“So I’m just trying to survive in a very, very divided Congress in a very divided country,” Manchin continued.
This is both true and misleading at the same time. Yes, Manchin is smack in the middle of a “divided Congress.” But the suggestion that Manchin is smack in the ideological middle of our “divided country” is an illusion, one created in part by our malapportioned Senate.
Because of that malapportionment, Manchin is both well to the right of public opinion on many matters and in a position to decide, single-handedly, what the party representing a majority of Americans can and cannot pass into law.
Which is exactly the problem.
You can see the destructiveness of this dynamic in a new effort by Manchin to water down a critical climate provision — a methane fee — in the big social policy bill Democrats are negotiating.
Manchin wants to remove or modify the fee, which fines methane emissions that come from oil and gas wells. Manchin objects to overlap between this and another executive action to reduce methane emissions, and negotiations still may fix the problem.
But this comes after Manchin succeeded in removing another crucial provision, the Clean Energy Performance Program, which would use fines and rewards — sticks and carrots — to prod power companies to transition to renewable energy sources.
What’s important is the coal state senator’s overall posture: As climate writer David Roberts notes, he’s focused on removing sticks that would punish reliance on fossil fuels — making life easier for fossil fuel interests stalling the inevitable — while permitting carrots to remain in the form of hundreds of billions in tax incentives to encourage development of clean energy alternatives:
But the thing is, popular majorities want us to act on this problem. A new Associated Press poll finds that 55 percent of Americans want Congress to pass a bill that would ensure that more electricity comes from clean energy and less from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas.
Meanwhile, only 16 percent of Americans oppose such a measure. As the AP notes, this minority position is very close to Manchin’s. Nearly 6 in 10 say global warming is accelerating, majorities say scientists and extreme weather events are influencing them on the issue, and notably, 59 percent say it’s extremely or very important to them, up 10 points since 2018.
If this poll is right — and other polls show broad majority support for robust government action — that’s a remarkable story of science and irresistible empirical evidence having success persuading and galvanizing the public.
It’s not a small thing to see this at exactly the moment when President Biden is set to join the global climate conference in Glasgow. Getting an ambitious climate package in hand is crucial to showing U.S. leadership and potentially making it harder for other major countries to punt.
Conversely, showing up with something weak and halfhearted will compromise the possibilities of U.S. international leadership. That would squander a major opportunity at exactly the moment when the American public is prepared for action.
The problem, of course, is that Manchin has too much power over this outcome while simultaneously being well to the right of public opinion on the matter.
As political scientist Jake Grumbach points out, this has particular ramifications on global warming, granting small fossil-fuel states disproportionate power over our climate agenda. Gallingly, now that outsize power holds sway over our ability to exercise international leadership on the issue in a way that might help avert a global trajectory toward catastrophe.
Manchin is right that it’s brutally hard for him to survive while participating in passing the Democratic agenda, which is unpopular in his deeply red state.
But it’s a fiction that Manchin’s role as a decisive vote means he’s smack in the ideological middle of the country. In fact, this fiction makes the problem worse. It creates the illusion that he represents the true ideological center of public opinion — that the public is evenly divided on these issues, and that the deadlock in the Senate merely reflects that.
That illusion, in turn, obscures the degree to which deep structural imbalances, as opposed to the true state of public opinion at any given time, loom as the main obstacles to action. And it obscures the real reasons Manchin wields such vast power over the process — which, we’re now seeing, threatens consequences that could prove worse than anyone can guess at.