Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Lyndon Johnson, the Senate, and the people

When I've had occasional episodes of waxing enthusiastic about the Democratic Party no longer needing the South to assemble Congressional majorities, a wise friend has calmly reminded me -- "yes, but remember the Senate."

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:

the Senate is not a majoritarian body in a variety of ways. He pointed out that the 10 largest states are home to over half the population of the country, but they have only 20 of 100 votes in the Senate. He said that the requirement for 60 votes to shut off debate means that any controversial issue requires votes from both political parties in order to pass. This has become more difficult as the parties have polarized and there is greater unity within party caucuses. Partly because of the super-majority requirement, the Senate does the bulk of its business by unanimous consent. This results in giving both individual members (who can block unanimous consent) and the minority party (who can block the closure of debate) significant power in the Senate.

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.


Civic Center said...

Great advice. Are you really getting through that whole LBJ biography? Is Robert Caro? I read the first half of the Robert Moses book and the first volume of the LBJ book but they both so depressed (while enlightening) me that I couldn't continue.

janinsanfran said...

Don't know if I'll read the whole Caro oeuvre, but I'm certainly reading history these days. It helps some to put our current plight in perspective.

Darlene said...

Thank you for a very informative post. Johnson's leadership was legendary.