Wendy Davis and the political power of the filibuster

June 26, 2013

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis' 11-hour long filibuster of an abortion bill on Tuesday riveted the country -- at one point there were nearly 200,000 people following the livestream of her remarks -- and proved, yet again, a very simple political fact: We are suckers for a good, old fashioned filibuster.


Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis (D).

Davis' talk-a-thon had it all. A female state Senator opposing legislation that would close the vast majority of abortion clinics in the Lone Star state. A cavalcade of women packing the chamber to support her. The remarkably strict rules governing filibusters in Texas which led to a dispute at one point over whether in putting on a back brace Davis had ceded the floor.

The confluence of those factors catapulted Davis from a member of the minority party in the Texas legislature into a national Democratic heroine in the space of just a few hours. And, it's not the first time this year that we've seen a filibuster have that effect.

Back in early March, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul held the floor for more than 12 hours as he spoke out against the Obama Administration's drone policies.  In the course of those 12 hours, the leading lights of the Republican party -- including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and 2016 frontrunner Marco Rubio (Fla.) -- made their way to the floor to offer support for Paul.  By the time it was over, Paul, already a much-discussed 2016 presidential candidate, had become the talk of the GOP.

So, what makes filibusters so appealing and winning to the American public? Three big reasons.

First, Americans crave authenticity from politicians -- and rarely get it.  The general sense among the public is that all politicians poll-test every position they take and rarely act out of genuine principle. That belief leads to massive cynicism about politicians' motives and an increasing disconnect between politicians and the people they represent.

A filibuster is a living, breathing rejection of that cynicism.  It is, in the eyes of the public, a testimony to the politics of principle -- that someone believes so strongly in an issue that they are willing to push themselves physically to stand up, literally, for it.

Second, Americans love an underdog.  We tend to think of ourselves as the little guy and so we are drawn to the David who is willing to pick up the stone and sling it at a political Goliath. Davis, a Democrat in strongly Republican Texas, typified that underdog status as, in an odd way, did Paul who chose an issue -- drones -- on which he stands on the opposite side of most Americans.

Third, a filibuster is political theater of the highest sort. And, no matter what people tell you, we LOVE political theater.  The idea of a single person standing for that long, without eating, without going to the bathroom etc. appeals to our desire for the dramatic.

Our bet: Judging by the response Davis and Paul drew for their filibusters, you might be seeing more of them coming to state legislatures and Congress in the near future. And, rest assured, you'll be watching.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza | June 26, 2013