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Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is interviewed after a news conference at the Marriott Hotel at Waterfront Place on June 3, 2021 in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Photo: Michael Swensen/Getty Images)

Manchin's Native Con

The "moderate" West Virginia senator is taking a page right out of the far-right populist playbook to stop progressive change.

Peter Bloom

The legislative battle between progressives and moderates over the "Build Back Better" spending bill became increasingly personal this week. A West Virginia newspaper published an op-ed by Bernie Sanders in a not so veiled attack on Senator Joe Manchin's refusal to support the plan, declaring that its passage would "finally address the long-neglected crises facing working families and demand that the wealthiest people and largest corporations in the country start paying their fair share of taxes."In response, Manching put out a public statement proclaiming that "this isn't the first time an out-of-stater has tried to tell West Virginians what is best for them despite having no relationship to our state"

It reveals the extremist lengths moderates will go to prevent progressive reform.

It is not surprising that this struggle over the "soul" of the Democratic Party would follow its Senators home. Ultimately, even if mostly fought in the rarified air of Washington DC, a main concern for any lawmaker is ensuring that they are re-elected by their local constituents. Yet what was troubling was the language Manchin used in his counter-attack. The false conservative talking points about the bill are to be expected by a Centre-right Wall Street Democrat but Manchin went further, implying that the desire for a basic social safety net, economic justice, and environmental protection was non-native to West Virginia and merely the views of "outside" progressive agitators.

In making these absurd claims, Manchin was resorting to the same Far-Right populism of Trump. It shows his dangerous ignorance of West Virginia's important radical history of social and economic struggles up to the present. Just as significantly, it reveals the extremist lengths moderates will go to prevent progressive reform.

 The Rise of Democratic Nativism

The last decade has witnessed the resurgence of nativism around the world. Far-Right populist regimes from Brazil to the Philippines have channeled popular anger against corporate globalization into a similar virulent politics of ethnonationalism. At the heart of this politics, is the simultaneous belief that there exists a "real people" and a blaming of all social and economic ill on various "outsiders."

In the US, Trump exemplified this nativist threat as a populist demagogue who promised to "Make America Great Again" in the name of real "Americans" who allegedly only he cared about and could protect against. Riding to victory on a wave of white resentment, the enemy were urban professionals, non-whites, and Liberals among other "undesirables" who wanted to destroy a supposedly sacred American way of life. Underpinning this appeal to the proverbial "everyman" is a deeper commitment to maintaining existing racial and class privilege.

The Democrats, and other "Centrist" political parties, are often viewed as the strongest force for defending democracy and the values of liberal tolerance and multiculturalism. Scratching only slightly beneath the surface, though, it becomes evident that they too can fall prey to blaming the threatening "other" when it is in their political interests (and the economic interests of the corporate status quo that they primarily serve). In the wake of almost losing congressional seats during the 2020 election, moderate Democrats immediately pointed the finger at "radical" progressives and their "dangerous" ideas like "defunding the police." Reflected is the more subtle rise of reactionary Democratic nativism.

The Inside Con

The charges by Manchin that somehow Sanders and other progressives who support greater spending on "human infrastructure" are foreign intruders to "real" West Virginian values is just another example of Democrats borrowing liberally from the Far-Right populist playbook. Not surprisingly, his objection to these policies has nothing to do with upholding mythical "West Virginian" values and everything to do with preserving the power of his corporate donors including from the Energy Industry. In a desperate effort to hide his actual elite allegiances, he has localized a national discourse of blame and hate to a state level.

What is also truly tragic is that Manchin is sadly reinforcing harmful stereotypes of West Virginians as intolerant and conservative.

This strategy is especially jarring given how actually popular these measures are even in supposedly deep red states like West Virginia. All Manchin has left to fall back on is a nativist appeal that contains within it the worst types of racism and prejudice. 

Indeed, whether intending to or not, by targeting Bernie Sanders he continued in a vile far-Right history of antisemitism linking leftist politics to a global Jewish conspiracy.

What is also truly tragic is that Manchin is sadly reinforcing harmful stereotypes of West Virginians as intolerant and conservative. This is the state that broke away from Virginia rather than join the Confederacy and which was the site of some of the most important and radical labor struggles in the nation's history. Most recently, it was in West Virginia that the "red state revolt" by teachers largely began and was at its most militant.

This points to a core of truth though in Manchin's hateful strategy—he is scared of outsiders as he should be. He fears perhaps above all else that workers and citizens in other states showing solidarity to those in West Virginia who would most benefit from these urgently required progressive policies. His outdated defense of "liberal spending" and preserving "coal jobs" is increasingly stale in the face of a state suffering from growing inequality, poverty, and environmental devastation.

He knows such investment has nothing to do with inflation and will only help problems of chronic unemployment. The real danger though is to the donations to his political war chest and special perks to his family from pharmaceutical companies responsible for the opioid crisis that has ravaged the state and coal companies that are a dying industry contributing to a dying world. Manchin can only hope to distract from the real "enemy"—corporations and political elites who have profited off the suffering of West Virginians for decades while exploiting their natural resources.

What Manchin represents is nothing more than a spiteful politics of scapegoating to mask his own corruption. He pretends that his Wall Street values are those of West Virginia. We can only hope that his latest native con falls flat for the fate of his state, the nation, and the world.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Peter Bloom

Peter Bloom

Peter Bloom is a Professor at the University of Essex in the UK. His books include “Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Globalization” (2016), “The CEO Society”, and most recently “Guerrilla Democracy: Mobile Power and Revolution in the 21st Century.”

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