Alan Zendell, June 8, 2021
Political leaders have long struggled to balance integrity with self-interest. That’s not new, but what is, is that political integrity now seems to be on its deathbed. There have always been intense disagreements among politicians, on slavery, labor unions, civil rights, immigration, and the often gray line between capitalism and the welfare state. But in the past, when faced with serious threats to the nation, politicians overcame their differences, found grounds for compromise, and had the nerve to act on them. That’s how our system was intended to work. When it ceases to work that way, its days will be numbered.
We’ve always had greedy politicians, crooked politicians, and some who simply lacked the courage to stand up for what they knew was right. They were usually in the minority, but something is radically different today. That third group is growing like a metastasized cancer. Not only do fear and self-interest almost completely dominate the actions of much of Congress, we no longer have a consensus of what “the right thing to do” is.
For this sad change in our politics, we can thank Donald Trump. Like other charismatic leaders who have led their countries down the path to self-destruction, Trump wielded a shocking degree of control over his party because his greatest talents are rooted in contempt for truth, sociopathic disregard for everyone but himself, and a visceral ability to sense weakness and vulnerability in others.
Trump has been remarkably successful in redefining truth for about a third of Americans. He brought his winner-take-all, no-holds-barred approach to business to our government, which, combined with his uncanny ability to identify and isolate the weakest member of every herd and pounce like a lion in the savanna, has shaken our already teetering political system’s foundations. While Trump’s popularity with voters has continued to wane post-January 6th, his hold on Republican legislators at all levels hasn’t. Like all self-indulgent fools who sign a pact the Devil, they forgot that the Devil always gets his due. Only this time, it’s not only they who are screwed. There’s an enormous risk that they will take the rest of us down with them.
The latest example of Congress’ current upside-down value system is Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV). I don’t claim to understand the inner workings of his mind, but as a Democrat re-elected in a deeply Republican state, he’s clearly in an unenviable position. It’s impossible to know what’s really in his heart, but his actions and statements in this 50-50 Senate have been demonstrably disingenuous. He’s been accused of reveling in his position as political fulcrum and loving the power serendipity thrust upon him more than party, truth, or country.
Recognizing that most Americans hate the polarization of our politics and the partisanship in Congress, Manchin postured himself as the lone voice of bipartisanship. When Republican leaders Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell vowed to obstruct every attempt to pass legislation, that left Democrats in a position to either force through legislation without Republican support or throw in the towel. Knowing that he is the lynchpin on which this choice depends, Manchin has repeatedly stated that he believes in bipartisanship, that the alternative will eventually destroy our democracy, sentiments most of us support unequivocally.
But there was an unspoken implication in Manchin’s words that his attempts at bipartisanship had a time limit. If after expending every resource at his disposal, it was clear that critical legislation supported by two-thirds of Americans in both parties would die if he didn’t support it, he would accept that he couldn’t achieve Republican support and finally get in line with his party. His op-ed in Sunday’s Charleston Gazette-Mail put the lie to that hope.
Manchin stated without reservation that he would not support either the For The People Voting Rights bill or any attempt to weaken the filibuster. His argument that continuing to act in a partisan manner would only make things worse, resulting in more bipartisan retaliation by Republicans is at best foolish and at worst a bald-faced lie to appeal to his West Virginia voting base. I wonder if British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain used those same words to argue against resisting the Nazis’ occupation of Czechoslovakia.
We all get the point. No one likes tit-for-tat politics. But even worse is rolling over in the face of tyranny. Someone has to break the deadlock if our system is to become functional again.
A cynic I knew once said turning the other cheek is only likely to get that cheek smacked too. Since there’s no evidence that Congress has any use for Christian values, pacifism and generosity on the part of Democrats will result only in failure to produce meaningful results on things voters clearly need and want, leaving the field open for the most unscrupulous to work their will.