The Cautionary Tale of Joe Manchin's Opposition to DC Statehood

Factions have been America’s biggest battle for 240 years, and if we don’t fight hard now, we could lose the whole thing.

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This week, President Joe Biden proposed plans to put America back to work, get Americans back to health, and rebuild our nation in a way befitting the greatness of our ideals. He’s also officially announced his support for voting rights and DC statehood.

The right-wingers and two Democrats who oppose him claim that he’s not representing the best interests of America, but instead is working for “Special Interests,” something the Founders of this country referred to as “factions.”

It’s probably the most transparent example of projection we’ve seen in decades.

For the last 40 years, America has been seized and largely controlled by what we would call “special interests” and the Founding Generation called “factions.”

Since the Reagan Revolution, the Republican party has exclusively represented the special interest factions of billionaires and giant corporations who don’t want to spend a penny of their money helping or building this country, but enthusiastically extract labor from our people and cash from our middle class.

Small wonder they’re so violently opposed to President Biden’s initiatives.

And, sadly, it appears that they’ve pulled, bullied or bribed Joe Manchin into their number with his recent statements in favor of the filibuster and against DC statehood. And Kyrsten Sinema with her famous thumbs-down on the $15 minimum wage; it’s definitely not the people of Arizona she’s representing with that position.

Back in 1788, James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” wrote about the danger of the kind of special interests or “factions” we’ve seen seize the GOP and much of our nation over the last 40 years.

“By a faction,” Madison wrote, “I understand a number of citizens…who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” (emphasis mine)

“Adversed” being the word used back at that time to describe what we would mean today if we use the word “opposed.”

Factions, in other words, were groups of people who were openly and nakedly opposed to what was best for the nation. And he saw them as the greatest danger this country faced.

Madison wasn’t talking about an abstraction or some highfalutin concept. He was talking about how some rich people will inevitably try to seize political power to screw everybody else. How, as he wrote, their own personal, selfish “interests” are opposed to the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

“Property” today generally means land, but in 1788 it meant “wealth.” Madison came right out and said, in Federalist 10, that the interests of those with great wealth are typically very different from the interests of average Americans:

“But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.”

In fact, he said, one of the most important jobs of government is to prevent its own corruption by these wealthy and powerful factions.

“A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation....”

But what happens when those wealthy interests, the faction of the rich, are given the power by the Supreme Court to own politicians and essentially write their own legislation?

This was Madison‘s nightmare, and it’s the political system the Reagan Revolution and a series of conservative Supreme Court decisions have brought us.

Consider how badly our republic and the functioning of our government have been seized and corrupted by these wealthy “factions” over the last 40 years since the Supreme Court, in 1976 in 1978 (and tripled down with Citizens United in 2010), ruled that billionaires and corporations could openly own politicians and political parties.

Because these right-wing billionaires and giant corporations don’t want to pay their fair share of taxes or decent wages to their workers, our nation’s infrastructure – both physical, intellectual and human, has been in a state of collapse for two generations.

We’re told by Republicans that when workers want to have union representation they’re really just a “special interest” — a greedy “faction.”

They explain to us that scientists trying to save our environment or teachers trying to improve our schools are just greedy “special-interest factions.”

They lecture us at length about the “tyranny of the majority,” saying that although most Americans want a national healthcare system, free college education, and a fair tax system that will revive the American middle-class, we’re just pursuing our own “selfish, socialist agenda.”

They have created literally tens of thousands of websites and phony “publications” to argue their right-wing positions and push back against Americans’ concerns about everything from global warming to factory farming to air and water pollution.

They’ve been so successful at this that even the most benign Internet search typically pulls up mostly-right-wing content in its first 20 results.

The message of these websites, over and over again, is, “What’s best for the billionaires and America’s monopolistic corporations is what’s best for America. When average working people get things from government, that makes them lazy and produces Socialism.”

Madison — and, indeed, virtually the entire Founding Generation, including the half-plus who were not slaveholders — gives the lie to all of it.

As Madison pointed out and Alexander Hamilton amplified, “faction” is a group whose interests are opposed to those of the general public or the welfare of the nation overall. 

Faction is poison to the body politic. Faction is a cancer that sucks the life out of democracies.

America is today overwhelmed by factions.

Factions like the billionaires the Supreme Court said could spend unlimited amounts of money buying politicians because all that money is no longer considered “bribery” but instead is “first amendment protected free-speech” under Citizens United.

Like the corporations that send tens of thousands of lobbyists to State capitols and Washington DC to spread around billions of dollars every year to buy the legislation, rules and tax policies they want.

Like the rightwing think-tanks paid for by fossil-fuel billionaires and their friends that fund rightwing professors in our colleges, write our children’s textbooks, and for 40 years have tried to convince us that anything Government does that is good for the average American is actually bad for “freedom.”

And, tragically, those factions have captured a few Democrats, as we see with Joe Manchin pursuing his own agenda instead of what reflects basic American values (DC Statehood & the For The People Act) and what’s best overall for the nation (rebuilding our infrastructure).

As Madison pointed out, a democracy cannot exist when the voice of the people is drowned out by wealthy, self-interested factions. 

The Supreme Court brought us this crisis, but President Biden and Congress are today proposing legislation like the For The People Act, that will begin the process of mitigating the damage those conservative justices have done to our nation. And bringing the residents of DC, more populous than Wyoming or Vermont, into full citizenship in our nation is simply the right thing to do.

Rebuilding this country after 40 years of neglect; reclaiming our moral center in the world; and clawing back from the top 1% the trillions of dollars they’ve extracted from the American middle-class since the Reagan Revolution is no small job.

But President Biden and most of the Democrats have signed on for it, and if we are to prevent this country from sliding all the way into an authoritarian oligarchy dominated exclusively by the mutually parasitic factions of right-wing billionaires and the corporations that made them rich, we cannot stand by on the sidelines.

Democracy, as Bernie Sanders loves to say, is not a spectator sport. Tag, you’re it.

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