Joe Manchin hadn’t exactly been shy about his position on the Democrats’ sweeping voting legislation and the filibuster that stands in the way of its passage. But the West Virginia Senator over the weekend erased any lingering doubts about his stance, writing in a Charleston Gazette op-ed that he opposes the For the People Act and will neither vote to abolish nor to weaken the filibuster.
“Congressional action on federal voting rights legislation must be the result of both Democrats and Republicans coming together to find a pathway forward,” the red-state Democrat wrote Sunday, “or we risk further dividing and destroying the republic we swore to protect and defend as elected officials.”
This is a tune Manchin has been singing for months, but this time it took on a somewhat funereal quality: In siding against his party, he’s all but doomed the bill that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has described as a must-pass. It’s a radical stand by Manchin, one that will enable the increasingly extremist GOP’s brazen attacks on voting rights and grotesque efforts to erode faith in the democratic process. But too often, that has been obscured by a Washington media that still struggles to find the right language to describe the political alignments of Trump-era lawmakers.
Manchin is frequently described in the political press as a “moderate” or a “centrist” — labels he wears proudly. “I will fight to represent the people of West Virginia, to seek bipartisan compromise no matter how difficult,” he wrote Sunday. But there is nothing “moderate” about his position on voting rights.
Democrats are seeking to preserve and expand the franchise. Republicans in recent months have been on a crusade to limit it, using Donald Trump’s risible lies about election fraud to enact voting restrictions and to sow doubt in the integrity of the electoral system. Manchin insists that there’s common ground between these two camps, and casts himself as the reasonable adult in the room for demanding his colleagues seek it out. “It is my sincere hope that all of us, especially those who are privileged to serve, remember our responsibility to do more to unite this country before it is too late,” he wrote in his op-ed. In truth, though, his stance is illogical at best and disingenuous at worst: He is preventing his party from protecting democracy unless they have support from those it needs to be protected from.
To be fair, there’s been no shortage of exasperation directed the West Virginia lawmaker’s way. Plenty of commentators have described his stand as “delusional” and insincere. Even Chris Wallace on Trump-friendly Fox News suggested Manchin was being “naive” in his adamant defense of the filibuster. “Haven’t you empowered Republicans to be obstructionists?” Wallace asked him Sunday.
But in its coverage of the West Virginia senator, the DC press has continued to brand him a “moderate” — a framing that implies his party’s efforts to fight back against the GOP’s all-out assault on voting rights are radical when, in fact, the opposite is true. One party is seeking to defend democracy. The other is increasingly antagonistic toward it and has only grown more devoted to Trump’s demagogic politics in the months since his loss to Joe Biden. These are not equally partisan undertakings, as Manchin suggests they are. But presenting him as a moderate can give the impression that they are. “Joe Manchin is repeatedly described as a ‘centrist,’” the progressive Robert Reich observed last week. “But to be a ‘centrist’ in today’s America is to be situated midway between truth and lies, equidistant between inclusiveness and racism, halfway between democracy and tyranny.”
It is no easy task to accurately describe lawmakers’ political orientations in an era when the defining issues facing the country lie not on the traditional left-right ideological spectrum, but rather on the degree to which one is committed to democratic principles and a shared sense of reality. But to describe what Manchin is doing here as “moderate” is to play into the hands of Republicans who would have you believe that it is actually the Democrats lurching toward extremism — and to give cover for even more dangerous, anti-democratic action. “I wish with all my heart that this bill weren’t necessary, or that Republicans in the Senate would join us in defending Americans’ right to vote,” Democrat Jeff Merkley said in a statement following Manchin’s op-ed. “But in the face of a coup attempt incited by a president trying to overturn an election and a nationwide attempt to ensure that the will of the voters does not determine the outcome of future elections, I am dead set against doing nothing.”