by Neil H. Buchanan
Democratic Senator Joe Manchin continues to infuriate his colleagues (and a majority of the American public) by continuing to defend the indefensible. I will get to the latest on the Manchin front shortly, but only as part of a larger discussion of a surprising trend that has emerged in U.S. politics over the last decade or so.
Specifically, it has become increasingly difficult to find a difference between the mindless assertions (I cannot honestly call them arguments) that we see from conservative politicians and the ravings of random online trolls.
The Dorf on Law blog has existed since late 2006, and I have been writing DoL-like commentaries on other sites since roughly 2000. In the course of more than twenty years of this kind of writing, I have had to learn -- but now unlearn -- an important lesson.
When writing an argument in response to one's political opponents, some rules need to apply. One is not to make straw-man arguments, creating easily rebuttable claims that the other side has never made. Easy example: "My opponent says that she wants to defund the police, but why would we want to take all police officers off the streets and let criminals run wild?" Another (from Mitch McConnell): "Obama wants to eliminate the debt ceiling, allowing the national debt to rise literally without limit!" This is sloppy stuff, and it leaves the speaker vulnerable to an easy reply: "Obviously, I never said that."
A less obvious rule, however, is not to use an offhand comment from someone who seems to agree with the other side to represent the views of everyone on the other side. For example, during the Occupy Wall Street protests (which happened almost ten years ago!), not only Republicans but many members of the supposedly liberal media delighted in finding some scraggly guy wearing a "Legalize hemp" T-shirt, who would say something hopelessly obtuse, naive, or simply wrong. Message: "This is what the anti-Wall Street left believes!"
But of course, there was a core set of intelligible (and, to my mind, compelling) arguments from the Occupy people that was never addressed. Whether deliberate or not, using the weakest arguments or the most embarrassing statements from non-representative randos impoverishes the discussion. If our arguments are strong, we can confront the other side's strongest arguments, not focus on their weakest ones. And to be clear, some of the isolated examples that are spotlighted are not even "weak arguments for the other side," because they might be simply irrelevant and unrepresentative. For example, finding a guy at a civil rights rally who, say, also thinks that the Federal Reserve is a private bank is not an indication that all civil rights advocates know nothing about central banking.
While writing from my side of the political divide, then, it has been important not to jump on too-good-to-be-true inanities from people whom one can (accurately) call conservative, attributing that particular inanity to the group as a whole. That does still leave quite a bit of room for judgment calls, because there is no definitive source that tells us when some critical mass of conservatives believes X or Y. In any case, it has always been important to remind myself, for example, that just because former Florida congressman Ted Yoho (who represented what is now my district) believed that financial markets affirmatively wanted to see the U.S. federal government default on its debt, that did not mean that all conservatives were similarly loopy.
To be sure, there is (or ought to be) a big difference in how seriously we take a crazy comment from some guy on the street (or, to be more realistic, some online troll) and a similarly crazy comment from a sitting U.S. Representative, even if the latter is a back-bencher with no real influence. Still, attribution of a crazy idea to a wider group is fraught with danger, even when the "nobody" who says it holds national office.
Once we reach the level of party leaders or major players (such as former politicians or prominent opinionators), however, we should be able to expect fellow travelers to call out comments with which the majority disagrees. "Senator Smith says ____, and while I normally agree with her, she definitely speaks only for herself and not for me or other conservatives."
Thus, when Mitch McConnell, currently the most powerful Republican in Washington, descended into the depths of completely indefensible statements over the past decade or so, it became reasonable to draw two conclusions: (1) He almost always spoke for nearly everyone in his party, and (2) He sounded more and more like a random troll who could not formulate a decent argument.
On the latter point, remember that this is a man who invented and endlessly repeated the claim that Supreme Court seats cannot be filled during election years. And just yesterday, he argued that the John Lewis Voting Rights Act is merely duplicative of existing law and is thus "unnecessary." (Even taken on its own terms, how is that an argument against the Act? If it would change nothing, it would do no harm to pass it quickly and unanimously.)
And this descent into intelligibility is obviously not limited to McConnell. Over the last five or six years, statements by Donald Trump and Trumpists were as a matter of course as unhinged as anything that one could find in a right-wing chat room.
We have reached the point, in other words, where (although due diligence is always necessary) it is no longer reasonable to think: "Oh, I just saw this utterly crazed and/or completely illogical statement, which cannot possibly represent the view of most Republicans or conservatives." Again, it is good to continue to heed the instinct to be skeptical, but by now, it is a rebuttable presumption that the craziest version of what we are hearing from the right is in fact the group's view.
As always, it is also important to point out that this is not symmetric, because Democrats simply do not do what the Republicans do. Marjorie Taylor Greene (MTG) says crazy stuff every day and then doubles down. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), by contrast, shows up at committee hearings having done her homework, speaks in complete sentences, and offers coherent arguments based on facts. Whether or not one agrees with AOC on the substance of her arguments, she is tied to reality and responds substantively to questions.
Indeed, MTG is the living, breathing right-wing counterpart to the unwashed guy at an Occupy rally in 2011. Until a couple of years ago, I would have read something that she wrote and assumed that it was not in her party's mainstream. Although her party still sometimes repudiates her (slowly and begrudgingly), there is not a respectable party apparatus to which one can turn that offers conservative arguments with actual content. It has all become a grievance-fest with complaints about Dr. Seuss and "radical Socialist Democrats."
All of which is related to, but not quite the same as, the Manchin Problem. In the title of this column, I used the word "conservative" rather than "Republican" precisely because of West Virginia Joe. When he makes head-scratchingly stupid comments, it is not that he is speaking for a larger group. Even so, he is another example of a politician whose recent comments would not have passed the laugh test under standards that existed only a short time ago, because they sound like they come from some crank with a keyboard and too much time on his hands.
Manchin is, then, a perfect example of a powerful politician who has stopped caring about making any sense. He just says stuff because he feels like it and can get away with it.
In response to one of my recent columns, a reader wrote to me to object that I seemed not to like any Republicans. (I am not quoting here, because I do not believe in feeding trolls.) He challenged me to name a Republican I like, because I criticize them so much.
When I shared the troll's comment with a friend, he quickly emailed back: "Sheesh. Maybe you should write: 'Lowell Weicker, and also go fuck yourself.'" I, however, found this absurd challenge especially helpful in understanding Joe Manchin. To be clear, this is not a case in which some disagreeable person happens to make a good argument. The point that this troll made is beyond silly, but it illuminates the silliness of Manchin's comments in a particular clarifying way.
After all, the idea appears to be that a liberal writer (in this case, me) is somehow deficient or unbelievable if he does not appear to like and respect any Republicans. That is a rank ad hominem attack, of course, in that it says, "Don't believe that guy's argument, not because of the quality of the argument but because of what we know about that guy." But it is much more than that, because the central idea is that people can only offer valid arguments if they are not (too) partisan. Again, this is Manchin's deep commitment, as far as we can tell.
Among a wealth of examples, consider Manchin's explanation for opposing the For the People Act (H.R. 1), which all 49 of his Democratic colleagues are co-sponsoring: "Voting and election reform that is done in a partisan manner will all but ensure partisan divisions continue to deepen." As Jennifer Rubin quipped: "So his objection is that Republicans object?" He also actually said this: "[M]y Republican friends and colleagues see the deadlock also. This is not something they desire or wish." But that is exactly what they desire and wish, based on everything that we can see.
So why is Manchin insisting otherwise? I had a difficult time understanding this before now, but maybe the core belief here is an even more extreme version of the idea that there are two sides to every argument. If Republicans are unanimous in opposing something, even if their argument is a bad one, Manchin will choose the person over the argument. "He's wrong, but he's a Republican, and I don't want to be seen to say that all of my Republican friends are wrong."
It does not help that Manchin's version of an argument -- "Voting and election reform that is done in a partisan manner will all but ensure partisan divisions continue to deepen" -- is a statement of belief and not a fact. If we were to engage in voting and election reforms that decreased partisanship, such as eliminating the system by which Republicans worry about being "primaried" from the right, not about winning their (gerrymandered) district's general elections, partisan divisions would not continue to deepen, even if those reforms were all enacted by one party. He mistakes party divides on congressional votes with "division." Again, why would he do that? Because his first commitment is to the idea that one cannot reject an entire group of people, even when they take a terrible and dangerous position.
As a side note, New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz observes that Manchin has replaced Susan Collins "as the nation’s most annoying senator." Collins is another example of someone who long ago decided to stop making sense and instead to simply say ridiculous things with a straight face, most famously: "I believe that the president has learned from [his first impeachment]. The president has been impeached. That’s a pretty big lesson. ... I believe that he will be much more cautious in the future."
Collins, then, is similar to Manchin in being willing to make jaw-dropping statements that we used to expect to hear only from fringe figures who could opine about anything they wanted under the cover of anonymity. As I noted, Manchin and Collins are not the same as the mass of Republicans who repeat Trumpian conspiracy theories or make up lies about the Green New Deal. They do, however, share the trait of making non-arguments that would once have been too embarrassing for a responsible and accountable adult to make publicly.
In the end, because Manchin's delusions about his Republican friends are leading him to make decisions that will speed this country's slide into autocracy, he has done much more damage than Collins ever did.