By opposing filibuster reform — thereby blocking voting rights protections — and Joe Biden's Build Back Better package, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have dramatically increased the odds that Republicans will take back both the House and Senate in 2022. More important still, Republicans may also entrench state-level autocratic power that could effectively subvert the 2024 presidential election. These two "centrists" haven't just weakened the Democratic Party, they've severely threatened the future of American democracy.
This article first appeared in Salon.
Yes, there's a dominant media narrative that blames all the Democrats' problems on progressives, but as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said recently on MSNBC's "11th Hour," it isn't progressives who have controlled the agenda as Biden's approval ratings have collapsed:
Biden has governed pretty much exactly the way they have asked him to. But the problem is that the way they have asked him to govern has been to slow down, not do too much, and we are now seeing the political consequences of not directly improving people's lives quickly.
Leaving aside Biden's relative neglect of executive action, no one has done more to slow things down than Manchin and Sinema, neither of whom has been transparent or consistent about what they want. In the Guardian, Robert Reich accurately identifies out-of-control egotism as a large part of the problem:
Before February of last year, almost no one outside West Virginia had heard of Manchin and almost no one outside Arizona (and probably few within it) had ever heard of Sinema.
Now, they're notorious. They're Washington celebrities. Their photos grace every major news outlet in America.
This sort of attention is addictive…. Once addicted, the pathologically narcissistic politician can become petty in the extreme, taking every slight as a deep personal insult.
These aren't just two willful individuals, as Reich makes clear: their narcissism is structurally fueled by how the Senate and the national media work. They illustrate America's structural political constraints in combination with both individual and collective narcissism.
America prides itself on being the world's oldest democracy, but given our institutional rigidity and reluctance to learn from others, that actually means our system is archaic and outdated. Many states borrowed from Switzerland and added the initiative process over a century ago, for example. But we've never even considered a federal version. The record is even worse with proportional representation, which is standard in many other countries and barely even visible here.
Far from being a beacon to the world of successful self-government, America offers a case study of failure. We're the only country in the world where mass shootings happen so regularly that only the special ones make national news, for example. But it's foolish to even dream of the Senate doing anything about it, even though universal background checks were supported by 84% to 89% in polls last year. We're almost the only country in the world without paid family leave, which two polls last October found 70% and 73% support for, at around the same time Manchin publicly nixed it from Build Back Better. Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices had 83% support in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in early October, about a month before Sinema torpedoed the Democrats' efforts to include it in Build Back Better.
It's a systemic problem
This isn't just about a few high-profile examples, deeply troubling as they should be. The problem is systemic. A 2014 study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page covered 1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 where public opinion could be matched to a clear policy outcome, and they found that "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence." Their study gave rise to a flurry of stories characterizing America as an oligarchy, echoing Occupy Wall Street's critique of the 1%.
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A more extensive follow-up study by Matt Grossmann, Zuhaib Mahmood and William Isaac painted a more nuanced picture, finding that "affluent influence does not arise through control of both political parties." Specifically:
The Republican Party and business interests are aligned across all issue areas and are more often aligned with the opinions of the richest Americans (especially on economic policy). Democrats more often represent middle class opinions and are uniformly aligned with advocacy groups.
So there's hope. But "more often" isn't good enough, as the current situation with Manchin and Sinema makes clear. And America remains far from being a truly healthy democracy.
"We have status-quo-biased institutions that limit (even popular) policymaking without bipartisan support and wide interest group support," Grossmann told me via email. "People sometimes blame this on the Democratic leadership, but Democrats regularly back liberal policy changes supported by the middle class, even if they don't pass."
As David Dayen wrote in October, in an article aptly titled, "The Case for Deliverism": "You cannot talk about the same popular items, fail to deliver on them, and expect the voting public to keep listening to you." For political scientists like Grossmann, there's a significant difference between the picture Gilens and Page presented and the one he and his colleagues have found. But for the ordinary voter, that's barely visible.
"Democrats are closer than ever to supporting institutional changes that would make the status quo more vulnerable," Grossmann said, "but they would probably need a sustained large national majority (that isn't forthcoming) to implement them because many of the pivotal elections are on conservative ground."
That's why Manchin and Sinema's obstructionism is so crucial: They're blocking even the possibility of building that Democratic majority. And their insistence on the need for bipartisanship as a transcendental virtue gives oligarchs a de facto veto. They talk in terms of building a broader consensus, but only within bounds set by the GOP and the forces of Big Capital, which is why popular policies like paid leave and negotiated drug prices get tossed overboard. This so-called consensus has been neglecting America's true needs for decades, if not generations.
When "consensus" is destructive
For a critical perspective on that consensus I reached out to two long-term thinkers, historian Jack Goldstone, author of the 1991 book, "Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World," which fundamentally changed our understanding of revolutions and the sources of political instability, and Ian Hughes, author of "Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy."
Goldstone's book highlights the problem of "selfish elites" who "protect their private wealth, even at the expense of a deterioration of state finances, public services, and long-term international strength," as a troubling parallel to the preconditions of the French Revolution, the English Civil War and similar examples of state breakdown. Hughes in turn sees that problem as a driving force in the neoliberal order that's dominated our politics for almost 40 years.
To understand why revolutions happen at some times, but not others, Goldstone developed a model that combines measures of demographically-driven social stress from the mass population, the elites and the state to produce a single number, the "political stress indicator." State breakdown — and subsequent revolution — only occurs when that rises to dramatically high levels, as it is doing in America today.
Just weeks after Biden's 2020 victory seemed to provide an opportunity to change that trajectory, I interviewed Goldstone, who held out the hope that Biden and Republicans might be able to work together:
If Mitch McConnell works with moderate Democrats to move away from the cliff, that will strengthen the moderate Democrats and reduce the power of the more radical or progressive wing, because the moderates will be getting more done.
That's clearly not how things have unfolded, so I reached out by email to see how his thinking had changed. "Things have deteriorated," he told me, but said he didn't find fault in the center. Democrats "should not have rushed a second impeachment [of Donald Trump] that was highly unlikely to yield a conviction," and progressives sabotaged Biden "by holding up the infrastructure bill for months while waiting for an unattainable Senate majority for their Build Back Better wish list."
I disagreed, but after some back-and-forth we found points of consensus, It's not centrism per se that's the problem, I argued, but the relative question: "Centrism compared to what?" Republican radicalization has created special conditions, given the nature of the U.S. political system, where the logic of "strengthening the middle" simply doesn't apply. Instead, a new middle has to be created.
In some cases, centrism can be harmful, Goldstone agreed:
I used to say this when Barack Obama was negotiating with the GOP. As the smartest guy in the room, he would identify the reasonable compromise position that a rational GOP would take with regard to the Democratic position and use that as his goal for negotiations. But that was unrealistic, because he was not dealing with a rational GOP, but an obstructionist GOP. When he tried to identify a reasonable middle ground, they saw that as a major concession and tried to jerk him further. It would have been better to start with his desired goal, hold out for as much as possible and concede as little as possible. Centrism just hurt his position.
I also agree that Sinema and Manchin may be motivated by outmoded ideas of centrism at best, and by selfish stubbornness based on ego at worst. But I don't much care why they are blocking Biden's program, I just want Biden to find some way to twist their arms to get an agreement.
You are right that centrism is pernicious — on climate change, a "compromise" position that makes token efforts to reduce greenhouse gases is not "prudent"; it is more akin to suicide. … My anxiety is that our whole political system is built on the need to find compromise and build broad coalitions among diverse views. It's not a parliamentary system, where a prime minister can command his party and always has a majority (or loses office).
How narcissism makes this worse
The need to find compromise and build broad coalitions is profoundly complicated by bad actors like Manchin and Sinema, who seem to be nurtured by collective narcissism, the belief that one's in-group is unique and exceptional. The Senate, which reflexively thinks of itself as "the world's greatest deliberative body," positively wallows in collective narcissism, so absorbed in preserving its supposed traditions its members seem incapable of seeing the broader destruction of democratic norms and practices sweeping the country outside their chamber.
As he argued against filibuster reform, Manchin proudly stood beside a large poster proclaiming his central argument: "The United States Senate has NEVER been able to end debate with a SIMPLE MAJORITY," which as Jon Skolnik noted here, is ridiculously false. Surely he must know this, as Skolnik pointed out:
The last three Supreme Court nominees — Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch — were all confirmed with a simple majority … In fact, Manchin himself was the 51st senator to back Kavanaugh, single-handedly ending debate on the scandal-plagued judge's confirmation.
But many of Manchin's fellow senators believe such nonsense. It's part of their collective narcissistic delusion. In early January, Norman Ornstein wrote an op-ed demolishing "Five myths about the filibuster," of which Manchin's was No. 1. The others were:
- The framers feared "the tyranny of the majority."
- The filibuster fosters moderation and cooperation.
- Keeping the filibuster now will preserve it in the future.
- A rule change would make the Senate just like the House.
Ornstein isn't the first to refute these myths, but senators like Manchin simply ignore the refutations, because their narcissism and privileged position enable them to. The senate is an exalted body! Why should its members care what anyone else thinks?
Narcissists often fixate on ideas, presumed facts or proclaimed principles that no one else is allowed to criticize or challenge. They refuse to engage in a back-and-forth discussion, much less a good-faith debate. The reason is straightforward, therapist and author Elizabeth Mika (a contributor to "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump") explained. "A good-faith debate requires enough humility to acknowledge that we may not know everything and we could be wrong — a no-no for a narcissist who is convinced s/he is always right.
As Skolnik notes, Manchin himself previously blasted the filibuster, demolishing Ornstein's third myth. "We have become paralyzed by the filibuster and an unwillingness to work together at all, just because it's an election cycle," Manchin told the Charleston Daily Mail, in an article still posted on his Senate website. He even voted in favor of enforcing the "talking filibuster," even though it failed. If Manchin weren't such a narcissist, his past positions might be useful to argue against his current one. But not if he's convinced he's always right.
Besides, there are all those other senators who agree with him! (Who are almost all Republicans.) "Our collective narcissism [as a country] enables that of our Senate," Mika said. "It goes without saying that such an exceptional country will have an exceptional Senate and senators. Just spectacular and beyond reproach. Unlike anywhere else on Earth."
She continued: "I think this is a common delusion of grandeur of most, if not all, folks in power, and not just in the U.S. The higher one gets in the hierarchy of power, the more narcissistic one becomes, and the less in touch with reality. So much so that this narcissism turns psychopathic as it erases our capacity for empathy."
What is to be done?
With all that in mind, the question Goldstone focused on was simple: What can be done to get around Sinema and Manchin? He offered two ideas:
- Statehood for the District of Columbia, which will elect two Democratic senators, making Manchin and Sinema's votes no longer crucial.
- Offer a cabinet position to a Republican senator in a state with a Democratic governor. If they accept, the governor appoints a Democratic replacement.
That second proposition is wildly unlikely; in the current political climate, Republicans would never fall for it. But the first really shouldn't be. A new law review article argues that D.C. statehood should be seen as constitutionally required. Citing the 14th Amendment's Citizenship Clause, "as glossed by subsequent amendments," it argues: "All Americans living in the United States, including in D.C., are constitutionally entitled to claim state citizenship where they reside." Goldstone fears time could be running out:
There is a danger that, just as Arlington, Virginia, was once part of D.C. but returned to Virginia, that the GOP — if they take power — will change the "Capitol District" to just include the Mall/Capitol/White House federal lands, and seek to merge the rest of D.C. with Maryland, to end the D.C. statehood thing once and for all. I think it is imperative to try to bust the filibuster and get D.C. statehood now. But I don't think it will happen.
When Goldstone asked if I had any ideas, I mentioned Perry Bacon Jr.'s threefold strategy, starting with executive actions. Bacon called attention to the American Prospect's Day One Agenda, which I wrote about in November 2020. "The Biden administration has taken at least some action on about one-third of the 77 policies we outlined," the Prospect's David Dayen wrote last October. "But he has shied away from some of the more impactful ideas," such as canceling student debt for 42 million borrowers and giving millions more workers access to overtime pay.
Second, Bacon wrote, "Biden should use his informal power aggressively," articulating "a compelling vision for 2022 America and push[ing] the country toward it." He can "provide rhetorical support to the kinds of changes that he wants to see" and also "seek out righteous fights," such as "hold[ing] events with election administrators and school board members who have been threatened by Trumpian crazies for just doing their jobs."
Third, "Biden should leverage his popularity and influence in blue America," focusing on "getting key planks of his agenda adopted at the city and state levels wherever they can," such as robust paid leave, child care and pre-K programs. "If Biden wants to take on problems such as internet misinformation, gun violence and college affordability, he can have enormous influence just meeting with big-city mayors, university administrators and tech industry figures, almost all of whom likely support him."
In short, as Obama did in his final two years, Biden needs to shift attention away from Republican senators and their two narcissistic sidekicks and focus on folks who will work with him:
I want Biden to save his presidency for the good of the country, in particular for the people who voted for him. He should stand with them, defending their rights and doing whatever he can to improve their lives, instead of wasting more months courting Republicans, conservative Democrats … and voters who are never going to support him.
Imagining the long term
This is not an electoral solution, Bacon says. But at least it plants seeds for the long term, which is the timeframe Ian Hughes helps illuminate, including the question of how we got here in the first place. Returning to the problem of elites who "protect their private wealth, even at the expense of a deterioration of state finances, public services, and long-term international strength," Hughes identified this as "part of the 'evil genius' of neoliberalism and the current social order":
[Margaret] Thatcher's revolution in the U.K. of encouraging everyone to buy their own home — as a means of ensuring everyone became a "stakeholder in society" — has resulted in the fact that the majority of people are now part of the "selfish elites" who resist any changes that threaten their private wealth.What has happened is that the majority have become stakeholders in their own private wealth at the expense of their contributions and commitment to collective society and public goods — including public services. And of course, the wealthier you are, the less reliant (and invested) you are on public services for health, education, security and so on. So the problem of "selfish elites" is not a problem with a minority (although there is clearly a very big problem with a small percentage of the ultra-wealthy because of their inordinate power). It is a problem of a substantial majority.
Here in America, George W. Bush pushed his vision of an "ownership society" at the beginning of his second term, with an initial focus on trying to privative Social Security. At the time, L. Randall Wray wrote a brief critique for the Levy Institute:
[T]he history of the Western world since the advent of liberalism has been marked by a gradual rise in the power of those who lack property. Some of the milestones in this progression include universal suffrage, regulation of business, and progressive taxation. Bush's ownership society proposals … would result in a partial reversal of the progress of the last 250 years. The reason is that, while Bush's plans would undoubtedly increase the choices and power of those who have property, they would fail to democratize ownership. Many gains to the wealthy would come at the expense of the poor, the sick, and the elderly.
In short, the rhetoric of ownership, freedom and choice can distract attention from the fact that, in reality, most people's everyday existence is becoming increasingly precarious. While this may remain more or less hidden for years, it becomes overwhelmingly obvious in times of crisis. The question of who is responsible all too easily becomes the subject of conspiracy theories, which narcissists and psychopaths excel at spinning out.
Hughes then responded to Goldstone's observation that "if the middle left and the middle right can work together, they keep the extremists marginalized," first made in 2020. It's only true "so long as the middle left and middle right are working together on policies and visions that can deliver for society," Hughes said. "The problem now, as Yeats would say, is that the center cannot hold":
This is true everywhere because of climate change and environmental destruction — our current carbon-based economic system is driving the planet to destruction. Our contemporary model of growth-driven unregulated exploitative capitalism has produced socially destabilizing levels of inequality and eroded democracy. And in the U.S. in particular, you need only to listen to cable news for 10 minutes to see how totally structurally dysfunctional the political system has become. To try to work from the center of that mess is to invest your efforts in a Herculean effort to stay on the road to destruction.
The most dangerous extremists right now are those who want to destroy democracy. There are no "both sides" in that struggle. The GOP has become an extremist anti-democracy party tapping into and stoking a wider anti-democracy movement. Trump was a symptom of that. He strengthened the anti-democracy faction of the GOP and made it respectable to be a fascist in America, so the problem of anti-democracy extremism is not going away. The problem is, there is no pro-democracy response with anything like the rage and intensity needed.
Finally, I asked Hughes to comment on the need to create a "new middle," one that did not seek to bully people into agreement, but could draw them into necessary conversations aimed at solving long-neglected problems. He replied:
Amitav Ghosh has a wonderful image for what is happening globally right now. Under normal circumstances, Ghosh says, we are able to ignore large parts of reality — poverty far away or out of sight, the warming of the planet that hasn't yet impacted us, the destruction of nature in far-away places, and so on. With these things safely hidden away, we can construct a narrative of our lives that is understandable, predictable, comfortable.
But with climate change, the impacts of the vast inequalities we have created, the hollowing out of our democracies, all of these neglected issues are rushing in from the background and crashing in upon us, destroying our cozy narratives. In such circumstances we need new "extremists" — visionaries who can see the world as it could be, activists whose lives are devoted to common good and not private wealth, agitators who remind us that our current systems of economics, politics, gender, militarism are deeply broken. We need, first and foremost, to recognize that the systems that make up our current civilization are finished. Only then can we start to build back better.
It may help to reflect on Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema one last time. Their contrast with Biden — himself a life-long embodiment of centrism — is instructive. Biden had to shift his thinking, more in some ways than in others, in order to become a viable presidential candidate in 2020. Along with many other establishment Democrats, he proved that such adaptation was possible, without repeating many of the mistakes of the Obama era.
Blind spots remain, to be sure: There are failures of messaging, issue-framing and engagement with the progressive grassroots, which have left Biden and his party vulnerable not just to right-wing attacks but to anti-democratic "centrist" obstruction. But we can hope that the need to learn has been learned. Because Hughes is right: The center, as conventional politics understands it, cannot hold. A new center must be created.