The Senate, Democracy & the Filibuster

Students consider arguments over whether the filibuster should be abolished - and learn about its context and racist roots.


Invite a volunteer to read the following lines from the poem “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman (which she read at the Biden-Harris inauguration on January 20, 2021):

It's because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it's the past we step into
and how we repair it.
We've seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth,
in this faith we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.

Invite students to share one after the other, what these words bring up for them in the context of the moment of history we find ourselves in.  


Introduction and Background on the U.S. Senate

Tell students:

  • Today,  we will explore the controversy over how and whether legislation will be passed in the U.S. Congress under newly elected President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
  • Specifically we will be looking at the fight over the filibuster – and explore the racist roots of that procedure. 

Depending on how familiar students are with the American government’s legislative branch, consider providing some background for students using some or all of the following activities.

“Senate” Word Cloud

Create a mentimeter word cloud around the word “Senate.”  Give each student the opportunity to contribute up to three associations, then look at the word cloud and ask students:

  • What do you notice about the word cloud?
  • What do you know about the Senate in the context of the American democratic system? 
  • What recent changes in the Senate have made headline news?  Why?

Overview of Recent Events 

Elicit a quick overview of recent events, including:

  • On January 5, 2021, Georgia Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both won their runoff elections to become U.S. Senators.
  • As a result, the Senate is now evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans (50-50). 
  • Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris will cast tie-breaking votes – meaning that the Democrats hold a razor thin majority in the Senate. (Under the U.S. Constitution, the vice president is also president of the Senate and votes when there is a tie.)

How the Senate Works

Consider showing this 2-minute video from Voice of America Learning English, which outlines the basic structure and duties of the U.S. Senate:  What Is the U.S. Senate?

Alternatively, elicit and explain some basic information about the U.S. legislative system, as it is conventionally presented. You might draw on the information below from the White House website.

Established by Article I of the Constitution, the Legislative Branch consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which together form the United States Congress. The Constitution grants Congress the sole authority to enact legislation and declare war, the right to confirm or reject many Presidential appointments, and substantial investigative powers.  ….

The Senate is composed of 100 Senators, 2 for each state. … They are elected to six-year terms by the people of each state. Senators’ terms are staggered so that about one-third of the Senate is up for reelection every two years. Senators must be 30 years of age, U.S. citizens for at least nine years, and residents of the state they represent.  The Vice President of the United States serves as President of the Senate and may cast the decisive vote in the event of a tie in the Senate.  ….

In order to pass legislation and send it to the President for his or her signature, both the House and the Senate must pass the same bill by majority vote. If the President vetoes a bill, they may override his veto by passing the bill again in each chamber with at least two-thirds of each body voting in favor.



The Senate, the Filibuster and History

Invite students to read the following segment. After reading it, ask them to discuss the content according to the questions below, in small (breakout) groups before coming back to the whole group to discuss as a class. 

Repeat this process with each of the four segments.


1. The Senate and American Democracy

According to a recent Vox article by Ian Millhiser: “If the Senate were anything approaching a democratic institution … the Democratic Party would have a commanding majority in Congress’s upper house.”  

The Senate gives small states like Wyoming the same number of senators as large states like California, even though California has about 68 times as many residents as Wyoming.  Smaller states tend to be whiter and more conservative than larger states, which gives the Republicans an enormous advantage in the fight for control of the Senate.  

With Georgia Democratic Senators Warnock and Ossoff now sworn in, the Senate is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.  However, the Democratic half of the Senate represents 41,549,808 more people than the Republican half based on 2019 United States Census Bureau population estimates. Millhiser writes: “A commanding majority of the nation elected a Democrat to the United States Senate, but half of all senators will be Republicans.”


  • What does this segment say about the Senate and democracy?
  • What does the segment say about the relative representation Democratic and Republican voters in the Senate?


2. The Senate, American Democracy, and Race

In an article in The Intelligencer, Jonathan Chait describes another way the Senate is not representative:

“Residents of small states have proportionally more representation, and small states tend to have fewer minority voters. Therefore, the Senate gives more voting power to white America, and less to everybody else. The roughly 2.7 million people living in Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, and North Dakota, who are overwhelmingly white, have the same number of Senators representing them as the 110 million or so people living in California, Texas, Florida, and New York, who are quite diverse.  The Senate is affirmative action for white people.”  

Chait goes on to argue that the Senate’s existence is “the ungainly result of hardheaded political compromise between people who believed in some version of what we’d call ‘democracy’ and people who didn’t. The Founders mostly hated the idea of a one-state, one-vote chamber. They grudgingly accepted it as (in James Madison’s formulation) a ‘lesser evil,’ needed to buy off small states like Delaware.”


  • What does this segment say about the Senate and democracy?
  • What does the segment say about the relative representation of white voters and that of BIPOC voters in the Senate?


3. Race and the History of the Filibuster

A relic of the Jim Crow era that has, until recently been largely overlooked is the Senate filibuster—the rule that allows a minority of senators to delay or block most any legislation.

According to an article in The Atlantic by David Litt, the filibuster was created by mistake in 1806 but has survived, despite the fact that in the early 20th century, many senators favored eliminating the obstructionist practice altogether. At the time, a compromise was reached and the filibuster in its modern form was born. 

“One faction in particular was large and well organized enough to make good use of the new filibuster: southern segregationist Democrats,” writes Litt. “And the single issue on which they were most unified—and to which they were most adamantly opposed—was civil rights ….  In fact, and somewhat ironically, it was precisely because the filibuster was such an effective tool for defending segregation, and because segregationists in turn became the filibuster’s staunchest defenders, that obstruction on other issues was relatively rare. Most senators didn’t want to legitimize Jim Crow’s favorite procedural tactic.”

Litt argues that this dynamic has helped shape U.S. policy – and the direction of our country – ever since: “On the one hand, the Senate helped build the America we have today, passing the bulk of the New Deal, the Marshall Plan, the Interstate Highway System, and plenty of other big, ambitious bills. Yet, during that same time, the former Confederacy was allowed to maintain a system of autocratic, racist, one-party rule. Americans were murdered, unjustly imprisoned, denied the right to vote, and treated by their own country as subhuman—all because of the Senate’s unique and often venerated procedure” – the filibuster.

Sen. Allen Ellender of Louisiana poses after completing a 28-day filibuster to block an anti-lynching bill in 1938.



  • What does this segment say about the Senate and democracy?
  • What does the segment say about the filibuster, the Senate and democracy historically?
  • Whose democracy?  At what cost?


4. Race and the Filibuster Today

In the same article in the The Atlantic, David Litt writes that:

Today, the filibuster continues to hold back progress on civil rights. Because the chamber’s two-senators-per-state structure favors smaller-population rural states, disproportionately white states have disproportionate power in the Senate. Combine this with the current 60-vote threshold for passing legislation, and it’s not hard to see why racial justice is a far more urgent priority for Americans than it is for senators. In fact, just two weeks ago, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul used a parliamentary delaying trick to hold up an anti-lynching bill. The segregationists of a century ago would be proud.

Yet there is a fundamental difference between the obstruction that frustrates leaders in our era and the obstruction [from years past] …. We don’t need to choose between having a democracy and allowing racist systems to continue. In fact, today, we face the opposite choice: self-government and anti-racism on one hand; autocracy and white nationalism on the other. Doing away with the Senate filibuster would not, of course, mean the end of systemic racism. But it would make anti-racist policies far easier to pass than they are today, and it would help dismantle both the legacy and machinery of Jim Crow.


  • What does this segment say about the Senate and democracy?
  • What does the segment say about the filibuster, the Senate and democracy today?
  • Whose democracy? 


Invite another volunteer to read the following lines from the same poem, “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman:

And yes we are far from polished.
Far from pristine.
But that doesn't mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge a union with purpose,
to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands
between us,
but what stands before us.

Extension Activity

If you and your students are interested in further reading and discussion about the filibuster debate, consider reading:

The Senate Filibuster Is Another Monument to White Supremacy: Tear it down. 
by David Litt in The Atlantic

The Democratic debate over filibuster reform, explained
by Matthew Yglesias in Vox

Don’t Fall for Filibuster Abolition – It’s a Trap
by Carl Levin and Richard A. Arenberg in the Washington Post