Senator Joe Manchin recently announced that he would vote no on the Build Back Better Act (BBB), the landmark legislation that President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats have been attempting to pass for the better part of 2021. Unless a last-ditch effort to get Manchin to reconsider is successful, his decision all but dooms what would have constituted the greatest single expansion of social programs benefiting ordinary working people since the 1960s while taking significant steps to address the climate crisis.
The deeply compromised act would not have established real social democracy in the United States, nor would it have been the dawn of a desperately needed Green New Deal. But it would have been a genuine and substantive piece of progressive legislation that helped tens of millions of working-class people, while increasing taxes on the rich. Such an agenda was too much to stomach for Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who announced on Fox News, “This is a no on this legislation.”
Of course, Manchin has always been one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, representing a state that voted for Donald Trump by a more than two-to-one margin in 2020. He’s also the number one Senate recipient of fossil fuel campaign contributions, who has personally profited from lucrative investments in numerous coal companies that he founded in the 1980s.
Given this background, it should not be mysterious or surprising that Joe Manchin failed to support a major social spending and climate bill. But it should prompt us to ask some pretty fundamental questions about our political system, such as: Why was this decision up to Joe Manchin in the first place? And why, despite a shockingly high degree of political unity between its neoliberal and progressive flanks, could the Democratic Party not get the simple congressional majorities it needed to pass its singular policy priority?
Answering these questions means examining both the self-destructive contradictions of the Democratic Party and the rot at the heart of American democracy.
A Deeply Flawed Democracy
A common criticism since the 2020 election has been, “Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress, yet they can’t get anything done.” It’s true, but perhaps a bit misleading. Democrats control the House and Senate by the slimmest of margins. In the Senate, they split the chamber evenly with Republicans, relying on Vice President Kamala Harris to cast the tie-breaking vote.
While there’s plenty of blame to be doled out directly to Democratic candidates, consultants, and party leaders for running losing campaigns, American elections are structurally skewed to favor the Right. Partisan and racial gerrymandering has packed and cracked Democratic districts to deliver a disproportionate number of House seats to Republicans. State-level voter suppression laws that have purged voting rolls, closed polling locations, required early registration, eliminated or cut early voting and absentee voting, and required IDs in order to vote have all chipped away at Democratic turnout.
And then the baked-in anti-majoritarian nature of both the Electoral College and the Senate means that sparsely populated rural states wield an absurd amount of governing power, utterly undercutting the “one person, one vote” principle of political equality that most Americans take for granted.
In other words, under current conditions of partisan alignment, those on the Right have a distinct structural advantage when it comes to winning elections. The Democrats’ 2020 electoral victory resulted in anemic majorities in part because that is how the system operates. That broken democratic system is now giving Manchin, a senator elected by 290,000 voters in a country of over 330 million people, the power to unilaterally upend the most consequential piece of legislation for working families and the planet that we’ve seen in many decades.
We shouldn’t expect to pass transformative policies with razor-thin Democratic or left-of-center majorities, given the corporate fealty and fickleness of so many Democrats. Expanding those majorities will take structural democracy reforms to eliminate gerrymandering and voter suppression and ban corporate money in politics. Converting House of Representative elections to proportional ranked choice voting in multimember districts and abolishing the Senate and Electoral College altogether should be on the agenda as well, though such reforms may take significantly longer to accomplish.
In the short term, Democrats could abolish or reform the filibuster and immediately pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would make major inroads toward combating voter suppression and gerrymandering, while introducing a serious mechanism for small-dollar-driven grassroots campaigns to take on corporate candidates backed by big money.
The problem, of course, is that both Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema also oppose filibuster abolition or reform. This could easily lead us to a kind of chicken-and-egg problem regarding the ability to win the Democratic majorities needed to pass democracy reform under the conditions in which Democrats face structural disadvantages.
But that would be far too simple of a story. Because at least as important as our antidemocratic structures in determining our political reality is the composition and behavior of those who actually make up the Democratic Party.
A Contradictory Coalition
The Democratic Party is two contradictions stacked one on top of the other. First, as with the Republicans, it is not a real political party as many advanced capitalist democracies would know them. There are no official party members that come together around a set of shared political or ideological beliefs, who deliberate about and democratically determine a common platform, and who then choose candidates to run for office in order to pursue that platform.
Rather, American political parties are made up of a vast array of individual candidates, a sprawling network of campaign donors and fundraising institutions, state and local party organizations, and a small professional class of party-aligned campaign consultants and vendors. What this means is that candidates and donors in aggregate end up determining what the party is from the top down, rather than its members or voters determining what the party is from the bottom up.
This first contradiction helps lead to the second, namely that the Democratic Party in particular is a coalition that attempts to actively court and win the support of both labor and capital.
From the 1930s to the present, Democrats have been at the helm of government during every major social advancement won by mass movements of working-class people. FDR and the New Dealers passed historic jobs, public works, unemployment, and Social Security programs, as concessions to a massive and militant labor movement. Lyndon B. Johnson and a Democratic Congress passed Medicare and Medicaid and signed landmark civil rights and voting rights legislation in the 1960s, pushed from below by the civil rights movement.
But in a trend that has only accelerated in recent decades, Democrats have also been the bedfellows of huge swaths of American capital, including finance, real estate, the pharmaceutical industry, private health insurers, technology, entertainment, and the unscrupulously bipartisan defense industry. The problem here is obvious. You cannot simultaneously be the party of a capitalist class, whose primary interest is to exploit workers for maximum profits, and the party of the working class, whose primary interest is to have a decent and dignified standard of living, free from capitalist domination.
When these two competing impulses come to a head within the Democratic coalition, it’s almost invariably the capitalists who come out on top, with Democrats’ historical electoral base of unions and the multiracial working class taken for granted. Partially as a result of this dynamic, that working-class base has been abandoning the party in significant numbers for decades, right through the 2020 election.
As in other capitalist democracies across the West, our own center-left party has been replacing blue-collar and less educated workers with white-collar, more educated professionals to shore up their numbers at the polls. What’s followed has been a self-reinforcing feedback loop between the corporate-friendly politics of the Democratic Party leading working-class voters to leave them behind, and decisions of party leaders to embrace class dealignment as a demographically informed hardheaded election strategy.
At the end of the day, the Democrats are not a working-class or even a social democratic party. They are a loose amalgamation of candidates, donors, and consultants, many of whom are genuine progressives, but the majority of whom are either captured by corporate interests or lacking the imagination and political courage needed to take on those interests on behalf of working people.
Joe Manchin is a conservative, corrupt, corporate-backed politician. None of that disqualifies him from being a Democrat.
It’s easy and somewhat reasonable to despair when news breaks that a profiteering coal baron is planning to sink what might be our only shot at passing major social and climate policy this decade, while simultaneously queueing up an increasingly antidemocratic Republican Party to dominate the 2022 midterms. But it would be a waste to witness the absurd depravity of this moment without examining its underlying causes and identifying a path forward to avoid its repetition in the future.
There are plenty of valid and worthwhile tactical critiques we might make of how 2021 could have gone differently to produce a result other than Joe Machin pulling the rug out from under the Build Back Better Act and screwing over the vast majority of the American people. The fateful decision of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — with the notable exception of the Squad — to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure package before BBB was passed now seems particularly wrongheaded.
But even if tactical changes could have hypothetically produced a different outcome, the actual result we ended up with was always a very likely one. As we rage about Manchin’s corruption and the ineptitude of the Democratic establishment, let’s also remember the deeply flawed character of American democracy itself — and the fundamentally contradictory party that shares its name.
As socialists, we must build working-class institutions independent of the Democratic Party, like labor unions and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). We know the tools that work: class-struggle elections that engage workers on the political terrain they’re most familiar with; the rank-and-file strategy, to make unions the democratic and militant engines of class struggle we need in order for workers to credibly challenge capital; and popular issue-based campaigns that rally working people about the pressing matters of their day-to-day lives, whether it be health care, rent control, or living wages. We must also take care to fight for structural democratic reforms, without which the road to progress will be much steeper on all fronts.
It is a daunting task, but a necessary one if we want to overcome the inhumanity and injustices of our current system and bring about a more free and equal society.