Historians disagree about when the first filibuster was. In 1806, the Senate got rid of the rule that let a majority vote to end a debate when it turned obstructionist. Since obstruction was not a major problem at the time, no one really noticed that this rule was gone. It took decades for this to matter.
But then in the 1830s, John Calhoun, the virulent racist, scion of slaveowners, and spiritual father of the Confederacy, arrived in the Senate. He exploited this loophole to become the leading innovator in creating what we would recognize today as the talking filibuster: Jimmy Stewart-style, standing on the floor giving a long-winded speech. He was not the only one to use it, but he was its leading innovator. And he did it because the South and the slave power were becoming outgunned. Calhoun needed to increase the power of a numerical minority in the Senate to block things, or else the South was doomed. […]
This is important to emphasize, because we are taught that there is some noble wisdom in the Senate’s delay: during the Jim Crow era, the country was ready to pass civil rights bills. It was a power play, pure and simple. Southern senators saw they were outnumbered, and they needed a way to increase the power of a numerical minority to block bills in the Senate. This motivation led them to innovate the regular use of the supermajority threshold to block civil rights bills.
Now fast forward to today. For a bunch of boring procedural reasons, during the 1970s and 1980s, it became much easier to invoke that supermajority threshold. Today, it can be done via email. So now we have a Senate where the filibuster has gone from the talking filibuster of Jimmy Stewart to a silent application of a supermajority threshold, with no debate necessary. As a country, for this reason, we have started applying to all issues the same standard that it took civil rights nearly a century to clear. This is a bad way to conduct policymaking as a nation and a surefire path to failing to address the major crises we face.
Adam Jentleson on.