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.
Although his political philosophy evolved over the span of his career, Lamar remained a critic of increased political representation based on his belief that the masses of all races needed the direction and support of elites. For example, in response to an investigation of Southern elections led by Sen. James G. Blaine (R-Maine), Lamar argued that Black Southerners had realized they were not “ready to vote.” Put more bluntly, not long after his return to Congress in 1873, Lamar claimed that Black Americans had “no idea of a principle of government or, of society, beyond that of obedience to the mandate of a master.”
This contempt for Black Americans and average citizens of all races also meant that Lamar didn’t think public opinion should factor into policymaking. In 1878, he refused to vote for the Bland-Allison Act. This legislation proposed an expansionary economic policy in which the federal government would purchase and circulate silver to produce inflation (which was seen as a good thing) and increase crop prices, among its intended positive outcomes. Part of the agenda embraced by the Free Silver movement, this populist policy drew support from Americans who were in debt, as well as from Western miners and many farmers in Deep South states such as Lamar’s Mississippi. Capitalist interests in the Northeast opposed the legislation, while the nascent labor movement and working people largely supported it.
Despite this support for the legislation back home, Lamar concluded, “Between these resolutions and my convictions there is a great gulf.” He saw himself as taking a principled stand, invoking politicians including former senators John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster, who had disagreed with popular majorities at different points in their careers. To Lamar, it was “better to follow the example of illustrious men … than abandon altogether judgment and conviction in deference to popular clamor.” The young Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) went on to cite this quote in “Profiles in Courage” (1955).
Seen from another angle, however, Lamar’s refusal to support the legislation was no act of courage. Instead, it was an example of callous indifference to the needs of his constituents. Lamar’s vote conveyed his disregard for democratic governance and a failure to recognize the dignity of the farmers and working people of Mississippi who wanted Free Silver — and whose interests he was supposed to represent.
Though Bland-Allison passed over President Rutherford B. Hayes’ veto, the populist successes of the 1870s and 1880s were ultimately short-lived and foreshadowed many of the major blows to the populist movement that occurred in the following decade and early 20th century.
Today, Manchin, like Lamar, voices his stance as a principled refusal to acquiesce to the majority in his party. In an interview the day after announcing his opposition to the BBB Framework, he noted that other Democrats “figured, surely to God we can move one person. We can badger and beat up one person.”
Yet, some of the arguments Manchin allegedly made in private indicate that the senator from West Virginia may be channeling Lamar’s opposition to legislation like the Bland-Allison Act. Far from being courageous, Manchin’s stance on this particular bill could hurt average Americans, including his own constituents. Despite the inevitable — but rare — instances of fraud, working people would benefit from policies such as the expanded child tax credit and paid family leave.