Let’s get over the notion that real filibusters are just like Jimmy Stewart’s movie version


Last week’s reform of U.S. Senate rules regarding filibusters has been frowned upon by certain critics who seem to have been unduly influenced by a certain Hollywood movie.


The detonation of the “nuclear option” against the filibuster for executive branch and most judicial-branch appointments was an obvious win for progressives. If, as seems likely, the use of the nuclear option puts the filibuster on the road to complete oblivion, this is an even bigger win for progressives, as the filibuster is a reactionary device both in theory and in practice. And yet, many people on all parts of the ideological spectrum have resisted this conclusion.


Some liberal writers whose work I respect enormously have an attachment to the idea of the filibuster that I find frankly unfathomable. For example, the eminent legal scholar Geoffrey Stone argues that the nuclear option is “a sad day for America.” But like most such arguments, his defense of the filibuster exists entirely in the abstract, with no attempt to grapple with the actual effect of the filibuster on American politics. In what is always a bad sign, Stone begins by invoking the Frank Capra film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [above]”, which makes about as much sense as invoking “Henry V” to argue that monarchy is preferable to democracy. More unfortunate is that Stone does not depart the realm of the Hollywood tear-jearker to consider how the filibuster has been used by the actually existing United States Senate. Stone does not identify any example of the filibuster being used to protect an oppressed minority, presumably because as far as I can tell there aren’t any. Nor does he deal with the frequent use of the filibuster to obstruct federal civil rights legislation, a much more representative use of the filibuster than Jimmy Stewart’s stand for the little guy.

The depiction of the filibuster in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is a nearly precise inversion of how the filibuster actually works. Far from protecting the interests of powerless minorities, the filibuster in practice is far more likely to allow powerful, overrepresented minorities like segregationist and business interests to thwart legislation intended to protect oppressed minorities. The Republican blockade of Obama’s judicial and executive nominees is very much consistent with this tradition, which is why the use of the nuclear option was a clear victory for progressives.


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