the rise of the modern Senate. He knows the ins and outs of Senate rules because he worked as Harry Reid’s deputy chief of staff when Reid was the Democratic leader. Jentleson joined Reid’s staff in 2010 and stayed until 2017.

“Kill Switch” is a history of how the filibuster started as a tool of Southern senators upholding slavery, and then later was used as a tool to block civil rights legislation. The book concludes with Senator Mitch McConnell’s advances in the use of filibuster as an obstructionist tool. Jentleson is now public affairs director at Democracy Forward, which was founded in 2017 to fight corruption in the executive branch.

ADAM JENTLESON: Slowly, over the course of time, but primarily to serve the interests of slave states and try to preserve slavery against the march of progress and a growing majority of both states and Americans who wanted to abolish slavery. The filibuster did not exist in name or practice until about the middle of the 19th century. So this was well after all of the Founding Fathers had passed away. James Madison was one of the longest lived and an ardent opponent of the filibuster to the extent that it sort of was coming into existence in the 1830s. And he passed away in the early 1830s.

John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), United States Representative of South Carolina-CD6, 10th Secretary of War, 16th Secretary of State, Senator of South Carolina, and 7th Vice President (1825-1832), ardent slavery proponent, and slave owner.

So the progenitor of the filibuster, its main innovator, was John C. Calhoun, the great nullifier, the leader, father of the Confederacy. And Calhoun innovated the filibuster for the specific purpose of empowering the planter class. He was a senator from South Carolina. His main patrons were the powerful planters. And he was seeking to create a regional constituency to empower himself against the march of progress and against – what was becoming clear was a superior economic model in the North. So Calhoun started to innovate forms of obstruction that came to be known as the filibuster.

GROSS: So you describe John Calhoun as, like, basically, the father of the filibuster. Let’s be clear who he was. I mean, he not only wanted to protect slave owners, he argued that slavery created racial harmony and improved the lives of slaves. You quote him in the book. He said, never before has the Black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. Amazing that he could justify that slavery was improving the lives of enslaved people.

JENTLESON: That’s right. And it’s important to note at this time, you know – not to give people of that era too much credit for being enlightened. But, you know, there was a shift in public opinion going on regarding slavery in the United States. The abolitionist movement was beginning to gain traction. And, you know, while folks weren’t exactly at the enlightened state of believing in full equality, they recognized that slavery had – was, at best, a necessary evil, emphasis on the evil.

And so Calhoun took it upon himself to argue that there was nothing evil about it. In that same speech that you quoted, he went on to explain that slavery was not a necessary evil, but, quote, “a positive good.” He was such an ardent defender and such a vehement racist that he couldn’t even accept the sort of antebellum acknowledgement that there were parts of the institution that were evil. So it was very clear what his motivations were. He wanted to preserve slavery. And the filibuster was what he deployed to achieve that goal.

GROSS: So we’ve established that needing a supermajority to pass legislation was not what the founders wanted. They wanted simple majorities. You’ve talked about how the filibuster was initiated in the mid-19th century and the ways it was used to enable slave owners and to keep the institution of slavery. But you write that the only time the filibuster was used during Jim Crow with any consistency was to block any form of civil rights legislation and that this happened through the 1960s.

So give us an example of that – like, of the systematic use of the filibuster to block civil rights legislation.

JENTLESON: So what Southern senators faced starting in the 1920s was majority support for civil rights bills. These were rudimentary civil rights bills. These were anti-lynching bills and anti-poll tax bills, but they were civil rights bills nonetheless. These bills started passing the House with big majorities. They had presidents of both parties in the White House ready to sign them, and they actually had enormous public support. Gallup polled the public on anti-lynching bills in 1937 and found 70% of Americans supporting federal anti-lynching laws. And they polled anti-poll tax laws in the 1940s and found 60% support. So Southern senators started to block these bills in the name of minority rights, deploying the supermajority threshold and talking about it as a vaunted, lofty defense of minority rights, just as John Calhoun had done in his time.

This continued to be the case against every single civil rights bill that came before Congress from the time that Reconstruction ended all the way up until 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson finally was able to rally a supermajority of senators of both parties together to break a Southern filibuster against civil rights. But from the 87 years between when Reconstruction ended until 1964, the only category of legislation against which the filibuster was deployed to actively stop bills in their tracks was civil rights legislation.

GROSS: So the senator who was blocking the civil rights bill and leading the filibuster was Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. He had been LBJ’s mentor, but LBJ had become more progressive in his views and turned against Russell and defeated Russell’s filibuster. Richard Russell, that Southern senator who led the filibuster against the civil rights bill, that is the Russell that the Russell Office Building, where many senators have their office, is named after. I’m wondering if there’s any kind of movement to change the name of that building.

JENTLESON: I wish there was. There have been murmurings, but so far, not a real organized movement. And I just want to underscore how disturbing this is. And I think it points to the sort of self-mythologizing that the Senate tends to engage in. Richard Russell was, in his time, by far the most powerful senator of either party. He was never a formal leader of either party, but he wielded more power than the leaders of either party. But he was an avowed white supremacist. And I’m – this was not subtext. This was clear statements that he himself made. At one point, he declared that any Southern white man worth a pinch of salt would give his all to defend white supremacy.

And as you mentioned, Russell was the leading filibuster of civil rights bills. He came to the Senate in the 1930s and led more filibusters than any other senator against civil rights in those 30 years. Today, thousands of Senate staffers go to work every day in a building named after this avowed white supremacist. When Senator John McCain passed away, there was a brief movement to rename the building after him that was quashed by Mitch McConnell. Today, there are murmurings of trying to change the name, but so far, no organized movement.

GROSS: So you say McConnell did not want the Russell Building named after John McCain. Why not? And how did he block that?

JENTLESON: So this is interesting and something I get into in the book. There was actually a decades-long rivalry between Senator McCain and Senator McConnell that revolved around McCain’s advocacy for campaign finance reform and his passage of the famous McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act. McConnell was the Senate’s leading opponent of campaign finance reform. He was the leading advocate for loosening restrictions and getting more money into politics. This is actually sort of how he made his bones when he first got to the Senate. He learned to filibuster in the 1980s by blocking campaign finance reform efforts.

And so there was one episode in the ’90s where McConnell was so angry at McCain for his advocacy for campaign finance reform, where he led an unprecedented three-hour verbal assault against Senator McCain on the Senate floor. It was really something to behold. So they were not exactly the best of friends. I can’t say definitively that that contributed. But, you know, McCain was a maverick, and he ended his career by defying McConnell and refusing to vote for Republicans’ effort to repeal Obamacare. McCain cast the decisive vote that defeated that effort. It was a dramatic moment on the floor. He came to the floor, looked McConnell straight in the face and turned his thumb down, signaling a no vote, and walked away.

So they were not – this – and that was just a few weeks before McCain passed away. So suffice to say, they had never been the closest of friends, and they were certainly not on great terms when Senator McCain passed. I can’t say definitively that that’s the reason. But when there started to be an effort and a movement to rename the Russell Building after McCain, McConnell quickly let it known that it would never see the light of day in the Senate that he controlled, once again deploying the power of the majority leader to make clear that this bill would never come to the floor.


McConnell threatens to block Senate’s power-sharing agreement if it doesn’t preserve the filibuster

If his filibuster demands aren’t met, McConnell has threatened to block the Senate power-sharing agreement that would put Democrats in charge of the body’s committees. But Democrats already seem confident in their newfound power, with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) telling Politico that “Chuck Schumer is the majority leader and he should be treated like majority leader.” Giving in to McConnell “would be exactly the wrong way to begin,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) echoed.

Democrats Rebuff McConnell’s Filibuster Demands

Senate Democrats are signaling they will reject an effort by Mitch McConnell to protect the legislative filibuster as part of a deal to run a 50-50 Senate, saying they have little interest in bowing to his demands just hours into their new Senate majority.

McConnell has publicly and privately pressed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to work to keep the 60-vote threshold on most legislation as part of their power-sharing agreement. Democrats have no plans to gut the filibuster further, but argue it would be a mistake to take one of their tools off the table just as they’re about to govern.

Four years ago, as McConnell himself came under pressure from former President Donald Trump to gut the filibuster, 61 senators signed a letter to Senate leaders emphasizing the importance of protecting the supermajority requirement. And even now Democrats like Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia say they want to keep the filibuster, emphasizing that it drives compromise.

For that reason, the filibuster appears safe for the immediate future regardless of what happens in the coming days. If Democrats were to change it, it would likely be in response to Republicans blocking their bills repeatedly. And there’s plenty of pent-up angst in the Democratic Party, which is now in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House for the first time in more than a decade.

One Response to “John C. Calhoun and the Racist Roots of the Senate Filibuster”

  1. […] recent liberalization of cannabis laws, particularly and especially for medical use. See “Oklahoma Has Become A Free Market Utopia For Weed,” published 11/2/2020 for more detail…. Of course as well, an “unintended consequence” for ALL states which have liberalized […]


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