The Tyranny of the Minority

Where does Joe Manchin go to pick up his Man of the Year award from the Klan?

Unfair, you say! A cheap shot, you say! A vast and snide over-simplification that elides the nuances of the situation.

Maybe. 

But here’s the fact:

In opposing the sweeping package of voter protections known as the For the People Act, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is all but singlehandedly blocking urgently needed legislative action—action that is overwhelmingly popular with a majority of Americans, even in his home state, by the by—that would protect voting rights at a time when they are under a degree of vicious attack not seen since the days of Jim Crow. In so doing, he is all but singlehandedly providing Republicans cover as they try to disenfranchise tens of millions of American voters—disproportionately people of colorwomen, and the working poor—in order to install their white nationalist party in power permanently, in countermajoritarian violation of the most basic principles of a representative democracy. 

Call that what you will, but I assure you that the Klan is applauding. 

(And the tradition of Manchin’s homeboy Robert Byrd lives on.)

But Manchin has good reasons, you say! 

OK, what are they?

Here they are in his own words, from his recent op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

(P)rotecting (the right to vote), which is a value I share, should never be done in a partisan manner. 

Unfortunately, we now are witnessing that the fundamental right to vote has itself become overtly politicized. Today’s debate about how to best protect our right to vote and to hold elections, however, is not about finding common ground, but seeking partisan advantage. Whether it is state laws that seek to needlessly restrict voting or politicians who ignore the need to secure our elections, partisan policymaking won’t instill confidence in our democracy—it will destroy it.

Senator Manchin is correct that partisan policymaking will destroy our democracy, but his absurd bothsidesism is wildly at odds with reality, suggesting that he is either jaw-droppingly naïve (hard to believe in a professional politician of his experience) or despicably dishonest and self-serving. His reference to “the need to secure our elections,” a healingly cynical sop to the batshit right, strongly suggests the latter. 

(C)ongressional action on federal voting rights legislation must be the result of both Democrats and Republicans coming together to find a pathway forward or we risk further dividing and destroying the republic we swore to protect and defend as elected officials.

Do we really want to live in an America where one party can dictate and demand everything and anything it wants, whenever it wants?

Hell no: and the party that’s doing that is the GOP. To even imply that Democrats—of which he is one—are engaged in anything even remotely similar is beneath contempt. As voting rights expert Ari Berman tweeted: “I don’t recall Republicans asking for bipartisan support before they introduced 400 voter suppression bills & enacted 22 new voter suppression laws in 14 states so far this year.” 

Shame on you, Senator.

Manchin goes on to speak of the need for “compromise.” Give me a break. Compromise? From a Republican Party whose Senate Minority Leader has stated that 100% of his energy is devoted to blocking everything Biden wants to do? (Echoing his priorities during the Obama administration.) From a Republican Party that refused even to back an investigation into a violent attempt to overthrow the government? (Naturally, since it was complicit in that effort.)

Manchin goes on:

I have always said, “If I can’t go home and explain it, I can’t vote for it.” And I cannot explain strictly partisan election reform or blowing up the Senate rules to expedite one party’s agenda.

It’s actually very easy to explain, and it’s not “one party’s agenda.” It’s a defense of democracy against an opposing party that has made it very clear it has no interest in that. 

Or as Heather Cox Richardson writes, “Essentially, Manchin appears to be blaming the person calling the fire department, rather than the arsonist, and then saying the firefighters need to work with the guys holding the gasoline cans and matches.” 

FANTASY AND DECEIT

In the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson writes:

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has the right to live in a make-believe wonderland if he so chooses. But his party and his nation will pay a terrible price for his hallucinations about the nature of today’s Republican Party. And even this sacrifice might not guarantee that Manchin can hold on to support back home.There’s no way to spin this as anything other than awful. Manchin’s decision is a catastrophe not just for this particular bill, though he has almost certainly doomed the legislation…..thanks to Manchin’s decision, Biden doesn’t even have a 50-vote Senate for what many Democrats see as an existential fight against the GOP’s attempt to gain and keep power through voter suppression. 

Worse, Manchin is asking Democrats to respond to ruthlessness with delusion. 

On Twitter, A.R. Moxon writes: 

Manchin’s politics boil down to “no matter what the results of any election, no matter the mandate, no matter the clear and present danger, for Democrats to govern, Republicans must first be asked permission.”

“Not one member of the opposing team has agreed to help us win this football game, therefore our strategy must be flawed.” “Not one hijacker has agreed to work with us to regain control of this airplane. We simply need to be more convincing, or the strife may increase.”

Because please note: Manchin is not just opposing an end to the filibuster, as expected, which would be necessary to overcome Republican opposition to the For the People Act…..he is the lone Democratic Senator voting with the GOP against the act itself.

On that count, the WaPo’s Jennifer Rubin offered perhaps the most thorough obliteration of Manchin’s stance, noting that the senator has not cited anything objectionable in the content of the bill itself, only lack of GOP support. 

He does not state what provisions he likes or doesn’t, nor does he suggest what compromise bill might reach 60 votes. So his objection is that Republicans object? Many bills that he supported came without Republican support—the American Rescue Plan, most recently, and of course, the Affordable Care Act. The notion that Republicans win simply by refusing to agree to any of the majority’s legislative proposals makes a mockery of democracy, and specifically of the Senate. Indeed, Republicans’ filibuster of the Jan. 6 commission legislation showed that we lack 10 Republicans willing to operate in good faith.

To that end, Manchin’s protection of the filibuster makes even less sense. Rubin again:

Elevating the filibuster to the sine qua non of our constitutional system is absurd. It is not in the Constitution. It protects no constitutional principle. It does not constitute a check or balance on the other branches as, for example, a veto override or the Senate’s advise and consent power on nominees. It does not protect minority rights when it is used to thwart voting rights protection for disfavored minorities….

Manchin argues that renewing the lapsed 1965 Voting Rights Act (in its new incarnation as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act) would be a better solution, writing, “Since its original passage, it has been reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan votes five separate times.” Yeah, but that was then and this is now. Since Joe’s op-ed went to press, Mitch McConnell has already said he won’t support reviving the 1965 law, because there’s no threat to voting rights: “The Supreme Court concluded that conditions that existed in 1965 no longer existed,” McConnell told reporters. “So there’s no threat to the voting rights law. It’s against the law to discriminate in voting on the basis of race already. And so I think it’s unnecessary.” 

Note: He said that with a straight face. 

That means Manchin, again, would need ten Republicans to cross the aisle. Does he really think there are ten Republicans who will do so? As Eugene Robinson notes, “So far, there is one—Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). The other nine must be in some parallel dimension, visible only to Manchin, where all the leprechauns, tooth fairies and unicorns are hiding.”

So much for Manchin’s fantasies and his laughable counter-proposals. But fantasy is the wrong word, because surely he already knew all this. So let’s just call it shameless deceit.

Rubin astutely asks what Manchin will do “when 10 Republicans do not emerge for cloture on (H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act) either—just as we saw on the Jan. 6 commission bill—does Manchin simply give up?” She then suggests, per the title of her piece, that we “call Manchin’s bluff”:

It’s time for Manchin to put up or share blame for Republicans’ subversion of democracy. 

Let him come up with 10 Republicans for H.R. 4 and for a slimmed down H.R. 1. Let him find four more Republicans to support the Jan. 6 commission. If he cannot, then his thesis that the filibuster promotes debate and makes way for compromise collapses and his role in promoting the tyranny of the minority is laid bare.

Manchin insisted that he will not “weaken or eliminate” the filibuster. He should be compelled to spell out what reforms he would accept. Is requiring Republicans to hold the floor (i.e., demanding a talking filibuster) “weakening” the rule? It is well past the time to start pressuring Manchin to answer some basic questions: If the filibuster is simply a means of thwarting any reasonable legislation, why is it worth preserving? What if the integrity of our democracy is at stake?

Manchin’s bland platitudes suggest he prefers stalemate to taking hard votes. The status quo leaves him with latitude to make holier-than-thou pronouncements to decry both sides.

THE MYTH OF BLAMING THE BASE

The defense of Manchin goes like this: 

He’s a rare Democrat from a deep red state, which means has to walk a fine line in order not to offend his constituents and hang onto his seat. That means staying on the conservative side of the Democratic caucus, and not backing ideas that are perceived as “too progressive,” like this bill. Blue state liberals may howl self-righteously, but that’s the pragmatic state of play. 

Maybe so. But undermining democracy just to hold onto your seat is not exactly a defensible position. The favor he’s doing for the GOP is so huge that Trump himself went out of his way to praise him for it.

Say no more.

In short, for the sake of retaining his seat in the Senate, Manchin is poised to go down in history as a self-serving hypocrite who crossed party lines for the sole purpose of standing on the battlements of white supremacy…..or at least the key actor who enabled others to do so, for the sake of his own self-interest, which might be even worse. If the GOP manages to successfully eviscerate voting rights and establish a chokehold on American democracy in the early 21st century, that crime will look even worse to posterity.   

Moreover, setting aside principle (easy to do for Joe!) it’s not at all clear that this utilitarian, self-aggrandizing description of the circumstances is even correct.

In reality, the For the People Act is very popular in West Virginia. A recent poll had 79% of West Virginians in favor of it. Puppies don’t even poll that well. It’s polling at 76% even among Republicans alone. Nationwide, the political consulting firm Lake Research Partners reports that 68% of Americans support the act, including a majority of Republicans. In fact, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker reports that the GOP high command is outright terrified of how popular it is. (This goes to Joe Biden’s preferred definition of “bipartisan,” based on what a broad cross-section of the American people support, as opposed to what a tiny cabal of Republican mandarins in Washington DC will allow.)

And there are other outliers too. West Virginian support for Biden’s jobs and infrastructure bill is at 68%, but Manchin has said he won’t vote for that either unless Mitch McConnell says he can.

So Manchin’s whole “pragmatism” case falls apart—unspoken though it is, since his spoken rationale is even less coherent.   

It’s true that over a long career at both the state and federal levels, Manchin has proven himself a canny political operator: as a Democrat, you don’t get to be both the governor of West Virginia and one of its US Senators without knowing your voters, so I won’t second guess him. Still, there’s reason to doubt his calculation and his tactics.

Robinson again: 

(I)nsisting on bipartisanship in all things might not be a magical talisman against defeat. 

The self-identified non-conservative Democrats who provide Manchin’s strongest base of support, with 59 percent viewing him favorably, are also the most skeptical of the filibuster Manchin has pledged himself to protect. Twenty percent of them say the filibuster should be eliminated, and another 45 percent say it should be reformed. 

That is just one poll, and Manchin’s history of winning suggests he knows his state. But even Manchin has to hold on to his strongest supporters. Blocking Biden’s agenda and allowing GOP voter suppression are not stances that will help him win his next election or change Washington’s increasingly twisted laws of politics. 

In this fairy tale, Manchin is setting himself up to be the villain.

I’M JUST A BILL, YEAH I’M ONLY A BILL

Even though Manchin himself hasn’t bothered to argue the merits of the For the People Act before rejecting it over this mythical quest for Republican good faith, it’s worth taking a moment to consider criticisms of the legislation itself. 

The knock on the bill—outlined by Charlies Sykes at The Bulwark, among others—is that it constitutes federal overreach. Perhaps…..and I generally agree with Charlie and The Bulwark, one of the last bastions of sane conservatism in America. But in this case I think a little federal overreach is called for, don’t you, when Republicans in 43 states are trying to undermine democracy at its very core? 

Once the party of spurious “states’ rights,” a phrase forever tied to the Confederacy, the GOP invokes it only when convenient. The rest of the time it’s the party that does things like letting Texas—led by its AG, Ken Paxton, currently under indictment for securities fraudgo to federal court to interfere with how Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin conduct their elections. 

States’ rights? What states’ rights?

Meanwhile, The New York Times Editorial Board, while sharing Sykes’s sentiment that the House version of the bill, H.R. 1, is “poorly drawn,” also notes that it fails to go far enough in preventing partisan control of the vote count at the state level, and the ability of Republican state legislatures to overturn results at will. But that is a reason to revise the bill, not reject it outright.

Of course, Manchin isn’t the first lone wolf to break with his party and doom a piece of legislation with a single vote. (As recently as 2017 McCain did it to the GOP over the repeal of Obamacare, and Republicans were just as furious with him as Democrats are with Manchin now.

Of course, John did it to preserve affordable health care for tens millions of Americans; Joe did it to deny voting rights to a similar number. 

EXTREMISM IN THE DEFENSE OF LIBERTY

Washington insiders expected this: apparently, behind closed doors, Manchin had long made his position clear well before he codified it for public consumption in that op-ed. Still, it is infuriating.

So what can be done? Well, the DNC can give Traitor Joe the Liz Cheney treatment: strip him of his seniority and his power, starve West Virginia of any money he could direct to it, and make him largely ineffective as a senator, hitting him where it hurst most in terms of his re-election prospects. 

But what then? He gets primaried, or beaten in the general election, and West Virginia sends some

But what then? He gets primaried, or beaten in the general election, and West Virginia sends some Republican shitbag to Washington who’s even worse? Manchin might even switch parties right now, at the start of his current six-year term. (The horrid WaPo columnist and Trump fanboy Marc Thiessen has already suggested that Donald call Manchin and try to persuade him to do so, in order to oppose the Democrats’ “radical agenda.” You know, like the radical idea that Black people should be allowed to vote.) 

Yes, Manchin may as well be a Republican as it is, but that “may as well” matters. He votes with his caucus enough to make a difference, even if the times he doesn’t are maddening beyond belief.

So even as I take issue with Charlie Sykes on this particular point, his Bulwark colleague Jonathan V. Last has some excellent advice:

A lot of people are upset. I get this. But I want to concentrate your mind on what does, and does not, matter. And let’s start with the mission statement: 

“The best version of HR 1 is the version that (1) has the key protections and (2) can pass.”

That’s it. Everything else is a nice-to-have.

So let’s start with the things that do not matter and which no one should spend even five minutes thinking about:

+ Manchin’s motivations.

+ How to get rid of Manchin.

+ Why Provision X from the bill was really great and would have made life better.

JVL goes on to suggest that Democrats strip the bill down to its most essential provisions needed to protect voting rights (what he calls “the minimum viable product”). This may be the onbly way to bring the necessary majority along, which will include both Manchin, and progressives, and ideally a couple of Republicans too. (Not ten.) 

Oh, and also:

Passing any sort of voting rights act will almost certainly require changing/reforming/ killing the filibuster. So you have to create the conditions that will put so much pressure on Manchin the next time around that he’ll cave. 

What does that pressure look like? It probably starts with infrastructure. Give Manchin a big say in infrastructure and see how he feels when he can’t get 10 R votes for something he’s driving and cares about. 

It also probably requires reframing the filibuster change as “reform” and not nuking. Come up with some fenced-in version of the reform that gets you to voting rights, while keeping it in place for other stuff. Call it whatever you have to so that Manchin can say he isn’t changing his mind, but that he’s been presented with a different option.

It’s sad, I know, that these are the workarounds required, but like the man said, politics is the art of the possible. (The man being Otto von Bismarck, who knew a thing or two about reactionaries.)

Last again: 

If it turns out that there is no world in which voting rights legislation of any sort is achievable with the current fact set, then Biden needs to move on to other strategies. And if you can’t strengthen democratic institutions, then maybe you can create conditions on the ground that might forestall the next authoritarian attempt.

What does that look like? In our post-Truth world, it has to be more than just doing such a good job that MAGA Nation sees the light. Accordingly, I would heartily support aggressive, FDR-like use of executive orders, even if they get challenged in the (largely Republican-controlled) courts. Republicans have shown us that they are willing to do far more outrageous things to promote their agenda, both legal and illegal, with and without precedent….and our efforts will have the added advantage of actually being good for democracy, and for a majority of the American people, and not just for a plutocratic elite. 

I would also suggest a massive PR campaign that hammers the GOP relentlessly over its hypocrisy, anti-democratism, racism, misogyny, refusal to send relief dollars to hurting Americans, epically botched response to the pandemic, and oh yeah, complicity in a violent coup attempt. No Trumpist minds will be changed, of course, but we’re not aiming at them. We’re speaking to the sentient segment of rational Americans who will listen to common sense and are capable of being swayed. A small group, but a vital one nonetheless.  

To be clear, I am not advocating anything untoward. Only that we stop bringing a strongly worded letter of complaint to a gunfight. 

ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST 2022

So per JVL, I am trying to focus on the future, and how we get things done despite Joe Manchin. And one of those scenarios involves a future in which the man from West Virginia is infinitely less relevant. 

Like many progressives, I am hoping that we can not only hold onto the Senate in 2022, but increase our majority by a couple of seats, severely slashing Manchin’s power. (And you, too, Kristen Sinema.) It will require an electoral campaign and get-out-the-vote effort to dwarf 2020, and in a climate that promises to be even more logistically challenging, thanks to Republican ratfucking. Which is the whole crux of this crisis.

We need to hold onto Warnock in Georgia and Bennet in Colorado and Kelly in Arizona and Cortez Masto in Nevada and Hassan in New Hampshire; flip the seats of retirees-to-be Toomey in Pennsylvania and Burr in North Carolina and Portman in Ohio; and oust Johnson in Wisconsin and Rubio in Florida. 

I know it’s a tall order. But it’s a battle we have no choice but to fight, and what’s more, it’s one we stand a chance of winning. 

Yes, the president’s party routinely loses seats in the midterms, but these are not routine times. The GOP is doubling down on Trumpism—you know, the ideology that cost them the White House and the Senate in the last election?—on the presumption (or delusion) that it’s the route back to power. It may be, and that would be a grim statement about our nation, and about how deep the QAnon Kool-Aid runs. But it may just as likely prove Jonestown-level suicidal for the Republican Party. 

This will be the latest acid test for the soul of America. 

We can reflect till the cows come home over just how much damage one intransigent, self-serving hack can do if placed in just the right position. But our problem is no more limited to Joe Manchin than it was limited to Donald Trump. Neither Manchin, nor Trump, nor McConnell, Cruz, Hawley, nor Marjorie Taylor Greene for that matter could get away with what they are doing were there not millions (or in some cases tens of millions) of Americans who are totally onboard with this malicious degradation of democracy. That is almost to be expected from a country born to a strange marriage of Enlightenment ideals and brutal human bondage, one that fought a bloody civil war over that very paradox 150 years ago, the repercussions of which we are still reckoning with.

We must never forget that this group is a minority and we are the majority. But due to a series of flawed 18th century mechanisms built into our political system, that minority has managed to grab our republic by the throat and hold it hostage. We must both address those systemic issues that allowed this state of affairs to arise, and simultaneously face down the racist, anti-democratic, authoritarian-friendly John Bircher mindset that infects a significant subset of our fellow Americans. 

Until we do, Joe Manchin will be just a symptom, not the disease, and the least of our problems.  

**********

Photo: Reuters

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