In the Fight to Save American Democracy, Joe Manchin Is Neville Chamberlain

·4-min read
Photo credit: Bonnie Jo Mount - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bonnie Jo Mount - Getty Images

I spent a long Memorial Day weekend watching the state legislature of Texas do its part in the national conservative campaign to undo the democracy that so many had honoured with their lives. This was an irony that was not lost on me. In fact, this was an irony that pounded a big old gong in my conscience for three days. It also struck me that, any time American politics swerves into a region in which Allen West makes sense, it is truly lost. From the New York Times:

This, [West] said, was what he wanted Republicans to focus on — to stop chasing “rumors” and “conspiracy theories.” He tried to soften his admonishment with a joke. “If another person sends me a text message about some Italian dude and messing around with votes” — a reference to an obscure conspiracy theory involving an Italian defense contractor — “I’m going to go apoplectic on them.”

Of course, there is no real difference between what West and the Texas Republicans are pitching and theories about Italian dudes messing with the electorate in Seagoville. They both serve the same purpose—the elimination of the franchise from the lives of voters that Republicans find inconvenient. As the Texas Tribune reported, the ratfcking reached a crescendo overnight as Saturday became Sunday. The Texas Senate went behind closed doors and performed a reverse Hey Jude: it took a bad bill and made it worse.

Senate Bill 7, the GOP’s priority voting bill, emerged Saturday from a conference committee as an expansive bill that would touch nearly the entire voting process, including provisions to limit early voting hours, curtail local voting options and further tighten voting by mail, among several other provisions. It was negotiated behind closed doors over the last week after the House and Senate passed significantly different versions of the legislation and pulled from each chamber’s version of the bill. The bill also came back with a series of additional voting rule changes, including a new ID requirement for mail-in ballots, that weren’t part of previous debates on the bill.

The Democrats in the legislature were outraged, and the Democrats in the Texas House responded by walking out of the chamber, denying the Republicans a quorum and effectively killing the bill, for the moment, anyway. Texas Governor Greg Abbott since has announced that he will veto that portion of the state budget that funds the legislature. Walking out was the last card the Texas Democrats had to play. They then appealed for help from on high—figuratively speaking, of course. From the Washington Post:

“We knew today, with the eyes of the nation watching action in Austin, that we needed to send a message,” state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat, said at a news conference held at a historically Black church in Austin early Monday, shortly after he and other lawmakers left the state Capitol. “And that message is very, very clear: Mr. President, we need a national response to federal voting rights.”

Rep. Fischer’s obvious disrespect for Senator Joe Manchin’s devotion to hidebound senatorial customs is plainly deplorable.

All over the country, Republican majorities in state legislatures are pulling these stunts and Democratic state legislators are doing what they can. To watch the U.S. Senate abandon them—and representative democracy—over a point of procedure that’s been rancid since the Eisenhower administration is almost beyond even my threshold for politically induced nausea. And, as historian Alexander Keyssar pointed out in a Jacobin interview, this is a battle that began even before there was anything like American politics.

There were two arguments that were made. The polite argument, the “correct” one, was that we can’t allow poor people to vote because they are dependent on others and could be manipulated. A rich person who employed them could manipulate their vote — they could be bribed, etc. The common phrasing was that they have no will of their own. They’re just a mob that can be manipulated.

At other moments the argument appeared that if you let them vote, poor people would get together, and they would threaten property. I argued in my book that [the Founders believed] the poor would have too much will of their own. I think that’s an apprehension that’s lurking there all the time.

In this particular theatre of battle, Manchin—and Senator Kirsten Sinema—are sharing the role of Neville Chamberlain. They’ve buried themselves in the part.

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