Trevor Noah in an episode of The Daily Show with the caption "The history of the filibuster"

Trevor Noah Explains What the Filibuster Is, Why It’s Awful, and How It’s Become a Tool for Racism

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Since the filibuster has been having A Moment lately, a lot of people might find themselves wondering what exactly it is, why it exists, and how hard it’s screwing us all over. Trevor Noah broke it all down earlier this year, starting with the misconception that this is an immutable founding tenet of our government. In reality, the filibuster wasn’t invented until 1805, and it began as an accident.

After the debate around the need to eliminate the filibuster saw a new resurgence this week around Democrats’ voting rights bill, The Daily Show reposted the clip. If you missed it back in March, it’s absolutely worth a watch:

The filibuster was introduced as a way to make sure debates around legislation could continue until everyone agreed they were done. Basically, if anyone had anything left to say, they should be able to say it. And since there were far fewer senators then than there are now, this might not have seemed like it would be an issue. “How slow could the Senate really be?” Noah asks.

As we now know, the Senate can be extremely slow! And eventually, senators began using the filibuster for the exact opposite purpose of what it was intended to do—to block legislation rather than open up debate about it. Since there was no rule defining what exactly counted as a debate, that’s how we ended up with some of the most famous filibusters, like the guy who talked for 15 hours about oysters and salad dressings.

And then there was Strom Thurmond. As a video from Vox played in the episode notes, the filibuster wasn’t used very frequently until the 1950s, when Democrats started to consider Civil Rights legislation and the Republican minority had to scramble for ways to block it. (So when you hear Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema insist that the will of the voters should be ignored and the minority party should have more power, just remember that this is what that looks like.)

Thurmond famously read from the phone book for 24 hours as a way to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957–something that he says he was able to do after he “dried out [his] body” by visiting the Senate sauna for three or four days beforehand so he wouldn’t have to use the bathroom. These are the lengths white supremacists will go to in order to deny Black people basic rights, and the filibuster lets it happen.

The filibuster itself is not inherently racist, but it has historically been wielded for racist purposes. There was an increase in its usage during the 1950s and ’60s to block Civil Rights legislation, but that was nothing compared to how often it was used during Barack Obama’s presidency. By then, in an attempt to make things move faster, the rules for the filibuster were altered. Instead of forcing senators to speak, they only had to announce that they planned to speak, and if the opposition couldn’t get 60 votes to stop them, the filibuster was successful.

With Mitch McConnell as the Minority Leader, determined to do everything possible to stop the country’s first Black president from getting anything done, the Republicans filibustered basically every bill and nomination they could. McConnell even once filibustered his own bill, that’s how much he loves it.

Noah notes that while Republicans created this monster, Democrats embraced it when Trump was in office. Now, in order to get anything done, a party pretty much always needs 60 votes, since that’s the number required to strike down a filibuster, rather than the 51 it would take to just pass a bill outright.

And that’s why the filibuster is terrible and needs to go.

(image: screencap)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.