Sinema’s Place on the Filibuster Echoes Goldwater’s Case In opposition to Civil Rights

Glad. Kyrsten cinema. (Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

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Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s recent reasons for supporting the law filibuster – and effectively killing the voting legislation for the near future – reminded me of another flimsy political argument. But whose? It took me a day to make the connection.

Alongside Conservative Texas Senator John Cornyn, Sinema piously told reporters that progress in the Senate will require senators to “change the behavior” rather than the “rules.” It was belatedly to me that she was repeating the way her predecessor, the late GOP Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, put his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964: “This is basically an affair of the heart. The problems of discrimination can never be cured by law alone. “Or as he later told a crowd:”You can’t pass a law that makes me like you or you like me. It can only happen in our hearts. ”(To be fair, he supported equal voting and education rights, but opposed the widespread use of the law on some public and private housing.)

Despite Goldwater’s famous 1964 presidential slogan, “In your heart you know he’s right,” I think both Arizona senators knew they were wrong but were peddling a selfish political argument nonetheless. Goldwater lost the battle – Lyndon Johnson shattered him in November – but won the war, with his henchmen taking over the GOP and moving it all the way to the right (too far right for Goldwater, he said before he died.) Sinema has no henchmen; her fight is for herself. But she could end up doing the same thing as Goldwater and sharply shifting the country again to the right with her ill-informed crusade against the filibuster.

It is strangely fitting that Sinema should draw from the old anti-civil rights playbook. For years, racist conservatives have claimed that ending discrimination against blacks is about changing “hearts and minds”, not laws. Gunnar Myrdal’s hugely influential 1944 treatise, An America Dilemma, on American racial relations, while groundbreaking in many ways, nonetheless concluded that racism “a problem in the heart of the AmericanThe decisive battle continues there. “ Though not his intent, Myrdal’s scholarship helped civil rights opponents and even some liberals argue that the issue of race was personal, and not political.

Or as Sinema could argue, one that requires people to “change their behavior” and not focus on “rules” and laws.

But Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said of those who claimed that laws “cannot change hearts”: “It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important too. ”(King also noted that laws“ Regulate behavior “, which Sinema should also think about.)

Aside from a rhetorical echo, it may seem an exaggeration to combine Sinema’s claim about obscure Senate rules with Goldwater’s rejection of civil rights laws. It is not. What did opponents of civil rights laws use other than “heart and mind” arguments? Right: the filibuster.

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“The filibuster idea,” Sinema falsely claimed, “was invented by those who came before us in the US Senate to create community and encourage senators to be bipartisan and work together.” In fact, the founders rejected the idea of ​​a super majority completely off; it became part of Senate rules in the mid-19th century for reasons no one can fully explain, but hasn’t been used much in that century other than to block anti-slavery laws as it happens.

And its heyday – before the reign of GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell – was in the 1950s and 60s, Goldwater’s time when racist white senators used it to block civil rights legislation.

As Adam Jentleson writes in his invaluable 2020 book Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of Democracy: “The main purpose of the filibuster was to enable a minority of predominantly white conservatives to override our democratic system when they were numerically inferior.” He notes that in the nearly nine decades between the end of the reconstruction and 1964, “the only bills that were stopped by filibusters were civil rights laws”. A bipartisan team of opponents, but mostly Southern Democrats, filibusted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for about two months before it was finally passed. (Back then, senators actually had to speak and hold the floor to make filibusters; now all they have to do is vote to block the debate.)

D.Does Sinema know this story of the filibuster? Did she know it was echoing Goldwater? She doesn’t seem like someone who has Rick Perlstein’s great Goldwater story Before the storm on her bookshelf. But Jentleson’s analysis of the filibuster’s history is now well known, at least among liberals: Few books have shattered our amber-tinted history forgeries faster than Jentleson’s. If Sinema doesn’t know this story, she should know.

The Democrats’ other major filibuster opponent, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, offers slightly different arguments, but perhaps more importantly, it appeals to an entirely different, more conservative constituency. The once red Arizona is changing rapidly, not only demographically but also politically. Not only did it vote for Sinema in 2020, it also voted Senator Mark Kelly (who says he would consider filibuster reform) and Joe Biden in 2020 (West Virginia voted for Trump with almost 40 points). Arizona is the site of a wingnut guerrilla test of the November vote of Democratic Maricopa County that upset even some Republicans. Sinema may find that their refusal to do what is necessary to protect their state’s voters is not well received.

Phyllis Schlafly’s famous 1964 Goldwater endorsement was called “A Choice, Not An Echo”. We hope the Arizona Democratic primary voters have a choice in 2024, not an echo of Goldwater.

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