Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s latest reasons for supporting the legislative filibuster—and effectively killing voting rights legislation for the near future—reminded me of another specious political argument. But whose? It took me a day to make the connection.
Standing next to conservative Texas Senator John Cornyn, Sinema piously told reporters that progress in the Senate will require senators to “change the behavior,” not the “rules.” I realized belatedly that she was echoing (probably unintentionally) the way her predecessor, the late Arizona GOP Senator Barry Goldwater, framed his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act: “This is fundamentally a matter of the heart. The problems of discrimination can never be cured by laws alone.” Or as he told a crowd later: “You cannot pass a law that will make me like you or you like me. This is something that can happen only in our hearts.” (To be fair, he supported equal rights to voting and education, but opposed the act’s broad sweep in terms of some public and private accommodations.)
Despite Goldwater’s famous 1964 presidential slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” I think both Arizona senators were aware that they were wrong, but peddled a self-serving political argument anyway. Goldwater lost the battle—Lyndon Johnson crushed him that November—but won the war, with his minions taking over the GOP and pulling it to the far right (too far right for Goldwater, he said before he died). Sinema has no minions; her battle is for herself. But she could wind up doing the same thing as Goldwater, shifting the country sharply to the right again, with her ill-informed support for the filibuster.
It is weirdly fitting that Sinema is pulling from the old anti–civil rights playbook. For years, racial conservatives claimed that ending discrimination against black people was about changing “hearts and minds,” not laws. Gunnar Myrdal’s hugely influential 1944 treatise on American race relations, An America Dilemma, while groundbreaking in many ways, nonetheless concluded that racism is “a problem in the heart of the American…. It is there that the decisive struggle goes on.” While it was not his intent, Myrdal’s scholarship helped civil rights opponents, and even some liberals, argue that the problem of race was personal, not political.
Or as Sinema might assert, one that requires people to “change their behavior,” not focus on “rules” and laws.
But as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said to those who claimed laws can’t change “hearts”: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.” (King also noted that laws could “regulate behavior,” something Sinema should also think about.)
Beyond a rhetorical echo, it might seem a stretch to link Sinema’s claim about arcane Senate rules to Goldwater’s rejection of civil rights laws. It’s not. What did opponents of civil rights laws use to fight them, besides “hearts and minds” arguments? That’s right: the filibuster.
“The idea of the filibuster,” Sinema falsely claimed, “was created by those who came before us in the United States Senate to create comity and to encourage senators to find bipartisanship and work together.” In fact, the founders rejected the idea of a supermajority outright; it became part of Senate rules in the mid-1800s for reasons nobody can entirely explain, but wasn’t used much that century—except for blocking anti-slavery legislation, as it happens.
And its heyday, before the reign of GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell, was the 1950s and ’60s, Goldwater’s time, when racist white senators used it to block civil rights legislation.
As Adam Jentleson writes in his invaluable 2020 book, Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of Democracy: “The filibuster has mainly served to empower a minority of predominantly white conservatives to override our democratic system when they found themselves outnumbered.” He notes that in the almost nine decades between Reconstruction’s end and 1964, “the only bills that were stopped by filibusters were civil rights bills.” A bipartisan team of opponents, but mainly Southern Democrats, filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act for roughly two months before it ultimately passed. (In those days, senators actually had to speak and hold the floor in order to filibuster; now they just have to vote to block debate.)
Does Sinema know this history of the filibuster? Did she realize she was echoing Goldwater? She doesn’t strike me as someone who has Rick Perlstein’s great Goldwater history, Before the Storm, on her bookshelf. But Jentleson’s analysis of the filibuster’s history is now common knowledge, at least among liberals: Few books have smashed our amber-preserved mis-tellings of history faster than Jentleson’s. If Sinema doesn’t know that history, she ought to.
The other major Democratic filibuster opponent, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, offers slightly different arguments, but, what is maybe more important, plays to an entirely different, more conservative electorate. Once-red Arizona is changing rapidly, not just demographically but also politically. It not only elected Sinema in 2020, but also Senator Mark Kelly (who says he’d consider filibuster reform) and Joe Biden in 2020 (West Virginia went for Trump by almost 40 points). Arizona is the site of a wing nut guerrilla audit of Democratic Maricopa County’s November votes, which is riling up even some Republicans. Sinema might find that her refusal to do what’s necessary to protect her state’s voters won’t play well.
Phyllis Schlafly’s famous 1964 endorsement of Goldwater was called “A Choice, Not an Echo.” Here’s hoping Arizona Democratic primary voters get a choice, not an echo of Goldwater, in 2024.