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

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

Every major decision governing our diverse, majority-female, and increasingly liberal country bears the stamp of the United States Senate, an institution controlled by people who are almost exclusively white, overwhelmingly male, and disproportionately conservative. Although they do not represent a majority of Americans—and will not for the foreseeable future—today’s Republican senators possess the power to block most legislation. Once known as “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” the Senate has become one of the greatest threats to our democracy. How did this happen?


In Kill Switch, Senate insider Adam Jentleson contends that far from reflecting the Framers’ vision, the Senate has been transformed over the decades by a tenacious minority of white conservatives. From John Calhoun in the mid-1800s to Mitch McConnell in the 2010s, their primary weapon has been the filibuster, or the requirement that most legislation secure the support of a supermajority of senators. Yet, as Jentleson reveals, the filibuster was not a feature of the original Senate and, in allowing a determined minority to gridlock the federal government, runs utterly counter to the Framers’ intent.


For much of its history, the filibuster was used primarily to prevent civil rights legislation from becoming law. But more recently, Republicans have refined it into a tool for imposing their will on all issues, wielding it to thwart an increasingly progressive American majority represented by Barack Obama’s agenda and appointees. Under Donald Trump, McConnell merged the filibuster with rigid leadership structures initially forged by Lyndon Johnson, in the process surrendering the Senate’s independence and centrality, as infamously shown by its acquiescence in Trump’s impeachment trial. The result is a failed institution and a crippled democracy.


Taking us into the Capitol Hill backrooms where the institution’s decline is most evident, Jentleson shows that many of the greatest challenges of our era—partisan polarization, dark money, a media culture built on manufactured outrage—converge within the Senate. Even as he charts the larger forces that have shaped the institution where he served, Jentleson offers incisive portraits of the powerful senators who laid the foundation for the modern Senate, from Calhoun to McConnell to LBJ’s mentor, Richard Russell, to the unapologetic racist Jesse Helms.


An essential, revelatory investigation, Kill Switch ultimately makes clear that unless we immediately and drastically reform the Senate’s rules and practices—starting with reforming the filibuster—we face the prospect of permanent minority rule in America.

Title:Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy
Edition Language:English
ISBN:9781631497780
Format Type:

    Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy Reviews

  • Alexander

    This is a timely, important book about the rise of an obstructionist, minority-rule Senate. Jentleson (former Deputy Chief of Staff to Majority Leader Harry Reid) does an excellent job laying out the ...

  • Karen

    Kill Switch is well written and describes U.S. Senate processes and procedures through history. So why did I have to push myself not to put it down?Because it's intensely depressing that the U.S. Sena...

  • Kalyn

    An excellent tracing of the history of how, in the author's wonderful turn of phrase, "the Senate's minority protections have been inflated into tools of minority domination." There is a ton of good i...

  • Anthony Caruso

    Everybody who knows me, or follows me on social media, knows that I am a political nerd. Probably, to a fault, I could be described as a political hobbyist. Likewise, anyone who knows me or follows me...

  • Ben

    A fairly interesting refresher on the history of the US Senate. There's quite a big jump made after Johnson's term as Majority Leader—which Jentleseon explains, but is still odd. Given that today's ...

  • Christian Morse

    Great book. Lays out in fascinating detail the history of the Senate filibuster’s corroding effects on “the world’s most deliberative body.”...

  • Paul Froehlich

    Which form of government is preferable -- rule by the majority or by the minority? Most Americans would say the former, so long as there were protections for minority rights. Most contemporary Republi...

  • Nancy

    Finished: 11.02.2021Genre: non-fictionRating: A++++Conclusion:Why the Republicans have remained in power so long?....filibuster! Time to #EducateYourself! My Thoughts ...

  • Glennon Harrison

    This is an excellent book and a good choice for anyone interested in understanding how and why the Senate is so dysfunctional. The author, Adam Jentleson, has written a timely history and an excellent...

  • Janine K

    A must read for anyone who wants to understand why the Senate is broken and what can be done to fix it. Meticulously recounts the history of the evolving iterations of the filibuster and its implicati...