The teenage organizers of the March for Our Lives rally distinguish themselves from many other issue advocates by making voting and elections central to their whole project. Marchers on Saturday, in Washington, D.C. and around the country, punctuated speeches by chanting “vote them out,” and the Parkland survivors have made defeating recalcitrant members of Congress and state legislatures a core theme of those speeches.
“The people demand a law banning the sale of assault weapons,” said Cameron Kasky, one of the most high-profile Parkland students. “The people demand that we prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines. The people demand universal background checks. Stand for us or beware. The voters are coming.”
Their proposition is that routine gun violence and massacres at high schools have activated enough of the citizenry that sitting lawmakers will either enact measures like these, or lose their jobs, giving way to a new government will be more responsive to their demands.
They are almost certainly correct that the path to changing gun laws runs through winning elections—through exceeding the political clout of single-issue, pro-gun voters so that elected officials fear reformers more than whatever the National Rifle Association says they should be afraid of.
But at some point along the way they are going to have to broaden their theory of change to encompass not just who’s in Congress, but how Congress works. And that, ironically enough, may bring them into league in a limited way with President Donald Trump.
When Trump last week signed an omnibus spending bill, which will keep the government open for the next six months, he reiterated his demand that the Senate abolish the filibuster rule. “We have to get rid of the filibuster rule,” he said. “We have to get rid of the filibuster rule and go to 51 votes in the Senate if we’re going to have really sustained, continued success.”
As currently constituted, the filibuster acts as a de facto supermajority requirement for all but the least-contentious legislation the Senate considers. It takes the Senate’s inherent anti-democratic qualities and (generally speaking) compounds them dramatically. If 41 out of 100 senators stop a bill, it is unlikely that they will represent the majority of the people. The 41 senators representing the smallest states in the country can theoretically align to kill a bill, which means the rules allow for a tiny minority of the population to have effective veto power over the country’s business.
Trump, to be clear, is not an earnest tribune for democratic reforms. He was elected with a minority of the vote, and would almost certainly reverse his position on the filibuster were Democrats to regain power. His interest in filibuster reform is an outgrowth of his own correct sense that the filibuster is a significant check on his power right now, when his party controls the entire government. It’s not clear what the first year of Trump’s presidency would have looked like without the filibuster. One of the filibuster’s more pernicious effects is the way it allows lawmakers to hide their true views behind certainty that a great deal of legislation is doomed from the outset. It’s much easier, for instance, to advocate for big spending cuts when you know the cuts will never become law. Without the filibuster, Republicans would have been more susceptible to infighting and embarrassing failure, but Democrats would have been practically defenseless against the GOP’s assault on liberal priorities.
It would have been cosmically unfair for the GOP to win power with a minority of the vote, and then eliminate the main impediment they had abused under Democratic rule to more easily loot the country. But it would have been in the long-run interest of progressive goals—which is a big reason why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has resisted Trump’s demands.
When they elect a government that has their interests in mind, only to find that none of the items on the gun-reform wishlist can become law because they “only” have 59 votes, today’s young movement leaders will find that Trump has a good point, if not a sincerely held one.
In theory, Democrats could win a Senate supermajority in the coming years, which would allow them (again, in theory) to thwart Republican filibusters. But in reality it’s extremely unlikely, and in practice wouldn’t necessarily put gun reform legislation on the glide path to passage. It took an extraordinary alignment of forces for Democrats to gain 60 votes in the Senate for a few months in 2009, and entailed, among many other things, winning a Senate seat in Alaska. Several of those senators weren’t particularly well-disposed to the Democratic Party agenda to begin with. Gun reformers could easily become the majority of senators, but there are vanishingly few ways to tally up the 30-plus states that would have to elect pro-gun reform Democrats to make the filibuster a non-issue.
Sooner or later, the Stoneman Douglas students are likely to find that the filibuster is thwarting their objectives, but that the filibuster only exists at the discretion of the majority party in the Senate. When that happens, they’ll have to direct their considerable abilities toward the cause of filibuster reform, or their primary and more substantive campaign will run aground.