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Joe & John

Osita Nwanevu
6 min read
Joe & John

Hey all. Let's hop to it.


Next Friday will mark a year since the funeral of Georgia Congressman John Lewis, a former civil rights activist whose name now adorns the Democratic Party’s update to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A great deal was made at the time of Barack Obama’s eulogy, particularly his comments on the Lewis Act, other proposed democratic reforms, and the Republican voter suppression attempts in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder that, he argued, had made those reforms necessary:

If politicians want to honor John, and I’m so grateful for the legacy of work of all the Congressional leaders who are here, but there’s a better way than a statement calling him a hero. You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for. And by the way, naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, that is a fine tribute. But John wouldn’t want us to stop there, trying to get back to where we already were. Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better.
By making sure every American is automatically registered to vote, including former inmates who’ve earned their second chance.
By adding polling places, and expanding early voting, and making Election Day a national holiday, so if you are someone who is working in a factory, or you are a single mom who has got to go to her job and doesn’t get time off, you can still cast your ballot.
By guaranteeing that every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington, D.C. and in Puerto Rico. They are Americans.
By ending some of the partisan gerrymandering — so that all voters have the power to choose their politicians, not the other way around.
And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster — another Jim Crow relic — in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.

As I wrote not long afterwards, Obama had actually called for the elimination or modification of the filibuster before ⁠— as early as 2015, in fact, while he was still in office. But his decision to capitalize on the amnesia of the political press last year was meaningful. Here was the last Democratic president publicly contradicting the party’s new nominee on an issue dear to party activists ⁠— not something one sees everyday. The move was taken by many of those activists as a sign that the ground on the filibuster and democratic reforms besides would continue to move if Biden were elected with a Democratic majority. But there were still ample reasons for skepticism, as I noted:

A Hill/HarrisX poll last year found that most voters, including nearly half of Democratic voters, opposed limiting the filibuster’s use. Those numbers might shift with a partisan transfer of power, but as it stands, most of the data we have suggests that voters generally aren’t terribly supportive of or invested in the most ambitious structural reforms progressives have been discussing since 2016.
Only time will tell whether most will be convinced that the filibuster is a racist relic as easily as Democrats probably will. And another extant mainstream justification for its elimination, the Republican refusal to compromise, may be actively counterproductive ⁠as it reinforces the political mentality that has made the filibuster so durable in the first place—that compromise is inherently good and a goal worth striving for. The rhetorical project for progressives to take on is dismantling bipartisanship as a political value by convincing ordinary voters not only that the current Republican Party can’t be worked with but also that our politics in general should be about implementing policies that serve the American people well, rather than consensus for consensus’ sake. For reasons that should be obvious, Obama isn’t an ideal messenger for that particular idea.

A year later, and about a month after the successful filibuster of the For the People Act, the prospects for democratic reform seem about as bleak as one might have expected if Obama hadn’t said anything. The good news is that public opinion on the filibuster seems pliable. In June, a Morning Consult poll found that while 27 percent of Americans support the filibuster’s elimination when it’s presented as an existing rule, 45 percent back, in principle, the idea that the Senate should pass legislation by simple majority. Among Democrats, those numbers are 41 percent and 57 percent respectively. The survey found too that 37 percent of Democrats now view the filibuster’s elimination as a top priority for the party ⁠— up 13 points since the beginning of this Congress.

The bad news is that the situation in Washington hasn’t actually changed very much at all. While the ranks of Democrats pushing for the elimination or modification of the filibuster have grown to include even figures like House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, Manchin and Sinema haven’t moved since the loose talk earlier this year about a potential return to the talking filibuster. Biden talked up the idea again at a CNN Town Hall this week. But when pressed by CNN’s Don Lemon on Obama’s comments last year and the filibuster as an obstacle to the passage of the Lewis and For the People Acts, Biden argued its elimination would exacerbate political division and dysfunction. "There's no reason to protect it," he said, "other than, you're going to throw the entire Congress in the chaos. Nothing will get done, nothing at all will get done, and there's a lot at stake."

This is nonsense, of course, and nonsense that happens to contradict one of the center’s preferred defenses of the filibuster ⁠— the idea that its elimination would enable the swift passage of a Republican agenda under the next Republican government. As everyone who’s thought about this question seriously already knows, the next Republican government will already be able to enact much of its legislative agenda ⁠— to the extent it even really has one ⁠— by simple majorities anyway. It’s the Democratic agenda that the filibuster really limits, and at this point, it’s hard not to suspect that Biden and the filibuster’s other defenders want to preserve it partially for this very reason. These are moderates who believe that Democratic policymaking should be constrained by the preferences of moderate and conservative voters. There’s nothing conspiratorial about the assertion; they say so themselves on a regular basis. The filibuster helps accomplish this in a way that both minimizes direct confrontation with the party’s base on specific pieces of legislation and places the onus on the base to work harder for the creation of larger Democratic majorities.

That latter part of the dynamic is rarely made as plain as it was this week. On Thursday, the New York Times reported on a growing rift between the administration and dozens of major civil rights and Democratic advocacy groups over Biden's stance on the filibuster and democratic reforms. “In private calls with voting rights groups and civil rights leaders,” the Times’ Katie Rogers and Nick Corasaniti wrote, “White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression,’  according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.”

Now, there’s some reason to believe that the impact of voter ID laws and other modes of voter suppression might not be quite as dramatic as Democrats fear and Republicans hope. But you can’t out-organize your way out of a gerrymander, and it remains entirely plausible that elections from here on out might see attempts by Republicans to undo even successful efforts to bring more Democrats to the polls after ballots are cast. The groups badgering Biden know this, complicating the filibuster’s utility as an excuse and diffuser of intra-party tensions ⁠— rather than a means by which Democrats might avoid conflict with the base and handwave away the party’s inability to act on other issues, it is here a base-animating issue onto itself.

What happens if the base loses out on the question ⁠— if, as seems likely, we won’t see much more come out of this Congress after the reconciliation package is through? It’s no longer controversial to suggest our short and medium term outlook as a country is bleak, and Democratic failure may well be radicalizing for a number of voices not typically aligned with the left.

I don’t think anyone has a particularly clear picture of what a post-federal politics would look like. For my part, as I told Jacobin’s Luke Savage earlier this year, I don’t have many more solid suggestions for the left beyond following the right’s example in building durable institutions ⁠— primarily non-electoral institutions ⁠— aimed at enlarging the constituency for left politics over time. You’ll hear more from me about this sometime soon, hopefully.

Reasons To Be Cheerful

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