Editor’s Note: Rep. Jamaal Bowman represents New York’s 16th Congressional District, which includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, and serves as vice-chair of the House Education and Labor Committee and chair of the House Subcommittee on Energy. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
It’s not an understatement to say we’re facing a crisis of democracy. At a time when Republican state legislators are banning people from handing water to voters in line, closing down polling places and restricting absentee voting, Democrats must be united in taking bold action to fight back.
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia doesn’t see it that way, apparently. This week, he wrote that he opposes the For the People Act (HR1), desperately needed voting rights legislation to push back on nationwide attempts to suppress the vote and save our democracy. He also underscored his opposition to abolishing the filibuster, a rule that allows 41 senators to block any piece of legislation regardless of whether it has majority support.
Manchin believes federal voting rights legislation must be “the result of both Democrats and Republicans coming together to find a pathway forward,” and since Republicans have so far refused their support for HR1, he simply cannot vote for it.
Instead, he has said he supports a modified version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, saying it has better potential for bipartisan support – though that bill has yet to receive the Republican support necessary to pass. But holding out for a wave of Republicans to suddenly change their minds on an issue they have shown no willingness to engage on is not a legitimate reason to block badly-needed civil rights protections.
The senior senator from West Virginia either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the stakes of this fight. Democracy is fragile, and right now, ours is hanging by a thread. Not too long ago in this country, someone who looked like me had to take a literacy test or pay a poll tax before they could vote in many states.
These laws aren’t just a relic of the past. Many elected Republicans know that ensuring that people of color can vote freely would spell bad news for them and their agenda, which privileges corporations and the wealthy. And so there’s a coordinated effort to bring back Jim Crow-like laws. We have to see that as an emergency.
The For the People Act tries to address that by making it easier to vote, putting an end to partisan gerrymandering, reforming our campaign finance system, protecting against foreign interference and more – basic protections for a functioning democracy. It’s urgent legislation, especially as a counter to hundreds of Republican voter suppression bills having been introduced across 48 states. And it should be a given that Democrats would be unified in their support of it.
The American people believe in the value of democracy, and they want it fixed. But, by opposing this bill and refusing to abolish the filibuster, Manchin is just as bad as the Republican leaders who are prepared to sabotage fundamental democratic processes in order to hold and expand power at any cost. Neutrality amid injustice means taking the side of the oppressor by default, and Manchin has gone beyond neutrality.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has endorsed and enabled a doctrine of obstructionism that’s prevented Americans from seeing the help and progress they desperately need. In 2010, McConnell told us that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” In 2021, his intentions are the same – last month McConnell said, “100% of my focus is standing up to this administration.”
And that’s to say nothing of the many Republicans – in the US House of Representatives and US Senate – who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election on the basis of former President Donald Trump’s lies about election fraud.
Put simply, we’re talking about Republicans who have shown little capacity or willingness toward bipartisanship. Holding out for compromise with a party that doesn’t seem to fully support the democratic process is unacceptable. It means continuing to allow the marginalization of people of color – and at the expense of American democracy.
We can’t stand by and accept that Manchin, along with nearly every Republican, is going to hold hostage the legislation our country needs to address the big crises we face. Our democracy is falling apart – we can’t just let that happen. Climate change is ravaging our cities – we can’t just let that happen. Inequality has never been worse – we can’t just let that happen. And let us not forget that the filibuster itself is a Jim Crow relic that has been used for more than 100 years to delay and block civil rights legislation.
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Democrats were sent to Congress and to the White House to deliver for the American people. We need to pass HR1, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the Equality Act, comprehensive immigration reform, prescription drug price controls and many other pieces of legislation that the House has passed but have no future in the Senate because of the filibuster.
In his op-ed, Manchin wrote that “the fundamental right to vote has itself become overtly politicized.” I say to Manchin: the right to vote has always been politicized. It was politicized when White supremacists denied Black people the right to vote through Jim Crow. It was politicized when Freedom Riders were beaten and blasted with fire hoses for marching for their rights. It was politicized when the Republican Party ran a scorched-earth campaign against access to the ballot in state after state in recent years.
What we’re trying to do now is protect the right to vote from the anti-democratic influences that have controlled our political and economic systems for far too long. I hope Manchin, and everyone else, will come join us in that fight.