Written by Harry Burke

What Joe Manchin Gets Wrong about the American Founding

Joe Manchin is getting a key point wrong about America's founding.

American democracy is in trouble. Republican state legislatures are passing laws to make it harder for their opponents to vote. They’re criminalizing the traditionally routine work of election officials while giving themselves the option to overturn election results they don’t like. The reason for these assaults? Voter fraud and “corruption” in the 2020 presidential election: a claim former President Donald Trump has trafficked for the last 9 months and amplified by right-wing media. Our best bet to protect American democracy is national legislation that makes voting accessible to all and protects electoral integrity. But the greatest obstacle to achieving that goal are those in the US Senate who hold to “traditions” like the Senate filibuster for dear life. One of those immovable objects is Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV).

I’ve been thinking over a line Manchin has used to defend the filibuster–one that I think highlights his honest views. To Manchin, the filibuster isn’t an obstructive tool, it is in keeping with the values of our constitution and perpetuates the purpose of our bicameral legislature.

Here is the line from Meet the Press with Chuck Todd in March 2021:

Why did [George] Washington have bicameral? Why’d he want two bodies? One was supposed to be the cooling saucer, as you will. It takes deliberation, it takes listening to the minority, to make sure that the majority is getting it right.

This response paints the filibuster’s connection to our bicameral legislature as clean and simple. In Manchin’s world, a super-majority is a tool that furthers the purpose of our whole system. The Senate was supposed to be a “cooling saucer.” You aren’t suggesting we go against George Washington and the founding fathers are you? Our form of government is designed to be slow, deliberative, and protect the rights of the minority. The filibuster protects these values which are the very reasons our founding fathers wanted our two body congress.

However honest his intentions may be, this explanation for our bicameral legislature is inaccurate. To then use it as a justification for the filibuster is deeply frustrating. Manchin is correct in thinking our government was designed to be slower than most. The minority has safeguards without the filibuster and the upper chamber was designed to be more deliberative: senators serve longer terms and were originally elected by state legislatures. But the birth of American democracy (for white male property owners) and our constitution has been mythologized by those of Manchin’s persuasion. In reality, the birth of bicameral was messy.

In fact, how to organize congress was arguably the most contentious stalemate of the constitutional convention. As many know from history class, there were two competing plans for organizing congress: the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan. The Virginia Plan—supported by the so-called father of the constitution James Madison—stipulated that the legislative branch should have two houses with each state’s representation based on their population. The New Jersey plan advocated for a single chamber where each state had the same number of representatives. The states with large populations all wanted the Virginia Plan and the smaller states wanted the New Jersey Plan. Bigger states got more power with the Virginia Plan and smaller states with the New Jersey Plan.

This impasse continued for weeks, threatening to derail the convention. Some delegates even left in protest. Eventually, representatives from Connecticut designed what was called “The Grand Compromise” that saved the convention and American democracy (for white land-owning males). This compromise is what we have today: one chamber with representation based on population (House of Representatives) and another where each state gets the same number of representatives (Senate).

This historical chain of events shows little resemblance to Joe Manchin’s story. Two factions strongly disagreed on how representation should be allocated, almost to the point of rupture. James Madison–who strongly supported the Virginia Plan–only agreed to the compromise begrudgingly and fought against it initially. But to achieve their ultimate goal of unifying the states under a stronger government than the Articles of Confederation, they swallowed their pride and agreed to a compromise. I see no references to cooling saucers or the right’s of the minority. There is certainly nothing about a filibuster being part-and-parcel with the values that underlie our national legislature. Instead, I see a compromise—one fraught with problems we still live with today.

I’m not writing this just to fight with a US Senator. I’m trying to persuade and complicate Joe Manchin’s line of defense. American democracy is under threat from the Republican Party and the way we fight back is through national legislation. Manchin and others are still blocking those efforts in order to shield the filibuster and they use these distorted readings of history as their foundational arguments. Everyone pressuring Manchin with pleas to protect American democracy are correct and should continue their push. But I wanted to engage directly with Manchin’s quotes on the founding and the filibuster, as I’ve heard him use similar lines before.

He’s worried that if we get rid of it, we’ve subverted the will of the founding fathers. I’m arguing that that fear is built on historical myth. Hopefully, being persuaded on that may bring us closer to filibuster abolition.

That said, even if Manchin did read this, I’m skeptical I could change his mind. So maybe I did just write this to fight with a US Senator.

Public Domain photo source for Joe Manchin.