Carl Levin Isn’t Giving Up on American Democracy

In his new memoir, Michigan’s six-term senator stresses the need for cooperation and self-sacrifice in modern politics
Carl Levin
Carl Levin’s new memoir (Wayne State University Press, $30) offers a prescription for our politics. // Image courtesy of Wayne State University Press

Michigan’s longest-serving U.S. senator has a lot to say. Carl Levin, who served 36 years in Washington and retired in 2015, goes deep in Getting to the Heart of the Matter, a new memoir about his travels, his six terms in Washington, and more. And then the 86-year-old elder Democratic statesman went even deeper with Hour Detroit in a candid interview about his successes, his disappointments, and his hopes and fears for the nation.

Hour Detroit: In the 1970s, you served on the Detroit City Council. How important is local government and what did you learn from it?

Carl Levin: Whether it’s education, healthcare, having access to an emergency room, garbage pickup, water service, clean water, streets that are repaired — local governments are in an absolutely critical position to provide services. I saw too many examples of where you had a well-intended program, like the HUD program in Detroit, that actually damaged the city because it was so badly run. We ended up with 10,000 or more HUD-owned vacant houses, which were eyesores and a danger to the neighborhood. So we had a well-publicized incident where we tore down a HUD house to show that we had the power, under the police power. They threatened to indict me and all the rest. I knew it was hollow because, heck — if they indicted me, the jury would convict HUD, they wouldn’t convict me as the president of the City Council. I learned not just the importance of government programs working, but how you’ve got to use oversight as an investigative tool, to provide the evidence of where there’s failures.

In your book, you emphasize the importance of sharing credit and communicating with opponents. Is that a way out of our current hyperpartisan dysfunction?

Yes. Understandably, different people have different experiences and views. But if you want to do something right, if you want to get something accomplished for your town or your state or the country, you listen to the other guy, consider the argument and be open. You’ve got to seek common ground, and part of that is not taking sole credit for stuff when somebody else deserves credit. You really should go overboard to help other people get some credit for something, too, because everybody in public life wants to be productive. 

Many Democrats want to kill the Senate filibuster, which requires 60 votes to close debate and vote on most legislation. You defend the filibuster and opposed then-Majority Leader Harry Reid’s 2013 decision to end it for confirmation of judges and other presidential appointments. Why?

The filibuster forces people — unless they get a supermajority — to work together. You had to reach to get some other party members. And it’s a way to stop bad stuff. Just imagine if the filibuster hadn’t been destroyed by the so-called “nuclear option” for confirmation of judges. Look what a different outcome we’d have on the Supreme Court. Most Democrats — all but three of us — voted to end it by breaking the Senate rules, and that helped create a terrible conflict in the Senate. The kind of division that you have here now, we contributed to it. We didn’t start it. It started by Mitch McConnell simply threatening to filibuster Obama’s judges. But now we have at least two of the three [Trump-nominated] Supreme Court justices who wouldn’t have been confirmed if the filibuster rule were in place. If the Republicans controlled the Senate, would you be willing to end the filibuster if they want it to end? When you ask the people who want to end the filibuster that question, they pause. Believe me. 

So what does Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer do, then?

Here’s the first thing: It’s not the filibuster that’s messing things up. It’s the threat of a filibuster. People just simply have to get up and threaten to filibuster and the majority leader says we won’t proceed that way. Back to Harry Reid, and we argued this out in our caucus. I argued, for God’s sake, make them filibuster. The response was, “Well, we have to give up weekends, you have to give up seeing the kids do, you know, soccer games and so forth.” Well, that’s true. There’s a price to be paid. But I know, deep in my gut, that if we had forced the Republicans threatening the filibuster to go ahead and get up there and filibuster this district court judge from South Dakota, how many Republicans would have been filibustering judges not from their states if they had to talk for 24 hours without going to the bathroom? That is pure filibustering. There’s a real price to be paid. And most people are not going to pay it for things they don’t deeply believe in. 

A lot of people would say, “Of course I miss weekends for work. I get called in on Saturday. You’re in charge of the country. Sometimes you’re going to have to work Saturdays, too.”

That’s part of the responsibility. I don’t want to minimize the impact on personal lives. I have kids, I have grandkids too. If you have a real filibuster, it could go on for a week or a month. But I believed they wouldn’t do that. 

How did Donald Trump win the White House?

A number of factors. One is that there’s been some people left behind in states like Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania who didn’t feel respected or listened to, and he took advantage of that. He tried to make himself into a populist. For him to be a populist is absurd. But he was willing to take advantage of the discouragement and the sense of abandonment many of our people had. The perspective he took was mainly that of white males who lost jobs, and he understood the pain and suffering and said, “I’m bringing back jobs from Mexico and I’m bringing back jobs from China.” In actuality, employment in industrial manufacturing employment is less now than it was when he started. But he did what demagogues do. 

You served in the Senate with both Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden. Has anything surprised you about their paths?

Well, Joe Biden is a special guy. Long before he was vice president, he took a bunch of us newcomers to Russia because he wanted to show us how important it was to get first-hand information. And travel is a big part of it. As a result of his encouragement, I met with Anwar Saddat, the Russian leaders, and got into North Korea, believe it or not. Biden is just basically a nice guy. So nothing that he’s achieved is a surprise to me at all. As for McConnell, I don’t like to be particularly negative about anybody, but he’s been a real disappointment. … Where he’s really, really far out is the way he defended Trump on most of the terrible stuff that Trump did most of the time, switching positions on everything, taking extreme positions on everything. [But] when the Jan. 6 insurrection took place, he was critical of Trump for Trump’s total failure.

Are you optimistic about our democracy?

I’m very optimistic. I have tremendous confidence in part, obviously, because I’ve been blessed by being elected. And so I have great respect for the electoral process. There’s so much strength in the Constitution in that it has such vitality. I just finished reading another book on Lincoln. You want to talk about getting through tough times? Just study Abraham Lincoln, about the 15 days he took to get from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington to take office, and how dangerous that trip was because of the open threats to his life. But you realize, “My God, our Union has survived with guys like that coming at the right time, like Lincoln, who are able to hang this thing together.”

Six Things to Know About Carl Levin

1. As a Detroit City Council member, he was dubbed Mayor Coleman Young’s “right-hand man” by Forbes.

2. In the last four of his six elections to the U.S. Senate, Levin won by more than 15 points, including a 19-point win over now-Republican National Committee chair Ronna Romney McDaniel in 1996.

3. Forward magazine referred to the Levins, which include his brother, longtime U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, and his nephew, current U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, as “America’s only Jewish political dynasty.”

4. Levin was one of just 23 senators who voted against the authorization of the use of military force that precipitated the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

5. Levin co-sponsored the successful effort in 2010 to repeal the military’s ban on LGBT soldiers and the failed 2011 effort to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

6. Levin received a 100 percent rating from the National Abortion Rights Action League for his support of abortion rights and an F rating from the National Rifle Association for his support of gun control.