Appeasing Anti-Democracy Conservatives Will Not Save or Heal the Country

Joe Manchin is once again playing the role of the Grinch who stole the chance to save democracy. In a op-ed today in the Charleston Mail-Gazette, Manchin reiterated his position that he will not vote to pass a voting rights bill without Republican support, and will not vote to weaken the filibuster.

His stated reason, ironically, is that to do so would be a threat to democracy itself and “tear the nation apart.” The key quote from Manchin’s op-ed is as follows:

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.

As such, congressional 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.

Many have taken a cynical or materialist approach to analyzing Manchin’s position, speculating about his donors, re-election prospects or potential sinecures. But this is probably overthinking it. Manchin is comfortably wealthy; he doesn’t have donor networks outside the normal for Senators; the GOP is going to come furiously for his seat in conservative West Virginia no matter what he does; and all of blue America is so desperate for his cooperation that he would have no problems securing a comfortably lucrative position in retirement.

Most of those who know Manchin closely indicate that he truly believes what he says: that he is the one saving democracy from collapse by keeping partisanship from tearing the country apart. As he said today on Face the Nation in an interview with CBS’ John Dickerson:

The bottom line is the fundamental purpose of- of our democracy is the freedom of our elections. If we can’t come to an agreement on that, God help us, John. And someone’s got to fight for this. And we’ve got to say, listen, the divided country that we’re in today, the insurrection that we saw on January the 6th, if we don’t try to heal that, if we don’t make every effort and go beyond the call of duty, then what are we and who are we? We’ve been known to go around the world and promote democracy and observe other elections. What kind of credibility do you think we have in doing that today? So I’m going to fight for this and I think the Republicans will fight for this and understand we must come together on a voting rights bill in a bipartisan way. You can’t divide our country further by thinking you’ve given leeway to one or the other.

In the interest of good faith, let us take Manchin at his word and presume that he honestly believes what he says here.

The problem is that this way of thinking about the politics of voting rights is deeply dangerous. It is the logic of appeasement, of caving to the demands of hostage takers and perpetrators of political violence. It literally legitimizes insurrectionists and gives credence to their platform in an effort to placate them.

The right to vote didn’t become “politicized” out of nowhere. Republicans politicized it because they are fundamentally opposed to democracy. There is no negotiating with that position. You cannot heal it by appeasing it.

Democrats aren’t immorally restricting the franchise to tilt the balance of power unjustly in their favor; Republicans are. Democrats aren’t telling lies about who won the last election; Republicans are. Liberal activists didn’t foment a violent insurrection against the United States to prevent the formal certification of an election; conservatives did. The left isn’t in the thrall of  vile propaganda networks and social media cults accusing their opponents of intentionally unleashing a pandemic in cooperation with the Chinese, or of running a global Satanic pedophile cabal; the right is. There is no “both sides” to play here, and therefore no compromise to be had.

It’s impossible to heal the problems that created the January 6th insurrection by caving to the demands of those who helped to enable it. In an alternate universe where Republicans were acting in good faith and serious about “securing” our elections, one might see a bipartisan voting rights bill that included anti-gerrymandering reforms and universal voter registration, plus a free national ID card for every citizen for voter verification and stricter transparency over electronic voting machines. But we don’t live in that universe, because Republicans don’t actually care about securing elections. They want to be able to continue to dominate policy and ensure that older white evangelical conservatives remain in total control despite being heavily outnumbered. They’re opposed to democracy itself.

The partisan aggression is entirely one-sided. Asymmetric polarization has been occurring for decades since at least the Gingrich era if not Nixon himself, but the age of Trump has accelerated it to Mach speed. Republican state legislatures are moving fast to harden themselves against any form of public accountability, not only suppressing votes but setting themselves up to deny even the possibility of certifying Democratic wins in states that are rapidly turning blue. The Republican Attorney General in Texas just said that if he hadn’t sued to stop mail ballots from being sent out to every voter, Trump would have lost Texas–an open admission that stopping people from voting was essential to Republican victory.

It’s important to note here that Republicans could moderate their policies and positions to try to win a majority of voters. That’s how politics ought to work. They just refuse to. They already have enormous institutional advantages in the Senate and in the Electoral College, both of which tilt heavily in their favor. To win a majority of Senate seats and electoral college votes even in under otherwise fair rules, Democrats must already appeal to voters well to the right of the national median. The deck is already stacked heavily in conservatives’ favor even without explicit cheating, gerrymandering or suppression. But they can’t even bring themselves to become moderate enough to win majorities of an R+4 tilted electorate. They insist on permanent rule no matter how much their numbers shrink. At a policy level, they insist on ruling mostly to advantage only their own voters and to make liberals explicitly suffer–and they want to inoculate themselves from electoral backlash after doing it.

At an individual level, neither Manchin nor Biden will ever be able to find 10 Republican Senators for positive reforms because the incentives of the caucus are all aligned toward not only obstruction, but authoritarian extremism. The few Republicans who have stood up to Trump and the Big Lie have been exiled to political Siberia. There is no upside for anyone in the GOP caucus to give Biden a popular legislative victory, and any elected Republicans still operating out of love for the country rather than factional allegiance are far too terrified of conservative infotainment, QAnon, and the wrath of their increasingly violent base to do anything about it.

Would passing H.R.1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act further terrify and infuriate white supremacists and militia groups who feel that they are on the losing side of a free and fair democracy in modern America? Almost certainly. Are they threatening violence if they don’t get their way? Of course they are.

But you don’t fight extremist political violence by trying to appease it. Fox News, Newsmax and OAN will not be appeased–they will pounce on any perceived weakness. QAnon will not rest until all of its imagined enemies face the gallows or the firing squad. Romney and Murkowski are not going win back control of the GOP–and even if they did, many centrists seem to be forgetting the dangerous authoritarianism and catastrophic policies of the Bush/Cheney era. We’re in a dark place indeed when people are pining for the supposedly halcyon days of good feeling and bipartisanship, when Fox News was accusing any Democrat who opposed the invasion of Iraq of hating America and supporting Osama Bin Laden. There is no pulling back from the precipice here.

And why, indeed, should all the onus for “healing” the country fall on the long-suffering disenfranchised majority? Why should people of color who have suffered institutional racism for generations continue to wait patiently for justice while we massage the tender feelings of a shrinking white supremacist minority? Why should young people suffering historic economic disadvantages compared to previous generations continue to suffocate without relief, in order to avoid inflaming the privileged anger of septuagenarian militia members who storm capitols if they’re asked to pay taxes for universal childcare, or to wear a mask during a pandemic?

These divides cannot be healed by trying to bring the members of this GOP caucus around to voting for bipartisan bills. That will never happen. The only way for the country to heal is to make it clear that the Republican Party will have to bend itself to appeal to a true majority of Americans if it wants to thrive and survive. The only way to bring the country together is to, at long last, reorient the incentives of Republican elected officials away from extremism and symmetric base polarization.

True healing begins not with appeasement, but with justice. If Manchin wants American democracy to survive, he will have to realize that fact sooner rather than later.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.