Jeanne Peters moved to Wood County, W. Va., from Atlanta more than two decades ago seeking to launch an e-commerce business while breathing in some of what has kept families in the isolated Mountain State for generations: some of the most scenic vistas in America, and the freedom promised by its wide open spaces.
Since then, Peters’ enthusiasm for her adopted state has been tempered both by West Virginia’s economic struggles — with layoffs and closures costing good-paying union jobs in the chemical plants along the Ohio River — and its political far-right turn toward the politics of retribution. Peters, who helped start Wood County Indivisible to protest Donald Trump’s policies after his 2016 election, sees the widening cracks of failure everywhere.
“We have roads in this state that are impassible or down to one lane, and we have communities that haven’t had potable drinking water for years” because of environmentally abusive mining practices, Peters said. Problems like that — along with a lack of broadband internet, an opioid-abuse crisis, and one of America’s highest rates of poverty — have West Virginia’s progressives like Peters baffled about why their Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, hasn’t become a revival-tent evangelist for President Biden’s game-changing $2 trillion-plus infrastructure plan.
Manchin — a political survivor as his state embraced Trumpism — has voiced support for going “big” on infrastructure. But then he stunned both Washington and folks back home by instead spending his hard-earned political capital on a full-throated embrace of the filibuster that will block the Biden agenda and a call for bipartisanship that’s more hallucinatory than the “brown acid” at Woodstock — even casting doubt that he’ll support using the 51-vote “reconciliation” process that is the only realistic way to get the $2 trillion plan passed.
The West Virginian’s bizarre priorities of waxing poetically over arcane and arguably racist Senate rules, while the dollars that his state — ranked fifth in the nation for poverty — needs to create jobs and address climate change hang in the balance, has boosted Manchin and his decisive vote in the 50-50 Senate to arguably equal power with the president. It’s made him “a get” for the producers on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and the other cable shows. But it’s all starting to make some of the voters who reelected Manchin in 2018 deeply frustrated.
“I don’t think he feels the pain that people are feeling on the ground,” said Peters, who was stunned to see Manchin come out earlier this year against a $15 minimum wage even as her neighbors — who in the past might have gotten union chemical-plant jobs — now work two or three gigs in low-paying fast food or retail just to make ends meet.
Of course, Manchin’s political posturing — he even made the bat-guano crazy claim on CNN that the Jan. 6 insurrection that endangered him and his colleagues made him want to fight for bipartisanship, rather than to see the Trump-hijacked GOP as a threat to democracy — is just as frustrating to watch from here in neighboring Pennsylvania. How can one man’s cable-TV chest thumping threaten not just a jobs program but also voting rights, gun safety, and LGBTQ equality? Famously, Manchin’s daughter was the controversial CEO of the company that manufactures the expensive EpiPen that injects a lifesaving drug for allergic reactions, but could Big Pharma somehow create a device that would inject Joe Manchin with a dose of political reality?
More than anyone else in Washington, Manchin should have realized that bipartisanship was yanked off its life support long before the Jan. 6, all-Republican-and-not-”both-sides” insurrection. It was Manchin who tried to work with Pennsylvania’s GOP Sen. Pat Toomey on a wildly popular gun background check bill after 20 first graders and kindergartners were slaughtered in Newtown, Conn., only to see a Republican filibuster crush the bill, as stunned, grieving parents from the massacre looked on. Was he not paying attention to Mitch McConnell’s bridge-burning crusade of blocking anything that America’s first Black president attached his name to, including a Supreme Court pick? More importantly, does West Virginia’s senior senator still have his finger on the pulse of what’s happening in West Virginia?
That’s the ultimate irony. Ever since the author Michael Harrington’s groundbreaking The Other America in 1962, which put hidden poverty on the national agenda and said of Appalachia, “Beauty can be a mask for ugliness,” West Virginia has been a front line in a war on poverty that would be marked by its unfinished battles. Both LBJ and doomed 1968 presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy put Appalachia’s struggles front and center, but the strife of the 1960s and ‘70s ultimately won over rural whites to Ronald Reagan’s viewpoint that government is the problem, not the solution.
It took time, but a formerly pro-union bastion of FDR’s New Deal embraced modern Republicanism, with Trump winning nearly 69% in 2020. The just-ended 2021 session of the West Virginia Legislature focused less on the economy and more on cultural issues like keeping transgender athletes out of school sports, ending needle exchanges despite an alarming spike in HIV infections, and limiting abortion. Meanwhile, West Virginia’s poverty rate — the focus of so much national attention in the 1960s — rose again with little fanfare during the Trump years, to fifth worst among the 50 states in 2019, and about 50% higher than the national average.
That unfortunately makes sense, since the coal industry, which was still a source of jobs in the 1960s, has all but evaporated in the move to cleaner fuels. The Biden infrastructure plan would not only create new jobs in clean energy and by rebuilding those one-lane roads and replacing those tainted water pipes, but it would help deal with an impact of America’s overly long love affair with West Virginia coal: climate change.
In 2016, what experts called a “1,000-year flood” — although we’ve seen such extreme weather events again and again and again as greenhouse gas pollution levels spike — devastated rural communities in West Virginia, even as state voters rallied behind the climate-denying Trump. At least 23 died in the floods, and the tiny, former coal town of Richwood saw its high school wiped out and its downtown trashed.
“The state that built the United States of America with our coal — that made the steel that built our cities, and that made the electricity that ran them ... what does West Virginia got to show for it? Nothing,” Bob Henry Baber, the former mayor of Richwood and longtime activist in the progressive Mountain Party, told me. Baber — who, it should be noted, left City Hall fighting a whirlwind of ethical allegations — said progressives in West Virginia are desperate to see a federal jobs program, and that his hometown could avoid the next flood and boost its water-based tourism if the feds would just commit $20 million for an earthen dam.
This, of course, is where Joe Manchin enters the story line. Let’s note a couple of things, including the fact that — even as the most conservative Democrat on Capitol Hill — the 73-year-old career politician has been a key vote to pass things like Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 bill and his Cabinet picks that would have failed if a Republican replaced him. But in resisting the tide of Trumpism, Manchin has convinced himself the only path is to create a myth that he is Washington’s last defender of a bipartisanship that hasn’t existed now for decades. And in believing his own fantasy, he is becoming a Morning Joe-addled megalomaniac.
But real populism — convincing his constituents back home that government has helped people before and has the potential to do it again — remains the pothole-scarred, one-lane road not taken for Joe Manchin ... for now. And we are fast nearing a fork in this highway. It’s possible — perhaps likely, if the past is any prologue — that Manchin will, at the last minute, demand some useless concession that will mean the infrastructure bill helps fewer people, but then vote to pass it.
But his hard-to-take-back vow to save the filibuster means the Democrats won’t pass voting rights bills, which could allow Republicans to use suppression to regain Congress in 2022 and ensure that any new New Deal that helps West Virginians will be very short-lived. It’s hard to believe, but if the Biden agenda mostly fails because of Manchin’s weird worship of the filibuster and his bipartisanship delusions, he will harm more Americans than the Red-baiting of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. For now, all West Virginia can do is wait.
“I feel that Joe Manchin is disconnected from West Virginians in many ways,” said Peters, the activist, speaking from a state whose eastern tip sits just 60 miles but about 60 million light years from the Beltway power trips of its senior senator.
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