Joe Manchin’s Bipartisanship Obsession Is Misguided, Young West Virginians Say


Over the past 20 years, West Virginia’s politics have undergone a radical transformation. George W. Bush won the state in the 2000 presidential election, which was once considered solidly blue. Since then the state has trended in a steeply conservative direction. Republicans have controlled every level of state government since 2018, and in 2020, Donald Trump won the state by almost 40 points. Now, West Virginia and its politics can be found at the center of the struggle to maintain American democracy, due to its sole Democratic senator, the conservative-leaning Joe Manchin. In an evenly divided Senate, Manchin’s vote can spell life or death for the Democrats’ agenda and, while all eyes are on West Virginia, Manchin’s young constituents are eager to make their voices heard.

Touting bipartisanship as one of his core values, Manchin pressured Democrats to prioritize earning Republican support on President Joe Biden’s sweeping infrastructure plan and the Senate’s failed For The People Act, a bill designed to make voting easier and target big money in politics, on the grounds that it has garnered little to no Republican support. Many young West Virginians feel Manchin’s belief that a functional government requires bipartisan collaboration in the Senate is not only misguided but obstructs democracy’s actual purpose: representing the desires of everyday citizens.

This past spring, students at two of West Virginia’s largest schools, West Virginia University (WVU) and Marshall University, communicated their political priorities to Manchin by passing resolutions through their student governments and urged him to back the For The People Act. The resolutions passed both student governments with liberal and conservative support. Isabella Robinson, who describes her political affiliation as independent and is an organizer with the anti-lobbying group Un-PAC, introduced the bill to the Marshall University Student Government Association.

“I thought that by passing a nonpartisan resolution representing almost 30,000 of his young constituents, Senator Manchin might realize how overwhelmingly young people all across the political spectrum support this bill and want it to pass,” she told Teen Vogue.

West Virginia public opinion polls on the For The People Act tell a similar story. In April, before the bill died in the Senate in June, The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported that 58{8a924211cc822977802140fcd9ee67aa8e3c0868cac8d22acbf0be98ed6534bd} of West Virginians strongly or somewhat agreed with the For The People Act, while only 30{8a924211cc822977802140fcd9ee67aa8e3c0868cac8d22acbf0be98ed6534bd} strongly or somewhat opposed it.

In an Un-PAC press statement announcing the resolution, Jacqueline Bonar, a conservative member of the WVU student government, noted that she supports the For the People Act because of its potential to “drain the swamp,” a Trump rallying cry. “The root of too many of the problems we face here in West Virginia is our broken democracy,” Bonar continued. “I hope Senator Joe Manchin knows that if he wants to win the support of young conservatives like me, he needs to make sure this bill is passed.”

Instead of listening to these calls for reform, Manchin has doubled down on his opposition to the legislation. Less than two months after the resolutions passed, Manchin published an op-ed in the Gazette-Mail announcing he would not vote for the For the People Act. He wrote, “I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy, and for that reason, I will vote against the For the People Act. ”

Both Robinson and fellow Un-PAC organizer Caitlin Fulp expressed disappointment with Manchin’s statement. Fulp, a Democrat and recent graduate, who championed the For The People resolution through WVU’s student government, told Teen Vogue that she didn’t feel listened to by her senator. She explained that Manchin’s political tactics, which are often framed as defiant and unique, reflect the same priorities she’s come to expect from politicians.

“We met with their office in April to discuss the overwhelming cross-partisan support that bill has and their office stopped following up with us,” Fulp said. “I feel like Senator Manchin has made it really clear in his decision that he cares more about federal-level politics than he does about his young constituents. And we’re hoping that we can change his mind.”

The sense of disconnect between West Virginia politicians and many of their constituents isn’t uncommon in the state. While working with West Virginia Can’t Wait, a campaign that aims to defeat the “Good Old Boys Club” in West Virginia politics and “win a people’s government in the Mountain State,” Elliot Dotson had one-on-one conversations with West Virginians across parties. He told Teen Vogue that many gravitated to kitchen-table issues like the state’s infrastructure, which received a D rating earlier this year by the Biden administration, and the opioid crisis, particularly impacting 19- to 25-year-olds. The sense that neither side addresses these issues, he said, is one reason West Virginians’ politics have alternated between parties.

Speaking with Teen Vogue, Aryanna Islam — a WVU rising senior, president of the West Virginia College Democrats, and former Manchin intern — added that a lack of good jobs and access to quality education pushes young people to leave the state. “It doesn’t seem like the state really wants us to stay here,” she said. “They kind of just say, ‘Okay, have a bad life here or move.’”

All of the young people interviewed for this piece agreed Manchin was correct in identifying bipartisanship as a key value for West Virginians. Born from collective hardships like the opioid crisis and the collapse of the coal industry, West Virginians have a unique solidarity that emphasizes real solutions and community bonds above partisan politics. “People perceive things less like a fight, [and more] figuring out how to come together and actually build our community, regardless of political identification,” Jarryd Powell, secretary for College Democrats of West Virginia, explained to Teen Vogue. “Just figuring out what is best for moving West Virginia forward and helping ourselves.”

On June 22, Manchin, along with 49 other Democrats, voted to advance debate on the For The People Act. However, Senate Republicans defeated the bill using the filibuster, a practice where senators can block a bill’s progress and effectively kill it by preventing the Senate from reaching the 60-vote threshold to end debate. Nationally, Manchin has faced pressure to end or reform the filibuster. Critics have argued the rule is the primary reason for Senate gridlock, while proponents have argued it encourages cooperation. In his op-ed, Manchin emphasized his unwillingness to end or alter the filibuster, and West Virginia polls on the issue are far from unanimous. A 2021 Foundation for Government Accountability poll found that 52{8a924211cc822977802140fcd9ee67aa8e3c0868cac8d22acbf0be98ed6534bd} of West Virginians generally supported the filibuster, 32{8a924211cc822977802140fcd9ee67aa8e3c0868cac8d22acbf0be98ed6534bd} opposed it, and 16{8a924211cc822977802140fcd9ee67aa8e3c0868cac8d22acbf0be98ed6534bd} were unsure. However, there may be more nuance in those numbers than meets the eye.

In interviews with Teen Vogue, Hunter Hardway, a Republican Un-PAC volunteer, and Nicholas Young, who identified as a Republican until about a year and a half ago, both indicated that while they are against eliminating the filibuster they are open to reform.

“I don’t really think bipartisanship, as much as I speak fondly of it, is really even possible right now with how divided everything is,” Young said, expressing frustration with Manchin’s reluctance to budge on the issue. “He’s actually preventing things from getting done instead of siding with the Democratic Party, which he was elected to be [part of by] the people of West Virginia.”

Hardway was particularly upset by the conduct of Senate Republicans, comparing their prioritization of party over country to “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” He is in favor of returning “the talking filibuster,” a move Biden has endorsed, which would require Senators to make marathon speeches in order to prevent bills from passing. Most importantly, Hardway hopes Manchin rethinks his understanding of bipartisanship in a way that centers on the people of West Virginia, not politicians in Washington.

“Bipartisanship is about when the Democrat constituents and the Republican constituents both want something,” he said. “Not whatever Senate Republicans and House leaders want.”

These young West Virginians say they understand the gravity of the situation. In spite of partisan rhetoric, Manchin has the power to shape the way history will view this moment in time. With infrastructure, the filibuster, and election integrity all on the table, systemic change is possible, and, regardless of party, West Virginians want to see that happen.

“Now is Joe Manchin’s time to really do something for us and leave the legacy that we know he wants,” Robinson concluded. “And we’re hoping that he will do something big and something memorable that will last far beyond his time in office.”

Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: The Racist Origins of the Senate Filibuster

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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue





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