Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

“Minority Rights” and the Filibuster

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Matthew Yglesias writes about the history of the filibuster today. As he correctly points out, it was largely used in the past to prevent Civil Rights legislation from passing. In fact, one could basically say that for most of the 20th century you needed a simple majority to pass anything, except laws that benefited black Southerners. For that, you needed a super-majority. To the degree that history matters, what is interesting is that both now and throughout the century, Southern whites have been the worst abusers of the filibuster. Until the 1960s Southern whites, of course, dominated the reactionary wing of the Democratic party, and filibustered any civil rights legislation, today they constitute the bulk of the Republican party and filibuster, well, everything.

What’s interesting to this nerdy historian, is the degree to which the filibuster in its modern form overlaps with the political philosophy of the slaveholding class. Take John Calhoun. Calhoun was the intellectual brains behind the pro-slavery Southern political strategy in the antebellum South (plus he had truly creepy eyes, look at him!). Calhoun was obsessed with the problem of protecting slavery in a democracy. He realized that the North was growing faster than the South, since almost every immigrant moved to a free state, and that the North was becoming less friendly to slavery with the rise of abolitionism. He also didn’t trust the 75% of Southern whites who didn’t own slaves (not to mention the slaves themselves). The threat, as Calhoun correctly saw it, was that eventually all the non-slaveholders would just outvote the slaveholders, and slavery would die.

The solution, for Calhoun, was to protect minority rights from the majority. To limit, in other words, the ability of the majority to rule on certain issues.

Traditional Jeffersonian/Jacksonian political philosophy was majoritarian (the people should rule!) but it also supported States’ Rights (power should be local!). Calhoun deftly manipulated this contradiction by increasingly attempting to align the Democratic Party with states’ rights, even supporting Nullification, the theory that any state can override a federal law (it was his support of South Carolina’s nullification that led to Calhoun’s falling out with Jackson). The “majority” (excluding the usual suspects – blacks, women, etc…) could rule in South Carolina, but not on the national stage.

Like other Southerners, Calhoun was obsessed with the Senate, and aware that the House would be dominated by Northerners, but figured that as long as the South had equal numbers of Senate seats they would be protected from anti-slavery legislation. At the state level, he opposed expansions of the franchise and other forms of democratization, so that states like South Carolina remained completely dominated by the Coastal planter elite. He was also conspicuously hostile to European democratic revolutionaries, who he associated with abolitionists.

Now Calhoun, it is true, did not use or advocate for the filibuster. As far as I know, no one regularly used the filibuster in the antebellum period the way they do today. But he was obsessed with minority rights within a democracy. To be clear here, I don’t mean a racial or religious minority. Calhoun wasn’t a big fan of those. Rather the minority that Calhoun was interested in was a sectional and economic minority, which in his case was the small group of wealthy planters in the South. States’ rights, the Senate, and Constitutional guarantees of slavery were all necessary to protect the Southern slave-owner from the potential threat of national democracy.

As a biographer of Calhoun writes: “He believed the abuse of power to be inherent in the nature of man, and consequently as much to be feared from a numerical majority as from a single individual… the equality of men, on which Thomas Jefferson has rested the case for majority rule, found no place in Calhoun’s system.” He desired “some sort of federal structure which left in the hands of the parts sufficient power to resist the abuses of their common rulers.” That last bit sounds weighty, perhaps even reasonable, but it was entirely premised on the desire to carve out a space where slavery could not be touched, and where the rowdy masses could not interfere with the “interests” of the rich.

This suggests to me at least that there is a long-standing fear of democracy in certain aspects of Southern conservative thought.

And even if you don’t buy the historical links, it should stand as a reminder that “minority rights” aren’t always good things. Defenders of the filibuster see it as a way to protect minority opinion. But minorities can as easily be whites oppressing blacks, rich people exploiting poor, etc…, as they can be racial or religious minorities who deserve protection.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

February 4, 2010 at 22:00

One Response

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  1. This is beyond obvious, but the Senate either needs to be eliminated or completely revamped. It’s beyond elitist and the whole 2 person per state thing in a nation of 300+ million is ridiculous. It’s simply not representation by any stretch of the imagination. The list of reasons would take a book…so then we get back to the chicken & egg problem of education & gov’t, everything in America seems to come back to people just not being educated (from high school dropouts to Harvard MBAs…but then is a nation of 300 million plus and growing of well-educated people really sustainable in a “capitalist” economy, well, probably not…I don’t see how it isn’t blatantly obvious (and therefore the focus) as to the fact that our way of governing just simply does not work. In other words, it ain’t gonna be fixed. It’s about how to change it. All this how to fix it stuff is a sideshow, it’s a distraction. It’s the conversation you’re having as somebody snatches your wallet. And the proof is American History itself, when is this great American Golden Era of freedom & democracy? Some positive steps were being taken pretty much until the DNC of 68 and from then on it’s been 40 lost years and counting.

    In 1968, America chose who America is at heart, and from there on out, we’ve been witnessing Destiny reveal herself…(this shit about the 90’s being an alright time, absolutely not, and we know this really through 9/11 and how this country responded.)


    February 5, 2010 at 11:55

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