US Senate: grossly undemocratic

Abolish the filibuster

The constitution of the United States is designed to thwart democracy, observes Dan Lazare.

Many people were no doubt checking the volume control during a recent US Democratic presidential debate, when the question of the Senate filibuster came up. This is an obscure, but deadly, rule that liberals are forever promising to change, but never do. Elizabeth Warren, vice-chair of the Senate Democratic caucus, has engaged in more than her share of double talk, but on this occasion she could not have been more forthright:

We have a Congress that is beholden to the gun industry. And, unless we’re willing to address that head-on and roll back the filibuster, we’re not going to get anything done on guns. I was in the United States Senate when 54 senators said let’s do background checks, let’s get rid of assault weapons, and with 54 senators, it failed because of the filibuster. Until we attack the systemic problems, we can’t get gun reform in this country. We’ve got to go straight against the industry, and we’ve got to change Congress, so it doesn’t just work for the wealthy and well-connected, so it works for the people.

Bernie Sanders was also forthright, if more than a bit muddle-headed. When his turn came to say if he supported abolishing the filibuster, he replied:

No. But what I would support, absolutely, is passing major legislation - the gun legislation the people here are talking about, Medicare for all, climate change legislation that saves the planet. I will not wait for 60 votes [the number needed to override a filibuster] to make that happen, and you can do it in a variety of ways. You can do that through budget reconciliation law. You have a vice-president who will, in fact, tell the Senate what is appropriate and what is not, what is in order and what is not.

This is nonsense. Others have attempted to use budget reconciliation and the like to get around the filibuster, but it never works. Republicans tried to do it in 2017 in an attempt to gut Obamacare. But, as Ed Kilgore explained in New York Magazine, the effort died when it became clear that 60 votes would still be needed to approve certain necessary rules changes. So why bother with a parliamentary manoeuvre around the filibuster if it is no less difficult than confronting it head on?1

Thus, Sanders’ proposal did not make sense from a parliamentary perspective and was bound to disappoint for supporters longing for a showdown with reactionary obstructionists on Capitol Hill.

But there is a deeper issue here. Sanders claims to be a socialist and, in fact, was close to the US Socialist Workers Party - the old party of James P Cannon - back in the 1980s. Presumably, he is therefore aware that socialists have viewed as axiomatic the principle that political progress is impossible in the absence of structural change. Friedrich Engels advanced the classic argument in his critique of the German Social Democratic Party’s Erfurt programme in 1891. With its call for proportional representation, free higher education for all qualified students, and replacement of a standing army with a popular militia, the Erfurt programme was actually a good deal more radical than anything Sanders has come up with. But Engels took umbrage at the fact that, amid all the promises, it failed to challenge the existing political structure.

With the system serving as nothing more than “the fig-leaf of absolutism”, he said, it was “an obvious absurdity” to talk about socialism “on the basis of this constitution and the system of small states sanctioned by it”. Various opportunists were trying to convince their fellow party members that “present-day society is developing towards socialism”. But, as society progresses, they failed to address the question of whether it

does not thereby just as necessarily outgrow the old social order and whether it will not have to burst this old shell by force, as a crab breaks its shell, and also whether in Germany, in addition, it will not have to smash the fetters of the still semi-absolutist, and moreover indescribably confused, political order.


Progress could not be social alone, but had to be structural as well. What was required, Engels went on, was nothing less than the “reconstitution of Germany” - a revolutionary overhaul, so that a super-state like Prussia, which accounted for 60% of the population at the time, would no longer coexist alongside a host of duchies, grand duchies, free Hanseatic cities and other medieval relics. “What should take its place? In my view, the proletariat can only use the form of the one and indivisible republic”: ie, straight-out popular representation with as few constitutional encumbrances as possible to get in the way. Among other things, this required an end to hybrid power arrangements, in which a democratic chamber existed side by side with “a federal chamber, in which each canton, whether large or small, votes as such”.

This hybrid arrangement is what exists in America today - one in which a popularly-elected House of Representatives coexists with grotesquely corrupt and inequitable Senate, organised on the basis of equal state representation. California thus winds up with the same number of senators - two - as Wyoming, even though its population is nearly 70 times greater, while the 54% of the population that lives in just 10 states finds itself outvoted four to one by the minority that lives in the other 40. The results are an affront on any number of levels. They are racist, since small states tend to have fewer minorities, anti-urban since they tend to be rural, sexist since rural states tend to be less hospitable to gays and sexually conservative in general (see the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain for further details), and so on.

This is the chamber that Sanders has served in since 2008 without uttering a peep. Yet now he is defending a procedure that takes a bad system and makes it worse. Given vast population disparities, it is possible to glean a Senate majority out of states accounting for less than 18% of the population. But the filibuster gives veto power to 41 senators representing less than 11. This enables ‘big sky’ states like Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas, which literally have more cattle than people, to lord it over the teeming masses of California, New York and Michigan. To put it in terms that Engels would have understood, it is as if some obscure principality deep in the Black Forest was allowed to hold sway over working class strongholds in Berlin, Hamburg or the Ruhr Valley - not just temporarily, but forever.

Sanders is on record as saying that he is reluctant to let the filibuster go because liberals can use it to block conservatives just as easily as conservatives can use it to block liberals. The fact that Trump favours abolishing it, he declared last April, should make people “a little bit nervous”.2 But if he thinks he can advance to socialism on the basis of an increasingly untenable status quo, he is sorely mistaken. Sooner or later, he will find himself bumping up against constitutional reality - either in the primaries or the general election (if he gets the nomination, that is, which is not impossible). If voters turn against him, it will not necessarily be because they reject his politics, but because they see him as fundamentally at odds with a constitutional system deemed to be unchangeable. If he gets into the White House - again, far from impossible - he will find himself trapped by a 230-year-old apparatus whose raison d’être is to thwart democracy rather than advance it. A corrupt and cowardly House of Representatives, a Senate in the grips of hard rightists like Mitch McConnell, a reactionary Supreme Court - any of these will be in a position to torpedo his programme for good.

Socialism, however timid and reformist, will die aborning. What will his backers do then? Will they stand by and watch as their boat sinks beneath the waves? Or will they demand something more radical? This is the crunch that Sanders supporters could find themselves in as early as January 2021.

  1. E Kilgore, ‘Bernie’s plan to thwart the filibuster is needlessly complicated’ New York Magazine September 13: http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/09/bernie-sanders-needlessly-complex-plan-to-thwart-filibuster.html.↩︎

  2. C Mills Rodrigo, ‘Sanders: Trump’s call to abolish filibuster should make one “nervous”’ The Hill April 8: https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/437880-sanders-trumps-support-of-abolishing-senate-filibuster-should-raise.↩︎