The Filibuster and the Ghost of Calhoun

On October 15 of last year, Elizabeth Warren faced an onslaught from her more centrist rivals in the presidential debate. Speaking about the importance of reaching across the aisle in the spirit of bipartisanship, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar criticized Warren for being too far to the left, endorsing Medicare for All and other progressive policy measures that do not stand a chance of getting through both houses of Congress. 

But what went largely unnoticed were the two times when Warren said, quite emphatically, that it was necessary to “repeal the filibuster” if the Democrats wanted to make government work for the American people.  Warren understands that ours is a broken system for which we can partly blame the filibuster.  Especially as it has been used over the last few decades, the filibuster has become a powerful tool for conservative obstructionists and apologists for the status quo.  And, no doubt, Republicans will continue to stand united in their efforts to stonewall progressive legislation, even if it enjoys widespread popular support, and make sure that nothing gets through the Senate without 60 votes. 

But what I aim to show here is that the filibuster also runs contrary to the ideas of the founders, whose concerns about unfettered democracy never compromised their support for an effective and energetic federal government.  In truth, the filibuster accords more closely with John C. Calhoun’s theory of concurrent majority.  Conceived in large part to protect the interests of slaveholders, his theory was a clear repudiation of constitutional principles, at least as Madison, Hamilton, and Lincoln understood them.  The filibuster is institutional proof that the ideas invoked by defenders of slavery and white supremacy—including super-majoritarianism, nullification, and states’ rights—still haunt us today.  Our dysfunctional and anti-democratic Senate, with its long history of forestalling progressive reform, has an intellectual lineage that can be traced back to Calhoun’s political thought.  Once cast in the harsh light of its Calhounian legacy, the filibuster reveals itself to be morally and intellectually bankrupt.    

The widespread reluctance to support repeal of the filibuster largely stems from the idea that it is a longstanding Senate rule that has been integral to defending the rights of minorities.  Defenders of the filibuster insist that the procedure captures the spirit of the founders’ vision of a system that promotes deliberation, compromise, and incrementalism—and safeguards against majority tyranny.  In their view, repealing the filibuster is unthinkable, a proposal so radical that it comes close to being downright unconstitutional.  Of course, there is no mention of the filibuster in the Constitution, so such an argument is simply spurious.  In fact, there is good reason to think that the filibuster itself is unconstitutional—or, at the very least, contrary to the spirit of the founders’ thinking.

The unconstitutionality of the filibuster is debatable, but there is clearly a case to be made here.  The looming threat of a filibuster has turned the Senate into a legislative body that requires a supermajority to pass anything with even the hint of partisan controversy.  The first problem with this is that the Constitution only requires supermajorities in a few special instances:  ratifying treaties and constitutional amendments, overriding presidential vetoes, and removing officials from office.  Because more than half of the framers were lawyers, they would have been familiar with, and operated under the assumption of, “expressio unius est exclusion alterius”—a principle of statutory construction which says that when one or more things of a category are explicitly mentioned, all the others of the same category are excluded.  So, in this example, laws and other measures should be passed by simple majorities except in those situations where the Constitution expressly states otherwise.  The exceptions prove the rule, and the filibuster clearly undermines that rule.

There are at least two other constitutional arguments to be made against the filibuster.  One involves the disenfranchisement of the vice president.  Article I, Section 3, says that the vice president should cast the deciding vote when the Senate is “equally divided.”  Making supermajorities a requirement for the passage of almost every measure, the filibuster effectively takes this constitutional power away from the vice president.  Even more interesting is the provision in Article I, Section 5, which says that only a simple majority of senators must be present to make a quorum.  As the founders were certainly aware, this requirement prohibited a minority from blocking an up-or-down vote on a measure by simply walking out. The filibuster accomplishes precisely what the founders were trying to prevent with this provision.

Of course, anyone who has a passing familiarity with the founders knows that they were wary of democracy and unchecked majorities.  Throughout history, said Hamilton, democracies have been beset with instability, vacillating wildly “between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.”  Particularly fearful of what Madison called “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority,” the founders devised ways in which to refine and mitigate popular sovereignty and protect individual rights.  As Madison pointed out in Federalist No. 10, the Constitution created a large, extended republic, which had the virtue of multiplying the number of factions in the country, thereby reducing the likelihood that any one of them would attain a majority.  Getting anything done would require building a majority coalition of factions that would see the necessity of moderating their demands and making compromises.  Secondly, it vested power in representatives who, elected either directly or indirectly by the people, would—as Madison put it—“refine and enlarge the public views.”  Superior in wisdom and education, elected officials would filter the temporary whims and passions of the people.  Finally, with its checks and balances and federal structure, the Constitution fragmented power and, as a result, made it even harder for any given faction to achieve dominance.  With this new Constitution the founders hoped to promote deliberation, compromise, and incremental change.

Though they were sensitive to the dangers of majority tyranny and sought to slow down the pace of change, the founders believed that the constitutional safeguards in place—the extended republic, representative democracy, separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism—were enough to prevent majorities from running roughshod over the rights of minorities.  There was little reason to fear any law that had to run the legislative gauntlet of painstaking discussion, negotiation, and compromise.  According to Madison, the design of the Constitution ensured that a majority would reflect the public interest.   “In the extended republic of the United States,” he said in Federalist No. 51, “a coalition of the majority of the whole society could seldom take place upon any other principles than those of justice and the general good.”  This is why the founders saw fit to create a strong national government that could act on behalf of the people—or, as the Preamble puts it, “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”   While the founders certainly wanted to protect minority rights, they did not believe it required paying the steep price of making government ineffectual. 

There is a clear line between deliberation and dysfunction, between incrementalism and inaction, and the founders had no intention of crossing that line.  They believed that requiring a supermajority to get anything done violated the principles of good governance.  Indeed, the idea that a minority could use parliamentary tactics such as the filibuster to obstruct the legislative process was anathema to Madison and Hamilton.  They may have been wary of majority tyranny, but they considered minority tyranny an even graver threat.  In Federalist No. 58, Madison argued that although requiring supermajorities to pass legislation may have some advantages, they “are outweighed by the inconveniences in the opposite scale.”  “It would be no longer the majority that would rule; the power would be transferred to the minority,” he said.  “Were the defensive privilege limited to particular cases, an interested minority might take advantage of it to screen themselves from equitable sacrifices to the general weal, or in particular emergencies to extort unreasonable indulgences.”  In the end, he argued, it is a practice that “leads more directly to public convulsions, and the ruin of popular governments, than any other which has yet been displayed among us.”  Echoing Madison’s views about supermajorities, Hamilton said in Federalist No. 75:  “All provisions which require more than a majority of any body to its resolutions have a direct tendency to embarrass the operations of the government and an indirect one to subject the sense of the majority to that of the minority.”  Wherever supermajorities have been the prevailing requirement, he argued, one can point to “a history of impotence, perplexity and disorder.” 

So, it should not come as a surprise that, in 1789, the House and Senate rulebooks included a provision that is known as the “previous question” motion.  This rule allowed a simple majority to bring an end to debate.  The House still has this rule, but the Senate dropped it in 1806, thanks to Vice President Aaron Burr, who argued that the Senate would become an even greater deliberative body if it eliminated rules that stifled or shortened debate. The elimination of the previous question rule made it possible for a small minority, even one senator, to filibuster a proposed measure, but senators did not take advantage of this parliamentary tactic for another two decades, and on the whole there were very few filibusters before the Civil War.  John Randolph was the first senator to use the filibuster, talking endlessly to block a vote on several measures which, in his view, gave unfair economic advantages to the industrial North.  By the 1880s, senators began using the filibuster more often.  Despite growing frustration over the increased use of obstructionist tactics, Senate leaders could never manage to reinstate the previous question motion.  But filibuster reform would come in 1917.  Incensed by the successful filibuster of his proposal to arm merchant ships, President Wilson called on the Senate to create a cloture rule, framing the issue as a matter of national security.  Under immense pressure from the public, the Senate adopted Rule 22, which provided that a two-thirds majority could bring an end to debate.

Rule 22 did not have as much impact as its champions might have hoped.  Between 1917 and 1948, the Senate defeated the filibuster only four times.  During these years, the filibuster was a favorite tool of southern segregationists, who made certain that the Senate would never override a filibuster on civil rights.  Even the most modest measures, such as an anti-lynching bill introduced in 1922, would pass through the House and then die in the Senate.  Due largely to the filibuster, the Senate had become—as historian William S. White quipped—“the South’s unending revenge upon the North for Gettysburg.”

Frustrated by the Senate’s recalcitrance, President Truman framed his 1948 election bid around his opposition to the “Do-Nothing Eightieth Congress.”  On the campaign trail, Truman complained that Congress was “run by a bunch of old mossbacks still living back in the 1890s.”  “After a new Congress is chosen,” he declared, “maybe we’ll get one that will work in the interests of the people and not the interests of the men who have all the money.”  The idea that Congress should be responsive to a majority of the people did not sit well with many Senators, especially those from the South.  On the Senate floor, Theodore Bilbo said that “a mob is a majority; without the filibuster the minority would be at the mercy of the majority.”  When asked on the Senate floor if democracy was in fact “predicated on the rule of the majority,” Senator Millard Tydings cried, “The rule of the majority.  The rule of votes.  Majority to Hades!  The rule of the majority!  The rule that has brought more bloodshed and turmoil and cruelty on this earth than any other thing I know of!”

According to an often-told story that is probably a myth, Thomas Jefferson, upon his return from Paris, asked George Washington why the delegates at the Constitutional Convention created a bicameral legislature.  Washington supposedly answered with another question: “Why did you pour your tea into that saucer?”  “Too cool it,” said Jefferson.  “Just so,” replied Washington.  “We pour House legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”  But, by the middle of the twentieth century, the filibuster had contributed greatly to turning the Senate into a body that did not cool off so much as freeze out the will of the people.  The Senate had become an institution more committed to obstruction than deliberation, frustrating rather than refining the popular will.  In its hostility to majority will and reform, it had become an arch-defender of minority interests and the status quo.

Things have not changed much since the mid-twentieth century, even with the battle over civil rights largely behind us.  In 1975, the Senate adopted a rule change which required only 60 votes to end debate.  One might have expected that the filibuster would be used less often, but the Senate also added a provision that allowed senators to maintain a filibuster without talking on the Senate floor.  All that is necessary is for one senator to say that she is filibustering or placing a hold on a measure, and then she can go home and binge-watch her favorite HBO show.  This will go on until 60 senators vote to end “debate.”  Senators did not exploit this new provision right away.  It wasn’t until the early Clinton years, when the parties became unmistakably polarized, that the so-called virtual filibuster started to be used routinely in the Senate.  Now, while a filibuster is underway, there need not be even the pretense of a debate.  Rarely do we see a senator (grand)standing, wearily but defiantly, at the podium, delivering a thunderous speech about how the proposed bill presents a serious threat to the nation—and when we do, it is pure theater.  The virtual filibuster has exposed the parliamentary tactic for what it really is and has always been: a blatant tool of obstructionism. 

By the Obama years political commentators would talk about the 60-vote threshold in the Senate as if it were a constitutional requirement.  The Senate became so anti-majoritarian that it could not even pass modest gun control measures, such as universal background checks or restrictions on magazine capacity, which received support from 90 percent of Americans after Sandy Hook.  Today the Senate is ill-equipped to address the serious challenges facing America today, whether it is inequality, climate change, health care, gun violence, or any other issue over which the parties are invariably at odds. 

Speaking to David Axelrod on his podcast, President Obama made it clear what he thought of the filibuster while reflecting on his presidency.  “The big challenge that we faced was the filibuster.  And it’s a weird thing because it’s not something that the average American spends a lot of time thinking about,” he said.  “It’s a given that this extra-constitutional thing says you have to have 60 votes to get anything passed.”  He argued that “the filibuster…has made it almost impossible for us to effectively govern at a time when you have at last one party that is not willing to compromise on issues.”  Obama’s comments about the filibuster echo what Madison and Hamilton believed, and the Constitution makes clear: good governance should not be hamstrung and rendered ineffectual by a procedure that consistently demands a supermajority to pass anything in the Senate.

The founders’ beliefs notwithstanding, effective governance was not what Senators Bilbo and Tydings had in mind when they expressed dire warnings of majority tyranny.  They feared that an unchecked Senate majority would do away with their cherished system of segregation.  Their exaggerated forebodings about majorities run-amok reflect the concerns not of the founders but of John C. Calhoun, the most eloquent spokesman for states’ rights and nullification in the antebellum South.  A towering political figure from South Carolina who served in the Senate for many years and also had stints as vice president and secretary of state, Calhoun defended slavery as a benevolent institution from which black people benefited greatly, and he characterized abolitionism as a grave threat to the southern way of life.  Informed by his political concerns, Calhoun devised the theory of concurrent majority, which justified giving states a veto power over national laws that conflicted with their interests.  In so doing, he went well beyond the founders’ concerns about democratic majorities and turned obstruction and dysfunction into virtues

Influential twentieth-century intellectual historians such as Arthur Schlesinger and Richard Hofstadter have expressed admiration for Calhoun as an important thinker whose intellectual achievements can be distinguished from what he said and did as a political figure.  But it is not clear that one can so easily separate Calhoun’s racism and appalling defense of slavery from his political theory.  Calling it a “positive good,” Calhoun credited slavery for lifting the “black race” out of barbarism.  “Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually,” he said in a speech delivered in 1837. 

It came among us in a low, degraded, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions, reviled as they have been, to its present comparatively civilized condition.  This, with the rapid increase of numbers, is conclusive proof of the general happiness of the race, in spite of all the exaggerated tales to the contrary.

Compared to the working class of Europe, said Calhoun, the black slave in America enjoyed “the kind superintending care of his master and mistress.” 

Calhoun also praised slavery on the grounds that civilization requires a deep division between the laboring and non-producing classes.  “I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.”  According to Calhoun, slavery in the South was in fact superior, both morally and politically, to wage-labor in the North or in Europe.  For the “condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict” between labor and capital.  This explains why “the political condition of the slaveholding States has been so much more stable and quiet than that of the North.”  Without seeing the irony in his claim, Calhoun saw slavery—that is, “the existing relation between the two races in the South”—as “the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions.”  But if the abolitionists got their way, warned Calhoun, they would stop not at emancipation but would work toward “social and political equality” between the races.  The result would be an apocalyptic reversal of race relations in which “[blacks] and their northern allies would be the masters, and we the slaves.”

The following year Calhoun gave another speech in which he called slavery “a great political institution, essential to the peace and existence of one-half of this Union.”  He credited Providence for bringing the two races together, securing the peace and happiness of both.  “Each had improved; the inferior greatly; so much so, that it had attained a degree of civilization never before attained by the black race in any age or country.”  Calhoun even went so far as to characterize slave plantations—those grotesque sites of terror, degradation, and despair—as idyllic communities in which labor and capital were “perfectly harmonized.”  While many in the South once saw slavery as “a moral and political evil,” most now “regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.”  This was why it had to be preserved at all costs.  Abolition would bring “slaughter, carnage, and desolation” to the entire South.

Civilization, at least as Calhoun understood it, was in peril.  It was in this context that he devised the doctrine of concurrent majority.[1]  In A Disquisition on Government, which was published after his death in 1850, Calhoun argued that the only way to safeguard against majority tyranny was to give minority interests the power to veto laws passed by a national majority.  In this way, no measures could pass unless they received approval from concurrent majorities—from both a majority of the whole and a majority of the smaller group whose interests could possibly conflict with the whole.  What becomes apparent upon close examination is that Calhoun’s theory, while adorned with all the trappings of philosophical sophistication, proves to be little more than a recipe for gridlock and ineffectual government.  Why he would devise a political theory that made change nearly impossible, and that served the interests of those who benefited from the status quo, is all too clear.

Scholars like Schlesinger admire Calhoun in large part because his theory demonstrates a certain degree of philosophical rigor.  He laid out his ideas in a clear and systematic way, beginning with certain assumptions about human nature.  People are innately social, he argued, but they cannot live—and never have lived—without government.  This is because each person feels more intensely those things that affect him than he feels those things that affect other people.  In other words, “he is so constituted, that his direct or individual affections are stronger than his sympathetic or social feelings.”  This does not make him selfish per se, but it does mean that each person “has a greater regard for his own safety or happiness, than for the safety or happiness of others.”  The inevitable result of the fact that we are more self-regarding than we are other-regarding is social conflict.  This reality makes government necessary.  For it is government that functions as the “controlling power” whose sole purpose is to mitigate these conflicts.

Anyone who has read Madison’s Federalist No. 51 knows what’s coming next.  Because government comprises people who have the same frailties as anyone else, it has “a strong tendency to disorder and abuse of its powers.”  Men are not angels, which is why we need government.  But those officials vested with political power are not angels either, so there must also be controls on government.  These controls on government, which are meant to prevent tyranny and abuses of power, are what Calhoun calls a constitution.  The constitution places restraints on the government to ensure that those in power use their positions not as a “means of aggrandizing themselves” but rather as a way to “protect and preserve society.”  The only way constitutions can successfully achieve this task is by checking those in power with opposing forces.  “Power can only be resisted by power—and tendency by tendency.”  Up to this point, Calhoun sounds just like Madison, who said that the abusive tendencies of government can only be prevented if ambition is made to counteract ambition.

For Calhoun, the most important feature of constitutional government is the right of suffrage, for it is the primary means of ensuring “the responsibility of the rulers to the ruled.”  Suffrage allows the ruled to check the power of the rulers.  It empowers the people to keep government honest.   But while suffrage is a necessary feature of constitutional government, it is not sufficient.  The reason is that suffrage merely “changes the seat of authority, without counteracting, in the least, the tendency of government to oppression and abuse of its powers.”  In other words, suffrage introduces a problem all democracies have faced throughout history: majority tyranny.  With popular control of the government, there is nothing to stop the majority from using the levers of power to aggrandize itself at the expense of others.   

So, according to Calhoun, another provision must be in place to make sure that this does not happen—and that a true constitution is established.  He argued that there is only one way of preventing majority tyranny: “each interest or portion of the community” must give its consent before any proposed law takes effect.  The constitution must “give to each division or interest, through its appropriate organ, either a concurrent voice in making and executing the laws, or a veto on their execution.”  Because any given interest or portion of the community may be injured by this proposed law, it should have the right to nullify anything that emanates from a higher governmental authority.  Calhoun called this “concurrent consent” or “concurrent majority” because any proposed law must receive majority approval from both the whole and the particular interests that are likely be affected. 

When Calhoun referred to an “interest or portion of the community,” he clearly had sectional or geographic interests in mind.  He feared that the institution of slavery was vulnerable for the simple reason that the North outnumbered the South.  Without the power to nullify laws originating in Washington, the South could be required to abolish slavery.  Calhoun envisioned empowering states to nullify federal laws through some kind of convention process.  In A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, he proposed creating a dual presidency as an alternative (and simpler) way of operationalizing his doctrine of concurrent majority.  One president would represent the North, and the other would represent the South.  Each president would have a veto power to protect the interests of the region he represented.

It is important to note that Calhoun did not limit his definition of “interest” to a geographic region.  He admired the British constitution, whose mixed government vested each major social class—royals, lords, and commons—with a veto power.  He also saw elements of a concurrent majority constitution in the Roman Republic and the Iroquois Confederacy, and he pointed to these historical examples to defend his theory.  The Roman Republic embodied the concurrent majority doctrine by empowering a single tribune, on behalf of plebeian interests, to veto a law passed by the Senate.  In addition, most executive actions required assent from both consuls in Rome.  (This was the inspiration for Calhoun’s proposal for a dual executive in the United States.)  Calhoun invoked these systems because they established a precedent for what he envisioned for the United States: impenetrable institutional bulwarks that protected minority interests from overweening majorities.

But his praise for the constitution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the Disquisition is most telling.  It is “a great error to suppose that the government of the concurrent majority is impracticable—or that it rests on a feeble foundation,” he said.  “History furnishes many examples of such governments—and among them, one, in which the principle was carried to an extreme that would be thought impracticable, had it never existed. I refer to that of Poland.”  Taking the concurrent majority idea to its utmost extreme, the Polish constitution gave each of the 200,000 noblemen in the country a veto power in the election of a new king.  Similarly, the supreme legislative body—which included the king, the senate, bishops, nobles, and gentry—gave each member what was called a liberum veto, making unanimity a requirement to enact a law or to adopt any kind of measure.  And whenever a single member vetoed a certain measure, it defeated all other measures passed during that legislative session.  Calhoun conceded that the Polish constitution, which vested individuals with the power of nullification and essentially required unanimous consent to get anything done, may have taken concurrent majority idea too far, but he used it as an example of its practicability.  According to Calhoun, rather than making government ineffectual, this system of unanimous voting prevailed at “the period of Poland’s greatest power and renown” and “lasted, in this form, more than two centuries.” 

Although it is true that the Polish constitution allowed the use of the liberum veto for about two centuries, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the historical record suggests that it caused far more political disruption and instability than Calhoun was willing to admit.  It became increasingly common for legislative sessions to be derailed by the veto, which often made the government incapable of doing its job and contributed to its deterioration over time.  According to Harvard political scientist Grzegorz Ekiert, the liberum veto “led to anarchy in political life, and contributed to the economic and political decline of the Polish state.”  The upshot was that these political conditions “made the country vulnerable to foreign invasions and ultimately led to its collapse.” 

The historical record notwithstanding, Calhoun wholeheartedly endorsed institutional mechanisms that give minority interests a veto, effectively creating a situation where unanimity is required to get anything done.  Moreover, his definition of “interest” was quite broad.  He called for the protection of “the different interests, orders, classes, or portions, into which the community may be divided.”  He even went so far as to declare that government should not be put into motion “without the concurrent consent of all.”  The implication here, at least in theory, is that any interest group that opposes a policy measure should be able to veto it.   

If we take Calhoun’s words seriously, it becomes clear that he was advocating for a system that allows any well-organized group—any portion of the community—to block a proposal that conflicts with its interests, even if the proposal enjoys widespread support and would clearly serve the general welfare.  The only people who would benefit from such a system are those whose interests coincide with the status quo.  And, even worse, it would make government completely feeble, after which either chaos or tyranny would reign.  Abraham Lincoln made this very point in his First Inaugural:  “Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy, or despotism in some form, is all that is left.”

Yet Calhoun insisted that concurrent majority would lead not to gridlock or governmental collapse but rather to a coming together between opposing groups which have the incentive to work in the spirit of compromise.  He cited trials by jury as an example of how this can work.  Even though courts require unanimity to reach a verdict, hung juries are quite rare.  Recognizing that consensus is demanded of them, jurors soon adopt a “disposition to harmonize.”  Calhoun believed that larger bodies would function the same way.  Because government of the concurrent majority “excludes the possibility of oppression, by giving to each interest, or portion, or order…the means of protecting itself,” the various groups “desist from attempting to adopt any measure calculated to promote the prosperity of one, or more, by sacrificing that of the others.”  As a result, they have no choice but to “unite in such measures only as would promote the prosperity of all.”  Unlike Lincoln, for whom nullification meant a complete breakdown of government followed by anarchy or despotism, Calhoun foresaw an idyllic political order in which “the individual and the social feelings are made to unite in one common devotion to country.”  While numerical majority will always divide the country into two great polarized political parties, said Calhoun, concurrent majority will weaken party attachments and bring people together in a concerted effort to advance the common good.

We face a version of nullification today in the form of the filibuster.  Given what we know about the effects of the filibuster, which empowers even one senator to effectively veto a bill unless a supermajority overrides his challenge, it is not too hard to accuse Calhoun of magical thinking.  The various tactics that have enabled statistical minorities to protect their interests—and this includes but is not limited to the filibuster—have done nothing to promote comity between the major political parties.  In fact, the dramatic increase in the use of the filibuster has fueled partisan rancor and polarization. 

When, after the mass shooting in Newtown, the Senate successfully filibustered a bill that would have imposed universal background checks on gun sales, the usually unflappable President Obama was visibly incensed.  “All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” he said in his response to the nation from the White House Rose Garden.  He accused the NRA of willfully misinforming the public, stoking fears among gun owners that Congress sought to take away their Second Amendment rights.  This is just one example of how the filibuster, or any other device that allows minority interests to nullify the will of a clear majority, exacerbates polarization and bitter feelings.  “April is the cruelest month,” said T. S. Eliot.  On that cold day in April of 2013, when President Obama explained to the country why the government was incapable of responding to an unspeakable tragedy with modest and sensible policy measures, Eliot’s words seemed especially appropriate. 

Calhoun crafted a political theory that he hoped would preserve the cruelest institution ever devised by human beings.  After the abolition of slavery in 1865, the ghost of Calhoun continued to haunt the nation as ardent segregationists invoked states’ rights in their defense of white supremacy and deployed various tactics to block civil rights legislation and disenfranchise African Americans.  Now we have the virtual filibuster, the most recent incarnation of Calhoun’s ghost.  Just like the flesh-and-blood Calhoun with his call for nullification, the filibuster today serves to protect entrenched interests, sow division, and render government ineffectual in the face of great moral and existential challenges.  The repeal of the filibuster promises to exorcise this ghost stalking the Senate halls once and for all.


[1] While it is true that Calhoun first came upon the idea of nullification when the Tariff of Abominations was passed in 1828, the threat of abolition to the southern way of life was clearly his overwhelming concern during the last two decades of his life.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Rohini Hensman: Rolling Back the Global Advance of the Far Right

By Zillah Eisenstein: Why Democracy and Socialism Need Anti-Racist Socialist Feminism

By Denise Lynn: Claudia Jones and the Emancipatory Promise of Socialism

By Melissa Farley: Prostitution, the Sex Trade, and the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Ninotchka Rosca: The Dutertefly Effect and the Philippine Stub Universe

By Paola Cavalieri: On the Poverty of Philosophy or the Black Hole of Factory Farming

By Robert Lacey: The Filibuster and the Ghost of Calhoun

By Patrick D. Anderson: Christian Cotton and Robert Arp (editors), WikiLeaking: The Ethics of Secrecy and Exposure (Chicago: Open Court, 2019).

By Erik Grayson: Mary Dearborn, Ernest Hemingway: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 2018)

By Aidan J. Beatty: Daniel Finn, One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA (New York: Verso: 2019)

By Warren Leming: Brett Anderson, Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn (New York: Little, Brown 2019)

By Iain Ferguson: The Unconscious in Social and Political Life, (London: Phoenix Publishing House 2019)

By Ben Shepard: Peter Riley’s Against Vocation: Whitman, Melville, Crane, and the Labors of American Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) and Caroline Hellman’s Children of the Raven and the Whale: Visions and Revisions of American Literature (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019)

By Michael Karadjis: Andy Heintz, Dissidents of the International Left: New Internationalist Publications, (Oxford, University Press, 2019)