Most us have encountered the old trope where a girl starts down a staircase, usually in the dark, unsure of what she’ll find. It’s an old strain of horror that relied on suspense. It had other elements too: If there were monsters, for instance, they were generally understood as things to be avoided. Characters went to some trouble to flee, and audiences rooted for them, knowing they were trying their best.
But genres change. Horror these days is different: It consists of (for example) watching people—specifically, Democratic politicians—march knowingly, slowly, and fully informed of what awaits them and their voters, into civic annihilation.
There’s no mystery here. No suspense. It is clear what will happen if the filibuster isn’t abolished: Voting rights legislation will not be passed. Republicans have not been subtle about their opposition—instead, they’ve introduced more than 300 bills to make it hard or even impossible for the Americans they do not believe deserve representation to vote. A certain kind of Democrat likes to respond to this kind of threat by saying constituents just need to turn out. But if we learned anything in this last election, it’s that mustering ever greater numbers won’t be enough: Joe Biden won by an unprecedented 7 million votes, and many Republicans still refuse to admit he won the presidential election.
It’s this last bit—Republicans still indulging election conspiracy theories as possibly legitimate and then some—that should really be the dead giveaway that there isn’t a whisper of bipartisan possibility here. Republican politicians, and I give them credit for this, could not have been clearer. They’ve switched on every light in the old basement and painted signs that say, “Here is what we plan to do to you, hello!” They’re playing the trumpet in hi-vis vests at the bottom of the stairs. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are marching down that staircase anyway. And we’re not just watching; they’re dragging us down there with them.
Let this be a comfort: They are nattily dressed.
Horror shouldn’t be boring either, but it is boring, dreadfully so, to watch yet another instance of Democrats failing to meet the moment, particularly since the moments that matter are running out. It’s the repetitive strain, I think, compounded by the fact that impotence is no longer an excuse. Democrats could actually legislate now. Instead of securing the right to vote, Manchin and Sinema are hellbent on preserving that beloved American principle: the filibuster.
You know, the filibuster. The thing Americans gather every Fourth of July to revere. That cherished organ of democracy. That procedural fillip that’s gotten a million headlines and which, despite unrelenting media coverage, most Americans couldn’t competently explain if you held one of our millions of guns to our heads—as demonstrated by recent poll results on Senate procedure showing that a majority of Americans said they’d prefer both a 51-vote simple majority and to preserve the filibuster (the filibuster … prevents a 51-vote simple majority). Americans do not care about the filibuster itself. It is in this specific sense a placeholder, the latest issue to organize Republican solidarity and Democratic moderation around. As Ryan Cooper said on Twitter: If it had been abolished two months ago, the public would have moved on to fresh outrages by now. A specific political grievance, no matter how grave, can only remain front of mind for so long. Consider Republicans’ decision to pack the Supreme Court with a supermajority; the outrage it provoked was justified and immense, but it has also been basically metabolized. Democratic voters are no longer treating it like the dire generations-long transformation of the American political landscape that it plainly is.
Maybe they can’t. People aren’t built to live in a state of constant panic. Some might even take comfort in the fact that the court this term was “moderate” (in the sense that it didn’t blow everything up; it wasn’t actually moderate at all) as if Supreme Court justices—some of the canniest operators on the planet—might not be thinking strategically about how to reassure a rattled public until a Republican majority is safely secured. And even those optimists ought to be shaken by Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act, an ostensibly “moderate” decision by Justice Samuel Alito that, to quote my colleague Mark Joseph Stern, “dismantled what remains of the Voting Rights Act, all but ensuring that every voter suppression law passed in the wake of the 2020 election will survive judicial scrutiny.” “Democracy is on the line,” President Joe Biden said in a statement responding to the decision, also noting that the present struggle “is no longer just about a fight over who gets to vote and making it easier for eligible voters to vote. It is about who gets to count the vote and whether your vote counts at all.” House leaders have addressed this catastrophic decision by saying they’re working on “an updated John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.” This is cold comfort. Unless the filibuster is abolished, it will die in the Senate.
One might expect politicians to be better political scorekeepers, given their jobs. And yet the Democratic senators who pledge their troth to bipartisanship are acting like blank slates; they barely seem to remember Jan. 6 happened, let alone the Republican takeover of the Supreme Court.
And that’s what the Manchin-Sinema posture is, in the end: an unconvincing exercise in denial. To defend the filibuster is to insist that politics have not changed despite the reality that Republicans—several of whom have made common cause with the Jan. 6 extremists who attacked the Capitol while refusing to honor its defenders, the Capitol Police—are escalating hostilities not despite losing an election but because they lost it. They are not trying to win the moderates they lost back; they are radicalizing further and trying to entrench minoritarian rule. If you’re interested in the health of a democracy, that’s a code red. The Manchin-Sinema response on this front has been unilateral disarmament in the name of—of all things—moderation. Manchin has argued that a bipartisan approach is the only way to restore “faith” in American elections, by which he means responding to extremism with compromise. It’s not hard to predict how that movie ends.
Manchin and Sinema, unlike the poor girl on the stairs, aren’t just perfectly informed about what’s down there; they’re also armed with the power to stop it. The twist, such as it is, is that they’ve decided not to use it. And so the horror film contains a comedy of sorts within it in which we, the spectators, become the punchline. Unaware we’re the joke, we wishfully treat these two as “undecided” even though they’ve both made their decisions clear: They value the filibuster, by which they mean bipartisanship, even when bipartisanship means compromising with an increasingly extreme GOP that is presently hellbent on disenfranchisement. They value this more, it would seem, than voting rights, the ability to legislate, or the future of American democracy.
It’s an understandable impulse in its way. It might even be politically smart for their specific constituents: Plenty of not-particularly-political Americans exhausted by Trump’s viciousness and lack of principle long for a return to some kind of shared vision for a country they once regarded as at least nominally functional or institutionally intact. The filibuster is after all a rule, and preserving rules feels right to a lot of people who found the norm-shredding lawlessness of the Trump administration truly alarming. For moderates clinging to the view that the truth—or the correct course of action—lies “somewhere in the middle” between equally dishonest sides, bipartisanship isn’t a bad code word. It gestures, however feebly, at a longing for normalcy and good faith and cooperation; it sounds reasonable, moderate, practical.
It is not. You can’t go “back to normal” after Trump revealed what Republicans would go along with. Pretending it didn’t happen—or that it’s better now that Trump is gone—might feel reasonable precisely because it isn’t. This is how a state bleeds out. The damage is not in the past. Republicans are not stopping. But neither, curiously, is the mentality that insists, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that Republicans will suddenly snap out of it and become responsible political partners. Respect for the opposition seems to be operating more like a core value than an empirical analysis. Michael Hobbes suggested on Twitter that the problem is that pretending Republicans can be reasoned with is key to a certain kind of Democrat’s sense of self; they “understand on an intellectual level that Republicans will never compromise and Democrats simply have to win elections—but they don’t want to believe it. It changes how they see themselves. So they act like it’s not true.”
Ah well. We’re stuck in the theater, and hope is the fetid air we breathe. Maybe the infamous infrastructure bill will sate Manchin and Sinema’s craving for bipartisanship and free them up for desperately needed action, partisan or not. Maybe this will turn out to have been a conversion story all along, some of us think, starring a West Virginia man and an Arizona woman, instead of the horror flick we’re all trapped in. Dutifully and because we have no other choice, we read the tea leaves. Ooh, Manchin signaled he’ll support reconciliation for the infrastructure bill even if it only has Democratic support! Does this mean he’s softened his stance on bipartisanship? Breaking: Manchin will vote in favor of debating a bill on voting rights that he himself helped negotiate. Gasps in the crowd! (It will not pass—because of the filibuster.)
What Manchin says behind closed doors matters more than what he says to the public, and what he’s said in both settings is that he wants to save the filibuster. He was very explicit in a frank chat with wealthy pro-filibuster donors that was leaked to the Intercept: He said his best shot at defending the filibuster from the “far left”—which he wants to do—was getting some Republicans to get on board for the Jan. 6 commission. None joined. And yet, despite some teasing here and there, he has not changed his stance.
Look, it would be great if this rotten, boring, high-stakes film switched genres. It would be amazing if it became the Manchin and Sinema Redemption Story: How They Changed Their Minds and Saved Democracy. But we’re tired of watching the movie we’re also in. The suspense is killing us, except that it is also boring us—so much that many of us are tuning out. What else is there to do here, stuck on the steps.