His point is that the framers of the Constitution created in the Senate a body that is profoundly anti-democratic, if we take the standard of democracy to be "one person, one vote." Moreover, it is a body whose own rules enable a few determined Senators to prevent a majority from getting anything done. Karl Kurtz reports that Donald Ritchie, an historian of the Senate, explained it this way:
We've certainly seen plenty of failure to get anything done since the Democrats won a majority in 2006 and Harry Reid took over as Majority Leader. The Senate is an intentionally constructed logjam waiting to damn up the flow of majority demands.
Though the events chronicled in this massive volume took place half a century ago, Robert A. Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate paints a picture of a Senate not so different from Harry Reid's. When Johnson got there in 1950, he walked into a chamber in which a Southern Democratic caucus abetted by conservative Republicans blocked all progressive legislation, including the entire social program of the Truman administration. Above all this alliance had blocked any move to ensure African American civil rights for some seventy years.
Johnson did what no one in the current Democratic Senate seems to have any capacity or desire to do: he worked the system and the Senators to accumulate the power to move legislation through this most difficult body. Most of what he wanted to move was decidedly not liberal legislation: he thrived on deregulating natural gas and protecting tax breaks for oil companies.
Before Johnson took over the office in 1952, being the party leader of a Senate caucus was a thankless recipe for failure. Senators could not be herded; seniority ruled and determined minorities could stymie any unwelcome measure. Minority and majority leaders had little power and got blamed by all factions. Johnson managed through skillful cajolery, flattery and strategic bullying to get his Democrats moving in relative unison on many matters. So despite being in opposition to the wildly popular President Dwight Eisenhower, his Senate retained its pre-eminent role in government. And Johnson proved that a tough Senate leader could lead the place.
But Johnson's trajectory also shows that even the most seemingly autocratic and backward leader can be persuaded to use his power for progressive ends if powerful enough democratic forces are mobilized. In the mid-50s, Johnson had the Senate eating out of his majority leading hand -- but he wanted to be President. And a bruising failed attempt to win the Democratic nomination in 1956 taught him that unless he could make some measure of peace with liberals, he didn't have a chance on the national stage.
So in 1957, he set out to get some kind of civil rights bill passed. And he got a civil rights bill. The legislation was a pitiful baby step, but Johnson had showed that a Texan with all the prejudices of the South, a man who routinely got his own way in all things legislative, could be forced, in the service of his ambition, to go exactly where he didn't want to go.
This is a lesson worth internalizing. The most ambitious pols may look like the toughest nuts for progressives to crack, but they are also the ones most likely to respond to organized, unrelenting, committed popular pressures. Unlike the time-servers and the merely venal ones, they need popular approval, at least periodically.