Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy (Paperback)

Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy By Adam Jentleson Cover Image
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With a new epilogue on filibuster battles under the Biden administration


"A truly excellent book… blistering and persuasive.” —Ezra Klein, New York Times

An insider’s account of how politicians representing a radical white minority of Americans have used “the world’s greatest deliberative body” to hijack our democracy.

Our democracy is under assault from homegrown authoritarians, with most observers blaming Donald Trump and the Republican Party that submitted to him. Yet as Adam Jentleson shows, the problem not only goes back to the nineteenth century, but is less about the presidency than it is about our nation’s most venerated institution: the United States Senate. A revelatory history of minority rule in America as expressed through the Senate filibuster, Kill Switch shows that white conservatives have long relied on the filibuster—which is not featured in the Constitution, and which, as Jentleson demonstrates, the Framers would have opposed—to shut down attempts to create a multiracial democracy. Featuring a new epilogue on filibuster battles under the Biden administration, Kill Switch will remain an essential warning about the costs of empowering this nation’s right-wing minority.

• “Jentleson understands the inner workings of the institution, down to the most granular details, showing precisely how arcane procedural rules can be leveraged to dramatic effect.” —Jennifer Szalai, New York Times

• “Careful and thorough and exacting.” —Michael Tomasky, New York Review of Books

• “[An] excellent, surprising new book.” —Benjamin Wallace-Wells, The New Yorker

About the Author

Adam Jentleson is the executive director of Battle Born Collective and a former deputy chief of staff to Senator Harry Reid. A columnist for GQ and frequent political commentator on MSNBC, he lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Praise For…

Adam Jentleson’s Kill Switch is the most exquisitely timed book I’ve encountered in years. Jentleson’s explanation of the filibuster’s ignominious roots, and of the mendacious arguments made today by its defenders, is careful and thorough and exacting. Every senator should be forced to read it and then reread it.

— Michael Tomasky - New York Review of Books

[An] excellent, surprising new book . . . Jentleson is knowledgeable and adept, offering an account of increasingly flagrant obstruction that culminates in the age of McConnell.
— Benjamin Wallace-Wells - The New Yorker

An impeccably timed book. . . . In Kill Switch, Jentleson explains how ‘the world’s greatest deliberative body’ has come to carry out its work without much greatness or even deliberation, serving instead as a place where ambitious legislation goes to die. . . . [Jentleson’s] intimacy with the Senate turns out to be his book’s greatest strength. Jentleson understands the inner workings of the institution, down to the most granular details, showing precisely how arcane procedural rules can be leveraged to dramatic effect.

— Jennifer Szalai - New York Times

[L]eading Democrats, including Reid and former president Barack Obama, are pressing for a sweeping rehab of the “home” Biden has found so comfortable. Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy, a new book by Adam Jentleson, makes for a powerful brief on their behalf… a compelling read.

— Kathy Kiely - Washington Post

[A]n important new book… Adam Jentleson offers a harrowing portrait of how anti-majoritarian dysfunction has paralyzed the U.S. Senate… he writes with an insider’s knowledge… As the Senate has deviated further and further from majoritarian norms, the House and the state legislatures have followed. Among the great merits of Jentleson’s Kill Switch is that it reminds us how recent this trend is.

— David Frum - The Atlantic

[P]erfectly timed… authoritative and well-documented.
— Lloyd Green - The Guardian

[A] powerful historical account.
— Julian Zelizer -

[C]harts the rise and repeated mutations of the filibuster… Jentleson assesses the chamber without the institutional nostalgia that tends to infect its alumni. He ably punctures the propaganda its advocates created to defend it (primarily a tool to allow the South from being outnumbered in Congress by the North, first on slavery, and later on civil rights).
— Jonathan Chait - New York

[A] well-crafted call for reform… lively and effective… enlivened with war stories… Jentleson’s point in retelling the history is to drive a truck through defenders’ two leading talking points. First, the filibuster was never about the principle of unlimited debate. That was always a fig leaf for minority power. Second, its effects are not symmetric; no reason to cool it on reform because the shoe will eventually be on the other foot. Democrats want more from the federal government and need legislation to enact it.
— Daniel Schlozman - n+1

Informative and timely... A startling read that will provoke tough questions about governance, this is highly recommended to all interested in government reform.
— Library Journal, starred review

Engrossing... Jentleson skillfully clarifies many arcane legislative procedures and brings a wide range of historical episodes to vivid life. Readers will be galvanized to make the issue of Senate reform a priority.
— Publishers Weekly, starred review

In Kill Switch, Adam Jentleson has created both an essential portrait of a Senate—and a political system—in crisis, as well as a crystal-clear analysis of how to save it. Combining prodigious research with the experience of serving at the right hand of Harry Reid, this is a necessary book for understanding why the Senate has become the key impediment to governance in America. Every member of the US Senate should read it, and so should the rest of us.

— Ezra Klein, New York Times bestselling author of Why We’re Polarized

Kill Switch is a damning account of how a tool honed to maintain white supremacy has come to cost us all. After reading Jentleson's book, you'll understand why President Obama called the filibuster a Jim Crow relic, and you'll want to join the movement to end it, for the sake of our economy, our democracy, and our planet.

— Heather McGhee, author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together

Adam Jentleson is a creature of the Senate and no one understands it better than he does. This iconic American institution has been severely damaged by feckless Republican senators who kowtow to every erratic action of Donald Trump. Jentleson understands restoring the Senate to the Framer’s vision as an exceptionally strong deliberative body is essential to restoring our democracy.
— Harry Reid, former U.S. Senator and Senate Majority Leader

The Senate is now profoundly rigged, with rules that make it easy to pass tax cuts for the rich and to pack the courts for the powerful, but allow the minority party to block bills to assist ordinary families. The Senate is now the graveyard for bills to improve health care, housing, education, worker rights, or to tackle issues like criminal justice, immigration, gun safety, or climate chaos. The biggest culprit of this corrupted, paralyzed Senate is the filibuster, which was born out of the determination of white, wealthy, privileged interests to block civil rights for minority Americans. If you want to understand the Senate’s descent, and its potential path back to relevance, and how vital that path is to restoring a government ‘of, by, and for the people,’ then this book is essential reading.
— Senator Jeff Merkley

[A] must-read.
— Anand Giridharadas, bestselling author of Winners Take All

The Senate is the epicenter of American political dysfunction: the place where ideas with broad support are sent to die while those backed by plutocrats and extremists are set into law. In this analytically rich yet highly readable insider account, Adam Jentleson shows why today’s undemocratic Senate is an affront to the Framers’ vision—and how we can fix it.
— Jacob Hacker, best-selling coauthor of Let Them Eat Tweets and Winner-Take-All Politics

A provocative portrait of a dysfunctional—by design, it seems—U.S. Senate.... The Senate has been in a long state of decline, writes Jentleson, public affairs director at Democracy Forward and former deputy chief of staff to Sen. Harry Reid.... An astute and maddening account of a broken institution and, in turn, a broken democracy.
— Kirkus Reviews
Product Details
ISBN: 9781324091981
ISBN-10: 1324091983
Publisher: Liveright
Publication Date: August 16th, 2022
Pages: 352
Language: English