“You want to honor John [Lewis]? 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… 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.”—President Barack Obama’s eulogy for civil rights icon John Lewis.
Even as Republican Senators acquitted Donald Trump of inciting the “Stop the Steal” capitol insurrection, Republican-controlled states are busy using the lie of a stolen 2020 election to pass Jim Crow voter suppression laws. Such laws would make it even harder for minorities and young people to vote in the future and easier to gerrymander districts so Republicans can retake the House in 2022 with a minority of the popular vote.
If they succeed, part of the blame will rest with conservative Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema. These two are so far refusing to join with their fellow Democrats in reforming the filibuster, thereby allowing a minority of 40 Republican Senators to block urgent new civil rights and voting rights legislation.
Manchin and Sinema are effectively acting like 21st Century-style “Dixiecrats” of the ’50s ad ’60s, segregationist Democrats such as James Eastland, Robert Byrd (Manchin’s mentor) and George Wallace. The Dixiecrats’ were committed to racial segregation and white supremacy. Dixiecrats filibustered the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act for years, until they final passed in 1964 and 1965 under the pressure of a massive civil rights movement.
The grassroots activist movement which protested for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and which spurred the turnout enabling Biden to win the Presidency and the Democrats to take the Senate must focus its massive energies on convincing Manchin and Sinema to join their fellow Democrats in reforming the filibuster. A simple majority of the Senate could then pass civil rights and voting rights laws, necessary for America to remain a democratic republic.
Here’s how things are coming down: On one track, outside the glare of the national media spotlight, Republican legislatures have introduced at least 165 laws in 33 states to limit mail-in voting, impose strict voter ID laws, shorten voter registration and early voting windows, and enable aggressive voter roll purges. Soon to follow will be partisan gerrymandering for the next decade, which could well let Republicans win a majority House seats with a minority of the popular vote starting in 2022.
On the opposing track, most of these voter suppression tactics would be illegal under The John Lewis Voting Advancement Act and The For The People Act which were passed by the last Democratic House but blocked from Senate consideration by Mitch McConnell.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore the original 1965 Voting Rights Act that was gutted by a 5-4 conservative-majority Supreme Court decision in 2013. The For The People Act would set nationwide voting standards, curtail dark money, and replace gerrymandering with non-partisan redistricting commissions.
These major civil rights laws will be reintroduced and almost certainly passed by the House in early March. They will then go to the Senate and, with a Democratic majority, make it to the floor. Assuming a party line vote, the bills will be supported by a 51-50 Democratic majority, including Vice President Harris.
And that should be the end of it. The headlines should read, “House and Senate Pass and President Biden Signs Most Significant Civil Rights Laws Since 1960s.”
Except for one problem: Senate Filibuster rules (which are simply rules the Senate chooses to apply to itself and are nowhere in the Constitution) require that most laws receive a 60 vote supermajority to pass, so the headline would then read, “Filibuster by Republican Minority Kills Historic Civil Rights Bills.”
What should Democrats and social justice activists do if the most important Civil Rights legislation in half a century slides into the dustbin of history, even as Republican legislatures feverishly pass new laws suppressing the vote, possibly even handing the House back to Republicans in 2022? Cry and go home?
We’ve come way too far for that. A unified Democratic Senate, backed by the mass racial justice movement, has the power to “nuke” the filibuster and allow legislation to pass the Senate with an ordinary majority.
Democrats wouldn’t necessarily need to nuke the legislative filibuster in one fell swoop. If necessary, they could carve out from the filibuster civil rights legislation—e.g. legislation whose purpose is to enforce the intent of the 14th, 15th, and 19thAmendments—and allow it to pass with a simple majority.
At present, Sinema and Manchin stand in the way. The question is whether, faced with the potential defeat of historic civil rights legislation due to their opposition to filibuster reform, are Sinema and Manchin willing to go down in history as the Strom Thurmonds, George Wallaces, and yes, Robert Byrds of the 21st century, who stood in the classroom doors to block integration and for years filibustered civil rights laws.
Will they want to face headlines like “Two Democratic Dissenters Manchin and Sinema Join Republicans in Blocking Filibuster Reform That Would Allow Majority Passage of Civil Rights Laws.”
Are Sinema and Manchin willing to face the outrage of the grassroots activists who helped get them elected and who are ready to cash in their chips and mobilize a mass movement to get these two Senators to change their positions? Sinema may be particularly susceptible to grassroots pressure, since her narrow win was powered in large part by organizing from unions and Latino activists. And if Sinema flips, would Manchin be willing to be the lone Democrat allowing Republicans to block historic civil rights legislation?
Sinema’s and Manchin’s decisions may well determine whether America remains a democracy or whether it’s indefinitely distorted by minority rule.