U.S Senator Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) is playing a very interesting political game. Being the most conservative member of the Democratic Party, the senator’s grandstanding and usage of his political capital as a bipartisan politician has allowed him to shuffle between Democrat and Republican voting agendas which has left many of his Democrat colleagues, especially Progressives, feeling as though he is intentionally thwarting President Biden’s agenda.
In the case of Senator Joe Manchin, the power dynamics between old guard Democrats and the socialist Progressive wing of the party is on full display.
Progressives want to enact policies on voting rights and infrastructure that does not have mass approval with the Republican base or lawmakers. Some of the proposals in the Progressive legislation cast too wide a net on what is classified as infrastructure and is not popular among Senator Manchin’s constituency, where many who voted for him are Conservative-leaning Independents.
Thus, Senator Joe Manchin embodies the complexities of modern American politics. In the 1990s, West Virginia voted for Bill Clinton by 15 percentage points. Back then West Virginia was voting in line with the political platform of what was once blue-collar Democrats, but by 2020 middle class workers transition away from Democrats had become evident. Donald Trump had won West Virginia by 40 percentage points, indicating a massive political shift in political attitudes within the state over the last two decades.
A massive cultural transformation had happened in West Virginia, highlighting the Democratic Party’s failure to capture the vote of the white working class. With this in mind, the populist appeal of Donald Trump was not so much a radical change in voter attitudes, but more so the Trump campaign’s harnessing of mass voter indignation over their economic and social condition, being a reaping what had already been sown.
The question now is can the Democratic Party hold on to Joe Manchin voters or will they chose to exclusively vote for the Republican Party?
That may depend on if the Republican Party can find a way to institutionalize the populist politics of Donald Trump and become the new worker’s party.
Joe Manchin’s Misalignment With Progressives
First let’s lay out the politics.
Democrats would not be the majority in the Senate without West Virginia voting for Democrat Joe Manchin. Democrat majority in the Senate is tenuous and perhaps unviable to maintain in the 2022 Midterms.
Senator Joe Manchin has the unenviable position of playing the part of bipartisan politician. American political culture has become so aggressively clannish that any moderate politician faces an uncertain future in their ability to get reelected.
Democrats want to use their majority to pass policies that reflect the attitudes of the cultural Left, whereas Senator Manchin represents a constituency that has more conservative leanings.
The unique power of Senator Joe Manchin stems from his desire to want to bring a Republican consensus to any Democrat fueled agenda. But the power he has right now to stall Progressive policies and attempt to restore bipartisan culture to D.C politics may be short lived.
Whether it is his position on a $15 minimum wage, police reform or reforming the filibuster, Progressives have come down hard on the centrist Democrat.
Progressives in Senator Manchin’s home state held a rally in opposition to the senator’s positions, expressing disapproval of his political moderation.
House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has been openly critical of fellow Democrat Joe Manchin’s refusal to back the party’s voting rights bill, tweeting remarks accusing him of supporting GOP voter suppression.
Further tweets from the Progressive commentariat include Jemele Hill’s,
“This is so on brand for this country. Record number of black voters show up to save this democracy, only for white supremacy to be upheld by a cowardly, power-hungry white dude. @Sen_JoeManchin is a clown.”
This very to the point tweet speaks volumes as to the resounding rifts within the Democratic Party. The legislative demands of the far-Left in the party play well with the party’s populists, but not with a broader range of middle of the road Americans. Joe Manchin is a Democrat from a right-leaning state and any full throttled concession to the most progressive policies of the Biden Administration would put him at peril with his base constituents back in West Virginia. More so it is likely that the Progressive backlash to Joe Manchin’s political meandering will serve him well when needing to coalesce votes for his Senate seat or for a run to take the Governor’s seat.
One of the more resounding attacks on Senator Manchin came from Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) who said Senator Manchin
“has become the new Mitch McConnell.”
To most Democrats this is obviously an insult, but if advertised in the right way to Senator Manchin’s white working-class voters, can become quite the endorsement. Senator McConnell is one of America’s most savvy political operators with an understanding of political mechanisms that has allowed him to game D.C politics and win many battles for conservative causes. If one is to play politics correctly, who you cast as your enemy should be someone who can be easily defeated and defamed.
Will Democrats Succumb To Ideology Or Be Able To Use Power?
The curious power of Joe Manchin reveals that there is more to politics than just ideology. Being a purist ideologue will not win you one hundred percent of the vote. It is true that the political landscape of America has become more awash with purist Left-Right vigor, but there are still many Americans who are not ideologues and don’t want to pay tribute to a political tribe. What they want is for the economy to work for those in the labor and working class.
Democrats from West Virginia are not in lock step with Democrats from New York. If Joe Manchin were to unyieldingly support all far-Left policy proposals within the Biden agenda, it might cause a backlash in enough purple districts for Democrats to lose control of Congress in 2022. Centrist Democrats may not be a popular bunch, but it is they who won the majority of seats in the 2018 Midterm Elections and who operate in districts where many voters have a cultural and generational gap with the politics of their younger peers. It is to be noted that many of these older voters will not be swayed away from their political positions by flippant tweets, as their votes are a much stronger way for them to be heard by the vociferous online masses.
The Democratic Party is not a monolith and is increasingly becoming a patchwork of fragile alliances. In the aftermath of the Trump era, voting data has shown that high wage earners, such the corporate and tech elites but also the managerial class, mostly vote Democrat. They share the party with the Socialists/Populists whose main agenda is to place higher taxes on these types of workers. The balancing act between these two sects is becoming increasingly harder than walking on a tight rope.
Joe Manchin’s ambiguous remarks on filibuster reform is a good example of how difficult it is to support radical changes to congressional procedure while maintaining support of Independents and center Right Democrats.
In a time when being a partisan populist is gaining footholds in both the Democratic and Republican Party, a senator who weaves a path of political theater to try and keep happy both his constituents and D.C Democrats has come to be seen as a villain. A villain whom the party partisans believe is destroying democracy. But this type of political double talk has always been standard strategy by politicians who represent states and districts that are not solid red or blue, and especially so for politicians who are in the state’s minority party.
This once standard type of politics is causing a widening divide within the Democratic Party by those who want a partisan national agenda swept onto the entire county.
The deadlock fight on all policy proposals of the Biden agenda proves that there is no normal in politics and that bipartisanship will be used as a weapon instead of as the political leverage it once yielded to politicians. The hardened partisan culture wars that now dominate Washington politics is best exemplified by the stalled negotiations on President Biden’s infrastructure bill.
Even the COVID-19 economic relief bill received zero support from Republicans and had to be passed based on a maneuver that used Democrat’s majority vote.
If we can’t agree to build bridges and provide economic support after a pandemic, then democracy will prove not to work for us, and people will once again want a president that fuels their grievances.
If there is one thing that Trump did well, it was his ability to name, shame, and castigate his enemies. And if Democrats continue to fight amongst themselves, it will give Republicans a chance to take back control of the chambers of power and create a national political narrative for the masses that better simplifies who has broken the country. And it is highly unlikely that the finger will be pointed at the right people or institutions.