Speaking at the funeral of Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) in May, 2020, former President Barack Obama called for the elimination of the Senate filibuster, which he maligned as “another Jim Crow relic.” During his four years in the Senate, Obama himself used that Jim Crow relic on two dozen occasions to block the Republican majority from bringing various bills to a floor vote.
In 2005, Obama’s second year in the Senate, Republicans — furious that Senate Democrats were using the filibuster to block President Bush’s judicial appointments — proposed the “nuclear option” to eliminate the 60-vote requirement for judicial appointments. In response, the junior Senator from Illinois took to the floor of the Senate and delivered one of his trademarked impassioned speeches in defense of this Jim Crow relic, railing against the unfairness of “one party, be it Republican or Democrat … chang[ing] the rules in the middle of the game so they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet.” He also heralded the importance of the 6o-vote requirement in the Senate for protecting the rights of the minority party: “If the right of free and open debate is taken away from the minority party and the millions of Americans who ask us to be their voice, I fear the partisan atmosphere in Washington will be poisoned to the point where no one will be able to agree on anything.”
Filibuster hypocrisy of this sort is the norm in Washington. In 2017, when Senate Democrats were in the minority under President Trump, 32 of them signed a letter urging that the filibuster be maintained on the ground that it is necessary to safeguard “the existing rights and prerogatives of Senators to engage in full, robust, and extended debate as we consider legislation before this body in the future.” Fast forward four years, when the Democrats have a 50-50 majority in the Senate with the tie-breaking vote of the Vice President, and now that very same filibuster has been transformed by them from a sacred guardian of minoritarian rights into the tell-tale sign of white nationalism and fascist contempt for democratic values.
Thus have Democrats, being Democrats, made this about so much more than hypocrisy. They have somehow managed to infuse a racial component into this long-standing and pedestrian parliamentary tactic, and converted the routine side-switching each party has done for years based on whether they are in the majority or the minority into some overarching test of moral character. Under the rubric Democrats have now created, using a filibuster is not merely an unfair and obstructionist weapon used by the minority — the standard claim invoked by each party whenever they are in the majority and their will is thwarted by it — but instead it has now become proof that whoever uses it is a racist. Speaking in Atlanta on Tuesday, President Biden alleged that anyone who continues to support a filibuster to stop his party’s voting rights legislation is choosing to “stand on the side of” George Wallace over Dr. King, Bull Connor over John Lewis, and Jefferson Davis over Abraham Lincoln. As is usually the case, this sort of racialist coercion — do what I want or you will be branded a racist — failed, as two Democratic Senators, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) promptly announced that they will continue to support the 60-vote requirement for all legislation, echoing all the arguments then-Sen. Obama made back in 2005 about the key role played by the filibuster in preserving comity and avoiding divisiveness.
But the Democrats’ view that the filibuster is racist and that only racists use it is not confined to the subtly named John Lewis Act to Protect Voting Rights. As Obama’s comments at Lewis’ funeral reflect, it is now common in Democratic Party discourse to speak of the filibuster as an inherently white nationalist tool. “Here’s Why the Filibuster Is a Jim Crow Relic,” was the headline of Jonathan Chait’s New York Magazine article from May, echoing — as he usually does — the words of Obama. Chait argued that in the past, “it was used rarely and almost always for the purpose of blocking civil-rights bills,” adding that “the filibuster exception to the general practice of majority rule was a product of an implicit understanding that the white North would grant the white South a veto on matters of white supremacy.”
That the filibuster is an inherently racist tool, a relic of Jim Crow, is an odd position for Democrats to take given that just yesterday, they used the filibuster to block legislation proposed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Indeed, Sen. Cruz’s bill not only attracted the votes of forty-nine out of fifty Republican Senators (the only exception was Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)), but also six Democratic Senators who face close races in 2022 and/or are from purple states: Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-NV), Mark Kelly (D-AZ), , Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Raphael Warnock (D-GA). That meant that Cruz had 55 votes for his bill — a clear majority. So why did it not pass? Because Senate Democrats invoked the racist Jim Crow relic in order to refuse to allow a vote on that bill unless it first attained 60 votes to close the debate. In other words, Democrats — on Thursday— used the filibuster to block Cruz’s bill despite its having the support of the majority of the Senate.
What makes the Democrats’ conduct here even more notable is the substance of Cruz’s bill that they blocked with the filibuster. Cruz sought to impose sanctions on the Russian pipeline company Nord Stream 2, which is constructing the pipeline that will allow Moscow to sell large amounts of cheap natural gas to Germany and to Europe more broadly. There are few more pressing priorities for the Kremlin, if there are any, than construction of this pipeline. So by blocking Cruz’s bill, Democrats not only used a racist filibuster, but they did so in order to protect Vladimir Putin and a vital Russian company from sanctions.
Indeed, few episodes have revealed what utter propagandists and unhinged conspiracy theorists the corporate media are more than the controversy over Nord Stream 2. At exactly the same time these media outlets were insisting that Trump was little more than a treasonous, subservient tool of Putin — controlled through Moscow’s blackmail — Trump was doing everything possible to sabotage this pipeline, arguably the most vital interest of Russia (it competes for that title only with Ukraine, which Trump, infuriating the Russians, swamped with lethal arms after Obama largely refused to do so). Trump was threatening, cajoling, and trying to coerce Germany into buying U.S. natural gas rather than from the Russians, arguing that U.S. expenditures on NATO and on Germany’s military protection obligated Berlin to buy from the U.S. instead. The Trump administration used sanctions regimes and other tools to prevent completion of that pipeline — an extremely odd act for a Russian-controlled asset, to put it mildly.
Shortly after Biden was inaugurated, he announced that those sanctions would be lifted and the U.S. would cease its efforts to impede completion of Nord Stream 2. In other words, it was Trump — depicted for years by an unhinged U.S. media and their Democratic allies as an obedient blackmail victim of Russia — who did everything possible to prevent this pipeline from being built (while simultaneously arming the Ukrainians against Moscow). It was Biden who lifted those sanctions and acknowledged that the U.S. would no longer take steps to block it — a huge gift to Putin, even if his motive, as he claimed, was to avoid conflict with the Germans. And now it is Senate Democrats — ignoring the pleas of the Ukrainians, who view Nord Stream 2 as a grave threat, and at the behest of the Biden White House — who are so eager to block sanctions against this Russian company that they are using the filibuster to prevent Cruz’s bill from passing even though it is supported by 55% of U.S. Senators, at exactly the same time they are trying to convince Americans that only racists use the filibuster, a relic of Jim Crow, and that democracy requires the approval of all bills that attract the support of fifty Senators.
I personally regard efforts to stop Nord Stream 2 and punish the companies involved as absurd and irrational. Aside from the obvious futility of it (how can the U.S. prevent Germany from buying natural gas from Russia if it wants?), what right does the U.S. have to try to prevent this? Why should the U.S. try to arrogate unto itself the power to dictate to whom Russia can sell its natural gas and from whom Germany and the rest of Europe can buy it? There is nothing wrong with attempting to persuade the Germans that it is in their interest to buy it from U.S. companies, but using various forms of coercion and force to stop it has always been extremely ill-advised and destined to fail. So I, too, would have opposed Sen. Cruz’s sanctions bill.
But all of these events should immediately cause any employee of corporate media outlets to recognize and acknowledge the utter absurdity of the deranged conspiracy theory they fed Americans for four years: that Trump, as he did everything he could to sabotage Russian vital interests, was a treasonous puppet of the Kremlin. And it should also prevent any journalists from ever again taking seriously the solemn claim from Democrats that the filibuster is an inherently racist tool given that they just used it yesterday to prevent a bill that would have sanctioned a Russian pipeline company.
That corporate media outlets will instead continue to propagate both of these DNC-sponsored fairy tales — Trump was an asset of Putin and the filibuster is only used by white nationalists for racist ends — tells you all you need to know about them and their Democratic allies. As is true for all conspiracy theorists and fanatics, there are no facts or contradicting events that can undermine their devotion to their worldview.