Many Democrats are apoplectic these days with Sen. Joe Manchin—and plenty annoyed with several other Senate Democrats, albeit less vocally. The West Virginian, in his 20th year in statewide office and now in his 11th in the Senate, has the audacity to believe he knows his state better than certain others who may not have even flown over it, let alone stepped foot in it. He is not toeing the party line on many issues, including his opposition to abolishing the filibuster and his more limited view of what should be contained in an infrastructure package.
What does not seem to be apparent to some of these Democrats is why they have only 50 seats in the Senate these days, why Manchin’s support is so important, and why his views are relevant. Not long ago, the ranks of Senate Democrats included Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, all of whom sought and lost bids for reelection in 2018 in states with substantial shares of voters in small towns and rural areas. Look back further to Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, and Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas to see the same dynamic. Expand the circle a little wider, and we can include the late Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Bill Nelson of Florida, who lost in states with more urbanized electorates than the first six mentioned but still had substantial numbers of voters turn against them in rural and small-town areas.
Manchin is the last Democrat standing in the Senate with shares of voters outside of metropolitan areas. In the House, with then-Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson’s loss last year, the last House Democrat in a comparable district is Rep. Jared Golden in Maine’s 2nd District. Golden represents four-fifths of the land area of Maine—the interior of the state away from more-liberal Portland, represented by Rep. Chellie Pingree.
In a provocative piece for The Democratic Strategist newsletter, political analyst Andrew Levison asks his fellow Democrats whether they agree with these three statements:
- “It is entirely reasonable for progressives to insist on candidates who do not just agree to support certain progressive policies because they are required as part of participation in a political alliance but who fully and sincerely embrace basic progressive values.
- “It is entirely reasonable for progressives to be suspicious of candidates who come from backgrounds and reflect the cultural outlook of communities that are culturally distant from the progressive world and culture.
- “It is entirely reasonable for progressives to feel that non-progressive voters ought to be willing to support a progressive candidate if they agree with his or her economic platform even if they disagree with other aspects of his or her agenda.”
According to Levison, for most progressives, “these three statements seem entirely reasonable, indeed obvious. After all, why shouldn’t progressives have the right to demand candidates who sincerely support progressive views and reflect a progressive cultural outlook ...?"
Levison then turns the question on its head, with a second set of three statements:
- “It is entirely reasonable for culturally traditional rural and white working class people to insist on candidates who do not just agree to support certain culturally traditional policies because they are required as part of participation in a political alliance but who fully and sincerely embrace certain traditional cultural values.
- “It is entirely reasonable for culturally traditional rural and white working class people to be suspicious of candidates who come from backgrounds and reflect the cultural outlook of communities that are culturally distant from the rural and white working class world and culture.
- “It is entirely reasonable for rural and white working class people to feel that voters who are not rural or white working class ought to be willing to support a culturally traditional rural or white working class candidate if they agree with his or her economic agenda even if they may disagree with some of his or her other views and proposals.”
As Levison puts it, “the underlying logic is identical in the two cases. Yet many progressives will agree with the first set of propositions but then reject the second.”
Just as many Republican members of the House and Senate representing mostly rural- and small-town-oriented states and districts cannot seem to understand the pressures and considerations of their colleagues in highly suburban districts, many Democrats seem blissfully unaware that some of their colleagues represent (or more accurately, used to represent) constituents who see life, politics, and policy somewhat differently.
Arguably, that is one of the things largely missing in American politics and conversations about politics: a hesitancy to judge others before you have walked a mile in their shoes, as the old admonition goes.