Republican Claims That the Filibuster Helped Civil Rights

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A few weeks ago, Republicans vigorously defended the filibuster against allegations that it was a Jim Crow relic. Sure, they admitted it was used to block some civil rights laws here and there, but many tactics have been used to block civil rights laws. Are they all racist too? Huh? (Yes, that was really her argument.)

But now that the Wall Street Journal is apparently unhappy with its only defensive history of the filibuster, it has a column defending it as an active contribution to the triumph of civil rights. The thesis of the article is captured by this surreal heading: “The filibuster made the civil rights law possible.” Author David Hoppe is a longtime Republican who has worked for Republicans like Paul Ryan and Trent Lott and has stood behind the scenes for his party for more than a decade and a half to uphold super-majority requirements.

Hoppe’s bizarre story begins with a very brief admission. “Between 1917 and 1964 there were several successful filibusters of civil rights legislation.” Hoppe goes to the end quickly, but it’s worth thinking about what happened here. During this period of almost 50 years, the filibuster prevented almost all civil rights measures from going to a vote in the Senate. Even extremely modest lynching prevention bills were routinely blocked.

This was the time when the filibuster took shape. Jim Crow was the essential background for its creation. The Senate would never have tolerated a two-thirds requirement for all laws for so long. The filibuster could only survive that long because there was a broad understanding that the white south had a particular interest in blocking civil rights laws, and the filibuster would be reserved primarily for that purpose. This understanding was a result of the implicit peace between white northerners and white southerners, which was based on the latter disenfranchising and oppressing their black population without interfering.

That half-century period of Senator’s shame finally ended when the Northern Liberal Democrats took control of the Democratic Party, which then used overwhelming super majors to get rid of its Dixiecrat contingent.

Hoppe presents the story differently. In his narrative, it was worth waiting decade after decade through a violent regime of white supremacy, as the Civil Rights Act eventually passed the right way by amassing a super-majority and engaging in extensive debate. The 1964 Civil Rights Act:

began with a Mansfield meeting with Georgia Democrat Richard Russell, chairman of Senators who opposed the Civil Rights Act. Mansfield promised there would be no tricks, and he would keep Russell fully informed of Mansfield’s actions as he led the bill through the floor debate. …

Above all, the Senate and the country saw an open process that gave the minority every opportunity to debate and table amendments. They saw the leaders of both parties in the Senate work to collect the 67 votes that were then required to break the debate and pass a law that extended civil rights to black Americans in the United States

The most important point to understand is that Hoppe’s report does not show that the filibuster “actually played a crucial role in getting civil rights laws passed.” It simply shows that civil rights activists managed to win enough votes to overcome the filibuster.

If at any time during these decades you had suggested to civil rights attorneys or segregationists that the filibuster was in any way helpful to the civil rights issue, they would have laughed you out of the room. Hoppe’s argument is ridiculously ahistorical.

If the Senate had worked a majority and Calvin Coolidge or Franklin Roosevelt were allowed to sign a law against lynching, Hoppe implies that the civil rights outcome would have been somehow worse. He doesn’t make this case outright, perhaps because an explicit position would reveal how absurd it is.

Instead, he claims that civil rights activists simply had to wait until the moment was right, arguing that the filibuster made a long debate possible:

It had something to do with the way the law was passed – not by a simple majority imposing their will on the minority, but by allowing both sides to discuss their case at length by allowing the Legislative process of debate and change unhindered from gathering the votes needed to show the country that it needs to change the law by leading the country through months of discussion and compromise by the highest expectations of Founder, Mansfield , Dirksen and other senators who have built support for a law in the country are required.

Hoppe’s claim that civil rights laws took many decades to build public support is wrong. As Adam Jentleson points out, many civil rights blocked by the filibuster had received overwhelming public support: in 1941, 63 percent of the American public voted for an end to the election tax. In 1937, 72 percent supported anti-lynch laws. The filibuster did not force proponents to establish a clear mandate, it merely allowed opponents of civil rights to oppose the public.

Hoppe’s argument also echoes Dixiecrat’s propaganda that the purpose of the civil rights filibusters was to facilitate debate. As Jentleson’s book also shows, the Dixiecrats’ preferred method of blocking civil rights laws was to bury them before getting into the Senate to prevent any debate from ever starting. The method of stopping them with endless conversation was a last resort when the usual methods failed. They didn’t care about the debate; They wanted to kill civil rights by any method they could.

Some proponents of the filibuster reform have suggested measures to allow for widespread debate without the requirement of super-majority. But today’s reactionary filibuster proponents oppose such reforms. They too use the debate as a pretext for what is really important to them: maintaining the super-majority requirement as a lever to block the progress of progress.

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