Martin Luther King Jr. on the filibuster
With voting rights legislation "on life support," perhaps some of our senators need a refresher on some of King's memorable quotes.
Good morning, everybody. Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day to all. Let’s jump right in.
No person’s life can be summed up in a tidy quote. You can’t define King by a single soundbite, no matter how comforting your interpretation of said soundbite may be. Still, some people try. Today, you’re likely to see this… more than once:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Yes, that’s a line from King’s August 28, 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. And yes, it often gets used by people who want you to believe that racism in the U.S. is a relic of the distant past to justify racist words and actions like this:
The quote is often presented as though King was advocating for people to just… not talk about race, to exist in a “colorblind” society. Many of the people who will happily tweet it out today are the same ones who want to gut voting rights and ban the discussion of race in schools. They are wrong to do so. Just take it from his daughter Bernice:
So rather than repeating a King quote we’ve all heard over and over again, stripped from context, I wanted to focus on something a bit more relevant to the current moment.
Right now in Washington, DC, democracy-crucial voting rights bills are, as House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) said yesterday, “on life support.” Why do I call these “democracy-crucial” bills? Because Republicans across the country are enacting laws aimed specifically at making it more difficult to vote by cutting early voting hours, creating unnecessary hurdles to get absentee ballots, limiting the number of drop boxes, and limiting the number of polling places in areas that tend to vote for Democrats. Specifically, these state-level bills will harm Black people.
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The rationale for these state bills is that they’re needed for “election integrity” (or to make sure people feel confident about the integrity of elections), but it’s a sham. The bills being considered in Congress1 seek to stop some of the most egregious elements of the state bills. And no, the bills in Congress are not part of some “federal takeover of elections” or whatever sort of nonsensical talking point Republicans are using these days. At the state level, Republicans are trying to rig future elections. It’s that simple. Without intervention at the federal level, our democracy will continue to erode.2
The filibuster is a relic
The biggest obstacle to passing federal voting rights legislation is the filibuster, a procedural move that can be used to prevent a bill from being put up for a final vote. So long as the current rules remain in place, Republicans can prevent Democrats from bringing their bills to a final vote.
There are only two ways forward that end with successful passage:
10 Republicans decide not to filibuster the bills. They don’t even need to vote for the bills, only allow them to let them go to a final vote. (Almost certainly not going to happen)
50 senators agree to create a carve-out to bring this bill up for a final vote. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) are the two biggest (but not the only) challenges in the way of this. Republicans will all vote against this. (Very unlikely)
But as it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it seems like an appropriate day to bring up one of King’s lesser-known quotes:
"I think the tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided senators who will use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting. They won’t let the majority of senators vote. Certainly, they would not want the majority of people to vote because they know that they do not represent the majority of American people. They represent in their own states a certain small minority. Senator Eastman of Mississippi represents a very small minority of the number of people who live in that state. I think this is true across the south.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Just as King lamented the use of the filibuster to stymie civil rights legislation, we’re seeing the same thing play out here.
If Democrats can’t muster the courage to get rid of the filibuster for the sake of protecting the right to vote, we’ll become a nation of Wisconsins.
Wisconsin, as you may know, was gerrymandered so aggressively following the 2010 U.S. Census, that Republicans have effectively made it impossible for Democrats to ever control the state legislature. The current makeup of the Wisconsin state legislature is as follows: Republicans control the Senate by a margin of 21 to 12; Republicans control the state Assembly by a margin of 61 to 38.
As you can see in this chart from a November Washington Post article, no matter how well Democrats perform, Republicans win. And even when Democrats do win, they lose, like when the GOP-run Wisconsin legislature stripped the governor’s office of some of its powers after Democrat Tony Evers won the race for governor in 2018 but before he took office in 2019.
In a healthy, functioning democracy, the number of seats held by a party would correspond roughly to what percent of the vote they got. It obviously doesn’t directly correlate, but you’d hope that things would shake out to be at least somewhat balanced. Check out what that 2011 gerrymander did to Wisconsin: in 2008, Democrats received 55.8% of the votes in state Assembly elections and held 53% of the Assembly seats. Cool. But then in 2012, following the gerrymander, Democrats received 53.1% of the votes in state Assembly elections and ended up holding… just 39% of the seats. Wait a sec. How is that fair representation? It’s not. And it’ll only get worse.
In October, The New York Times’ Ezra Klein interviewed data dude David Shor about the 2022 midterms and beyond. It’s… not good.
In 2022, if Senate Democrats buck history and beat Republicans by four percentage points in the midterms, which would be a startling performance, they have about a 50-50 chance of holding the majority. If they win only 51 percent of the vote, they’ll likely lose a seat — and the Senate.
But it’s 2024 when Shor’s projected Senate Götterdämmerung really strikes. To see how bad the map is for Democrats, think back to 2018, when anti-Trump fury drove record turnout and handed the House gavel back to Nancy Pelosi. Senate Democrats saw the same huge surge of voters. Nationally, they won about 18 million more votes than Senate Republicans — and they still lost two seats. If 2024 is simply a normal year, in which Democrats win 51 percent of the two-party vote, Shor’s model projects a seven-seat loss, compared with where they are now.
Not good! And it’ll only get worse at every level. If there’s hope of saving something even remotely resembling a democracy3, Democrats will need to find the courage to do what is right.
To once again quote King, “the great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White citizens’ Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods’; who paternistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
It was in that same writing, Letter From Birmingham Jail, that King said that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
He spoke of “the fierce urgency of now,” he argued that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and told of how “the time always right to do what is right.” Perhaps most fittingly, he once said that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
So where do our elected officials stand? If Republicans won’t stand up for the long-term health of our democracy, then all Democrats must. And if they won’t, then it won’t be too long until the petty tyrants who have turned Wisconsin into an undemocratic joke do the same elsewhere.4
There are a few bills currently being considered in Congress. They’ve all passed the House, but remain stalled in the Senate.
Few things annoy me as much as the “We’re a republic, not a democracy” talking point that Republicans are so fond of. The U.S. is a democratic republic. This means that we vote to elect people to represent us in government. That’s all. No, we are not a pure democracy, as that would mean that we all get to vote on every single issue and enact whatever gets the most votes. When people say that democracy is in peril, they’re referring to the democracy involved in electing our representatives (House members, senators, governors, state legislators, etc.). That is what the Republican party is trying to snuff out.
And that’s even allowing for the fact that many of our institutions are already anti-democratic in nature and rigged to favor rural areas and less populated states as I reference earlier in the piece.
Yes, yes, I know that Democrats in some states gerrymander, too. And my take on this is that they should right up until the point that the federal government steps in to stop it all. To do otherwise would be unilateral disarmament and a gift to Republicans. If Republicans oppose gerrymandering, then they will support an effort to eliminate it entirely.