Manchin's Self-Proclaimed "Principled" Acts Mean Shunning His ConstituentsRoundup
tags: Southern history, political history, democracy, elitism, Joe Manchin
Ashley Steenson is a PhD student in American intellectual and political history at The University of Alabama, where her research considers the connections between political ideologies in the South and Northeast during the early 20th century.
On Dec. 20, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) voiced his opposition to the Build Back Better Framework, President Biden’s plan to “rebuild the middle class.” Although Manchin publicly stated that fiscal concerns including inflation had driven his opposition, he also allegedly told fellow lawmakers behind closed doors that Americans would use paid sick leave to go on hunting trips. Manchin also apparently claimed that people would buy drugs with money from child tax credits.
Left-leaning journalists including the Nation’s Joan Walsh and HuffPost’s Tara Golshan and Arthur Delaney compared the senator’s ideas to the “harmful myths,” in Walsh’s words, driving the Clinton-era welfare reforms. These ideas led to the imposition of conditions on beneficiaries such as mandatory drug testing.
But these historical ties — while accurate — miss the even deeper history behind Manchin’s argument that poor and lower middle-class individuals should not be trusted to make their own decisions. In many ways, it ties back to Plato’s argument against representative democracy in “The Republic” (c. 375 BC).
Manchin’s claims also echo the ideas of one of the strongest critics of direct democracy in American history: Sen. Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar (D-Miss.), also the only Supreme Court justice from Mississippi. Lamar’s history serves to remind Americans that a lawmaker’s willingness to oppose popular opinion or take a lonely stance can be courageous — or it can reflect elitism and bias.
Throughout his life, Lamar took part in secession, raised a regiment for the Confederate States in the Civil War, opposed Reconstruction and had a role in the organization of the Western territories. As a lifelong legal and political scholar, Lamar ended his career with a tenure as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He remained committed to states’ rights throughout his life and often amended his politics to secure home rule and sectional gain.
Lamar’s politics were complicated: He was liberal on issues such as education and conservation. Responsible for the preservation of millions of acres of land, Lamar specifically argued against corporate interests to protect Yellowstone National Park from development. His most famous political act was a call for reconciliation in an 1873 eulogy for abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.), which earned him the label of being a moderate.
Yet, on two key issues — race relations and political representation — he remained a conservative. In 1877, Lamar became one of the architects — in the words of historian Joel Williamson — of “an unwritten contract … in which the South exchanged ‘home rule’ for the surrender of economic and political power in the nation.” To Northerners, Lamar personified “a South that could be trusted.” In this way, the South won the battle for home rule and states’ rights, despite losing the Civil War.
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