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Will Democrats finally nuke the filibuster to save democracy — and themselves?

THE FULCRUM, 02 / 14 / 2021

When we finally kill it off for good, it will be an epic day for America.

I’m not talking about the GOP. The survival of that party will be up to its voters. Or former voters.

And I’m not talking about the political death of the defendant that the Senate just acquitted. I stopped speaking and writing about that politician after January 20. Now that the trial is over, there’s even more reason to ignore him. 

When I say “almost dead” — I’m referring to the biggest blockage in our government — the ONE defect that has been holding us back from fixing the rest of them. For our system is rigged — just not in the ways you’ve become accustomed to hearing about from the world’s loudest perch.

So, you may ask: What the hell is it? We’re in the fifth graph here — when are you gonna name the damn thing?

I will. I promise. But first let me describe it for you — and the other big fixes it’s holding up. You see, if you boil down nearly the entire diagnosis in Unlock Congress into just a few sentences, it would read like this:

American voters are ill-served and unfairly represented in Congress due to an electoral system that: 


  1. Allows officeholders to rig legislative races through the partisan drawing of maps (“gerrymandering”) and by prohibiting Independent candidates from running in general elections after they’ve lost a primary, and;                                                                                                      


  1. Allows and encourages officeholders to raise billions of dollars (“The Money Flood”) to keep their seats, resulting in behavior and decision-making that is provably corrupt and unrepresentative of the majority of Americans’ preferences. 


Now, before we get to the big “kill,” there are two terrific developments that have come to pass since I first starting writing about this stuff. 

First, reformers in states across the country have earned big wins to improve our ailing system. From anti-corruption measures to money disclosure requirements to independent districting commissions and other fixes — a real movement has been quietly growing. One of the leading advocates of this charge — Represent.Us — is actually making reform cool (or as close as it gets). 

Second, there is something called the For The People Act that’s been introduced both in the US House and Senate. The bill proposes two direct solutions that I include in Unlock Congress — and it also tackles the fraught issue of voting rights. The Act includes: 


  1. Requiring ALL states to convene independent commissions to draw legislative maps. 
  1. Diluting the money flood by requiring disclosure of “dark money” contributions, setting up a small-donor matching system to empower candidates without wealthy networks, and strengthening the FEC and oversight of SUPER-PACS. 
  1. Restoring The Voting Rights Act, enacting new reforms to remove barriers to voting, and mandating paper ballots so that elections can be audited to ensure accuracy.


Here is where we get to the tricky part of the story. When I wrote my book back in 2015, I tried to make as nonpartisan an argument as possible in support of the above reforms. In fact, the thing I felt proudest about after its publication was the positive reaction it received from national voices across the political spectrum. 

I can still make those arguments in a non-political fashion because I truly believe that the prescriptions laid out in Unlock Congress are based in logic, fairness and constitutional rectitude.

But always floating within the space of this case is an undeniably consequential political fact: While plenty of Americans from both sides of the aisle favor these solutions when polled — the two major parties disagree. Especially right now.  

On the whole, Democrats passionately want to pass the For The People Act. It’s why they named it “HR1” when they introduced it as their first resolution in the House in 2019 — and why they did the same with S1 last month after scoring the Senate Majority. They’ve made it a priority. And all along, Republicans have opposed it. 

I can make Boy Scout arguments every day for improving our democracy, but there are clear political consequences that would result from it — and the GOP knows it. Perhaps none bigger than reducing the great power that Republicans have right now in state governments to gerrymander congressional districts in order to win back the House — which would happen even if the national vote was split 50/50. 

Yet now, for the first time in 12 years, the Democrats have political control both on Capitol Hill and in the White House. All things being equal, one would think that this is the moment in time when they finally have the power to pass these big reforms. 

But all things are not equal. And now we’ve arrived at the part of our story where I melodramatically unveil that monstrous blockage that must be killed. The dam that prevents our government from doing the things that most of us want it to do: One dumb Senate rule. Actually, it’s more of a pair of rules, born accidentally, 215 years ago, that requires a supermajority of 60 votes to pass most American laws — instead of the simple majority that was written into the Constitution by our founders.

These rules are called “filibuster” and “cloture.” And they both need to die. 

Simply put, the Democrats now possess 50 seats in the Senate plus a tie-breaking 51st vote through Vice President Harris. Fifty-one votes are not enough to pass HR1 and upgrade our representative democracy. Without 60, it’ll never be more than a piece of paper. 

When I made my case six years ago to kill the filibuster, it was not popularly shared. US Senators waxed lovingly of the “bipartisanship” that the rules produced and bemoaned the rights of the minority. I wasn’t buying it. Constitutional scholar Emmet Bondurant mentored me during that time, and we would eventually write an article together to advance our position. 

In 2017, GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reversed years of his own statements when he dropped the filibuster in order to start confirming Associate Justices to the Supreme Court. It was possibly the most predictable move ever seen in politics. McConnell plays hardball — and it’s how he got three conservative judges and a new ideological majority onto the bench that will live for decades. He won. 

Will the Democrats now do the same? Will they “go nuclear” and kill the filibuster on the one remaining thing that it still has the power to thwart — passing laws? 

We don’t know if they will. But we do know it’s possible. Over the last couple of years — and especially the last six months — some of the party’s biggest stars have come aboard and publicly spoken out in favor of removing the filibuster: Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, Stacey Abrams, Pete Buttigieg, and a fast-growing list of national opinion leaders. It is generally the same argument: The bottleneck can hold no more. Enough. 

However, standing in the way of the filibuster’s final death are two Democratic Senators from more conservative states, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema. They have vowed to not vote for its elimination over the next two years. Yet pressure has a way of moving politicians. That’s why they’re called politicians. 

Perhaps President Obama said it best as he eulogized the Honorable John R. Lewis — who fought for voting rights his entire life and helped to shape HR1. As Obama talked about the imperative of outlawing gerrymandering and restoring the voting protections that have been gutted in recent years, he finallly announced: 

“And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.” 


Are you listening, Senators? Do you want to get big things done? You have the power to make it happen. All you have to do is use it.