When Joe Biden won the presidential election, many progressives were relieved Donald Trump lost, yet remained anxious about the future. After Trump attempted to overturn the election, even going so far as to instigate a violent insurrection on January 6, that anxiety only rose. The moment called for a visionary president, an FDR type, someone who was willing to tackle the serious structural failures that had opened the door to the current democratic crisis. Biden spent most of his career as a centrist with an unfortunate tendency to favor rich bankers over working Americans. It was hard to imagine he would have the moxie to fight for the democratic reforms and progressive economic vision necessary to truly stop what was increasingly looking like a growing and successful fascist movement in the United States.
But Biden's actual presidency has been a wonderful surprise.
He went into office taking the threat to democracy seriously, studying "How Democracies Die" by Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. His theory of how to meet the moment was a sound one: Prove to the public that democracy can work, and people will fight to keep it. So he focused his energies on passing Build Back Better, a massive social spending and economic reform package that was meant to be a New Deal-style rebuttal to the cynicism and disillusionment that allows authoritarianism thrive. There are reasons to criticize Biden's approach — I certainly felt like he should have put more of a priority on shoring up electoral systems and imprisoning the coup ringleaders — but Biden was absolutely correct that any strategy to save democracy requires demonstrating its value to the public.
Despite Biden's boldness, however, here we are at the end of 2021, with fascists ascendant and the pro-democracy majority feeling demoralized. Biden's approval ratings have been underwater for months, with more than half of Americans disapproving of his performance in office. Biden's theory wasn't wrong. Saving democracy does require showing that government can work. But Biden isn't doing that. On the contrary, the message most Americans are getting is that he failed, Democrats failed, and maybe it's time to give up fighting.
The worst part of all of this is it's mostly not Biden's fault. Nor is it the fault of congressional Democrats, 96% of whom support Build Back Better and, almost certainly, some kind of bold democratic reforms to save election systems from Trump's grubby little fingers. No, the fault lays entirely with two Senate Democrats, both of whom are awash in corruption: Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
As 2021 closes out, the verdict is clear: Manchin and Sinema managed to do more damage to the country, and to the future of democracy than anyone else throughout the year. And that's in a year where the ex-president Trump was actively plotting his next coup! Why are these two more destructive even than the various Republicans who are working with Trump across the country to gut democracy? Mostly, it comes down to power.
Republicans are the minority party and, in theory, shouldn't even have the power to rewrite our election systems to make it easier for Trump to steal the race in 2024. In theory, the Democratic congressional majority should have been able to preempt all these anti-democratic moves on the state level by passing robust voting protections, as well as backing Biden's agenda and proving to voters that government can work. But, due to a toxic combination of selfishness, stupidity, and greed, both Manchin and Sinema have blocked every effort Democrats have made to fight back against the Republican assault on democracy. And worse, they did so while pretending, every step of the way, that they were on the verge of being won over to the side of good, when clearly neither ever had any intention of doing anything but destroy Biden's agenda.
This isn't a matter of evil triumphing because good men do nothing, either. Neither Sinema and Manchin are "good" in any meaningful sense. Their record suggests that they are sinister figures who have actively undermining Biden throughout the year — and, in doing so, assist the rise of authoritarianism. Through duplicity and bad faith, both led the Democratic majority to believe there was a real chance of accomplishing needed reforms through Congress, when, it's becoming quite clear, neither ever had any intention of letting anything of note get past their firewall. Republicans are waging their war on democracy right out in the open. Manchin and Sinema, however, are snakes in the grass, using feints of allyship to lure Democrats into a trap before springing it. Over and over again.
Witness, for instance, the months of nonsense with the Build Back Better plan. Republicans did not hide that they had no intention of voting for it. But both Manchin and Sinema repeatedly tricked the Democrats into believing there was a chance they would hand over the necessary votes to pass the bill this year. By feigning interest in voting for the bill, they were able to get Democratic leadership to spend months negotiating with them and wooing them, wasting time and energy that could have been focused on more fruitful endeavors. It was only this month that Manchin accidentally let slip that he never had any intention of voting for the bill, confirming what may progressive critics have said for months: He has never negotiated in good faith.
Manchin played the same games with voting rights, even going so far as to seed Democratic hopes that he would support a democracy reform bill by writing his own. But instead of actually doing anything to pass his own bill, Manchin just keeps defending the Senate filibuster, giving Republicans to ability to block his bill. Which is not how one behaves if one is sincere about passing a bill. But, as Paul Waldman of the Washington Post points out, it's clear that Manchin doesn't give a crap about anyone but himself and his rich friends. After all, Manchin has the power to rewrite Build Back Better "to completely transform his state" with huge cash infusions, but instead, he does everything to keep Biden from helping the very voters Manchin claims to represent.
Sinema, whose actual intelligence falls short of her ego, is a little less crafty at hiding her bad faith. She puts out petulant press releases insisting she's for the whole bouquet of Democratic policies — higher minimum wages, a better social safety net, voting rights — but reliably sides with the wishes of her rich donors over the needs of the public. And she likes to throw a little curtsy in, mock her critics with photos or make an F-off gesture while she's at it, unable to resist the urge to troll the people she was ostensibly hired to serve.
It's not just that betrayal from supposed friends feels worse than hatred from avowed enemies. It's that they are just more effective than Republicans are at derailing Biden's plans to save democracy. It's hard not to wonder what the past year would have looked like if Democrats hadn't been distracted by hopes of getting anything past these two jackasses. Not only did Manchin and Sinema waste a year of the very limited time Democrats have to save democracy, but they broke the spirit of the Democratic base in doing so. And, as Trumpists know full well, that kind of demoralization is the best friend a fascist could have. Republicans are sneering cartoon villains, but at the end of 2021, it's clear that Manchin and Sinema were more destructive. They broke Biden's vision and left him to take the blame going into the 2022 midterm elections, doing more to bring about the end of democracy than even the most energetic Trump acolytes ever could.