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:
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:
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.
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