The Filibuster & Polarization

From the Editors | The Filibuster & Polarization: Symptom, Cause, or Cure? | Issue 3 | april 6, 2021

Imagine two large parts of a family get together every year for a reunion, and each family member, even small children, gets to vote on where to meet. Some prefer beaches, some mountains; some seek adventure, others convenience. 

This works surprisingly well, for a while. When stalemates occur, compromises are reached. But slowly, then quickly, site selection becomes difficult, and then impossible. Now the kids are grown up with ideas of their own; maybe they don’t really like the rest of the family so much. No  site is selected one year, and soon for several years running. The families grow further apart.

That’s pretty much the status of the U.S. Senate as debate continues whether to fully “nuke” the filibuster. “Nuke” in this context is an awkward way of saying that the voting threshold for legislation should be reduced from the current (and often impossible) 60 votes to a more realistic (if more partisan) 51 votes. Not surprisingly, that is just about the number Democrats theoretically have in the current Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker. But only if all 50 Democrats are with the program, which is not currently not the case with the filibuster reform or removal. See articles below on centrist Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Krystin Sinema who, in different ways, both seek to retain the filibuster. 

The Bipartisan

“My friends, we are again met on the field of political competition with our fellow countrymen. It is more than appropriate, it is necessary that even in times of crisis we have these contests, and engage in spirited disagreement over the shape and course of our government.”

— Sen. John McCain (R-AZ, 1987-2018)

The compromiser

“We shouldn’t deny the right of the minority to filibuster, but we need to do a much better job of making them own it. That way, the American people could figure out who is being obstructionist and who is willing to compromise.”

— Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO, 2007–2019)

The progressive

“We’ve seen filibusters of bills and nominations that ultimately passed with 90 or more votes. Why filibuster something that has that kind of support? Just to slow down the process and keep the Senate from working.”

— Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA, 2013-present)

The institutionalist

“That’s what the Senate is about. It’s the last bastion of minority rights, where a minority can be heard, where a minority can stand on its feet, one individual if necessary, and speak until he falls into the dust.”

— Sen. Robert Byrd (WV 1959-2010; Majority Leader, 1977-1981; 1987-1989)

The conservative

“The consequences of eliminating the filibuster, though, would go far beyond the Senate. It would knock a load-bearing wall out of our representative democracy.”

— Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY, 1997-2021)

The conservative in flip-flops

“You disparage the Republicans’ view that 51 votes should be enough for judicial confirmation. Yet the 51-vote rule is a consistent Senate tradition. By calling for an end to filibusters, the Senate is simply contemplating restoring its traditions by traditional methods you disparage as ‘nuclear.’ ”

— From a New York Times letter to the editor, March 2005 Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX, 2002-present)

The democrat in flip-flops

“If you’re not able to get 60 votes on something, it just means you haven’t worked hard enough, talking to enough people.”

— Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, 2019 (D-NY, 2009-present)

Highlights & Insights from the Purple Principle

purple principle episode artwork with podcast guests jilian youngblood and dr. steve kull

“When you look at…the basis for the Citizen Panel initiative, you see something pretty wild. Which is that even in very red districts and very blue districts across the country, these 150+ proposals that we talk about in this initiative, they have majority support in the most conservative and the most liberal districts in the country…That really is pretty hard to refute. I just think that party identity is kind of uninteresting in this conversation. The thing we should be getting at is finding a way to achieve our shared values.”

— Jillian Youngblood, Executive Director, Civic Genius

“It’s a very shortsighted position to eliminate the filibuster to get the things done you want done on your agenda. Because if there’s one thing we know about the United States Senate, it won’t be in the control of one party or the other for all that long. And that day of reckoning will come.”

— Richard Arenberg, veteran Senate staffer, Interim Director of the Taubman Center, Brown University
purple principle episode artwork with heashot of podcast guests Adam Jentleson and Richard Arenberg

What We’re Reading

Democrats would struggle to pass votings rights, immigration overhaul even without filibuster

The Washington Post

Despite growing support for ambitious legislation among Democrats, centrists are reluctant to eliminate the filibuster to achieve these goals.

Progressives Need the Filibuster

The Wall Street Journal

Richard Arenberg, a guest on a forthcoming Purple Principle episode, makes the case (along with former Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin) for reinstating the talking filibuster to increase accountability of those who use and abuse it.

Joe Biden May Have Only 2 Years to Get Things Done

The New York Times

TPP guest Adam Jentleson asserts that Mitch McConnell will use the filibuster to ensure that Pres. Biden cannot deliver on his promise of a bipartisan legislative agenda, therefore Democrats must eliminate it before the GOP takes back the Senate majority.

A Short History of the Filibuster

History Net

Colorful background on the filibuster with a special focus on the most dramatic episodes in history.

In Washington, Policy Revolves Around Joe Manchin. He Likes It That Way.

The New York Times

Highlights Senator Manchin’s consistent if surprising pro-filibuster position since killing the filibuster might increase his current political influence. Also gives background on Manchin’s as a unique swing vote whose ideology does not align with either party.

Will Kyrsten Sinema Change Her Mind?

The Atlantic

An excellent profile of the most pro-filibuster Senate Democrat, as Sinema even supports bringing the filibuster back for judicial nominations. Also details her political evolution from “bomb throwing” progressive to centrist Democrat and frequent bipartisan.

McConnell Threatens ‘100-Car Pile Up’ In Senate If Democrats Nuke Filibuster


Important details on the Minority Leader’s retaliatory threats should the filibuster be repealed.

The Filibuster Isn’t the Key to Bipartisanship. I Know This Firsthand


Former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, known for bipartisan legislation, asserts the filibuster is unnecessary for bipartisanship and an obstacle to it. Note, however, that while in the Senate, Feingold was a strong supporter of the filibuster, but his position has since evolved.

Democrats can’t kill the filibuster. But they can gut it

The Washington Post

Well-known, respected and, not coincidentally, centrist political scientist Norm Ornstein analyzes several possible filibuster reforms.

Adam Jentleson, former Chief of Staff to Majority Leader Harry Reid (2011-2016), is one of the most articulate and convincing of the progressive advocates for removal of the filibuster from the Senate rule book. He’s a featured guest on our upcoming Season Two episode, “The Senate Filibuster: Weapon for Obstructionists or Shield Against Partisans?”

“By the time I arrived in the Senate, the tool developed by southern senators to block civil rights bills…had come to be applied to all Senate business. Today, it is the norm for pragmatic solutions to urgent problems of all kinds, backed by broad majorities in Congress and the public, to fail in the face of obstruction by a minority of senators.”

Study Worth Studying

Filibuster Change and Judicial Appointments

This empirical study finds that judicial polarization tends to increase without the important ideological checks and balances provided by the filibuster mechanism in judicial appointments. And it suggests the same could occur with removal of the legislative filibuster.

Poll Worth Pondering

Almost half say filibuster should remain in place 

A plurality of independents say the filibuster should remain unchanged while a majority of Republicans say the same. By contrast, a plurality of Democrats say it should be reformed but not eliminated. And amongst all voters,  total elimination is the least popular option and keeping it unchanged narrowly beats out partial reform, although no position enjoys majority support. Hence, the debate goes on.

The Primary Problem

This recently-published report by the bipartisan group Unite America finds that despite the record number of voters who turned out for the 2020 election, only 10% of them had a real say in electing the super-majority, or 83% of Congressional candidates. According to the study, this dramatic disparity is due to a combination of factors, including gerrymandering, closed primaries, and the geographical self-sorting. Please check out our interview with Charles Wheelan, Founder and Co-Director of Unite America, on Season 1, Episode 2: “The Front Lines of Partisanship.”

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