On Sunday, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin published a 1,000-word op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail to explain why he was knifing Black Americans in the back and voting against the For the People Act, which is aimed at stopping Republicans from disenfranchising Black and brown voters. Manchin also used the space to defend his refusal to reform the filibuster. And he made his now de rigueur calls for bipartisanship, while again offering no theories or plans for how to achieve it beyond wishing for 10 Republicans to magically transubstantiate into moral beings.
What’s striking about Manchin’s op-ed is that he fails to lodge one single policy objection to the For the People Act. The Senate is so broken and useless that it’s easy to overlook this fact. But here, a member of the so-called “greatest deliberative body in the world” manages to not deliberate any of the policies or prescriptions at issue in a critical and broadly popular piece of legislation. Manchin notes that the bill comes in at just over 800 pages, but he doesn’t bother to object to or even explain anything proposed in those 800 pages.
The For the People Act requires states to offer same-day voter registration and mail-in ballots to voters. What is wrong with this? Manchin doesn’t say. It requires candidates for president and vice president to release 10 years of income tax returns. Does Manchin have a problem with this? If so, what is it? Why is it better for presidential candidates to hide their taxes? Based on his essay, it’s hard to know if Manchin has even read the bill he stands against.
Instead of expressing a principled objection to literally any issue, Manchin only offers squeamishness about partisan politics. His only stated reason for being against the bill is that Republicans are against it. It’s worth highlighting Manchin’s key concern, because it is among the worst arguments against voting rights that could possibly be offered. He writes:
This more than 800-page bill has garnered zero Republican support. Why? Are the very Republican senators who voted to impeach Trump because of actions that led to an attack on our democracy unwilling to support actions to strengthen our democracy? Are these same senators, whom many in my party applauded for their courage, now threats to the very democracy we seek to protect?
I can answer these rhetorical questions: Because they can. Yes. And yes.
Manchin’s childlike befuddlement over why Republicans would want to oppose voting rights is maddening. Republicans favor voter suppression because voter suppression helps them win elections. Manchin uses the mere fact of Republican obstruction as a reason to condemn the legislation, as opposed to investigating the root causes of their objections. He’s not making an argument—he’s making an excuse for why he’s ceding his higher-level cognitive function to the will of the GOP caucus.
And while Manchin seems attuned to the point of intimidation to Republican concerns, he stands willfully deaf to the concerns of those who demand an equal franchise. Amid all his gooey verbiage about the importance of “bipartisan compromise,” Manchin never addresses the fact that his beloved Republicans are in the process of restricting voting rights throughout the country in their flagrant attempts to restore and preserve white dominance in the electorate. He never bothers to mention their deliberate attacks on the voting power of Black and brown communities in his explanation for voting against a bill to stop these constitutional violations.
Instead, Manchin pivots to his support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Indeed, the famous late civil rights activist and congressman Lewis is the only Black person Manchin mentions while telling everybody why bipartisanship is more important than voting rights, which is ironic given that Lewis spent his life fighting with fierce urgency to deliver the franchise. The bill named after Lewis is an attempt to restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by conservatives on the Supreme Court in 2013. Manchin doesn’t mention who killed the previous VRA, or why, or who has been fighting with both hands to overcome the resulting Republican-led voter suppression, but instead praises Lisa Murkowski, of all people, for supporting its restoration.
Left unsaid is that Murkowski is but one Republican—and, since Manchin is not willing to reform the filibuster, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act is as DOA as the For the People Act. But I’m guessing Manchin thinks the average reader of the Charleston Gazette-Mail isn’t able to count to 60.
This is probably why Manchin chose to share his thoughts in a friendly, hometown newspaper, and why he seems perpetually unwilling to sit down for an interview with a reporter of color. His arguments, such as they are, are easily overcome with logic and facts and math, but it’s his moral position that is truly untenable. Manchin is enabling the disenfranchisement of Black and brown voters solely on the grounds that white conservatives don’t want those people to vote. That alone is enough for him. He doesn’t need a policy or principle to stand on; he doesn’t need to evaluate or understand why white conservatives are against equality. The mere objection of whites is apparently all Manchin needs to make his decision.
That’s how Jim Crow works, in a nutshell. History focuses on the evildoers who come up with the racist policies and the bad intentions behind them, but it ignores the role of white people like Manchin who value comity over justice. You cannot have a system of political apartheid without the help of such white people. You cannot disenfranchise a minority without a bunch of people in the majority hiding behind process and a false promise of peace in order to justify injustice. Manchin’s essay is an important part of upholding white supremacy because he treats it like it doesn’t exist.
Manchin thinks he can get away with this not because West Virginia is predominately white but because he intuits that most white people in West Virginia probably don’t care about stopping white supremacy. They likely don’t think that disenfranchising Black people is that big a deal—certainly not big enough to oust a senator. Manchin might get primaried, but if he loses it will be because he failed to deliver an infrastructure package, not because he thinks the 15th Amendment is just a suggestion.
Unfortunately, this has always been the true strength of white supremacist policies: They can’t be stopped unless enough white people give a damn. And there are never quite enough. In this case, a single white senator feels empowered to block an entire popular bill aimed at securing the most basic right in a democracy and doesn’t even feel the need to give a good reason as to why.
A wise man once said, “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.… Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that from jail almost 60 years ago. Had Joe Manchin been present, I’m sure he would have counseled King to wait patiently for white people to achieve bipartisan consensus before demanding civil rights. Any century now, white people will come around on the question of democratic self-government for all.