Respectability Politics (and Joe Manchin) Are Killing Us

It’s not difficult to prove how wrong Manchin and the 50 GOP senators opposed to Build Back Better are. But how do we enact progress when 51 people can stand in the way of what the majority of us want? 

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Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) derailed the Build Back Better bill in a Fox News appearance Sunday night. (Third Way / Flickr)

It’s been a rough year for feminists. As if the erosion of reproductive rights and a pandemic that’s taken a massively uneven toll on women’s careers and mental health weren’t enough, we’re now poised to lose out on legislation that would have a tremendous impact in building gender equity within our society. This latest setback is due to the failure of 51 of our senators to support President Biden’s Build Back Better bill—the latest addition being West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. 

In a confounding move, Manchin decided to derail the bill in a Fox News appearance Sunday night, stating he will vote against it. In a Senate controlled by Democrats by the slimmest of margins (Vice President Kamala Harris’s deciding vote in an otherwise 50/50 party split), Manchin’s announcement has effectively killed this legislation. 

Manchin’s cable news decree will have a devastating effect on millions of Americans, and especially on women. The Build Back Better bill is a policy crafted to support everyday people: the extension of the expanded child tax credit (CTC) projected to cut child poverty by 40 percent, paid leave, free preschool, subsidized childcare. While these items would benefit society as a whole, they would have an outsized positive impact on supporting women in the workforce given the disproportionate amount of care work we do.

It’s been reported that Manchin’s demands of the White House include stripping BBB of its CTC provision, because he believes parents entering the third year of a global pandemic are more concerned with taking drugs than taking care of their kids. This is not only an exercise in extreme cynicism, but a demonstration of how Joe Manchin’s views on people living in poverty are anti-Black, xenophobic and out of touch with the truth. 

Families have overwhelmingly spent CTC money on basic needs like putting food on the table and paying the electricity bill, and this year’s payments have had an outsized positive impact on Black and brown children—because they are more likely to live in poverty due to systemic injustice. Experts say the benefits of the policy that sends up to $300 a month per child to nearly every parent in the country far outweigh the cost, with 400 economists urging the Biden administration to permanently expand the policy, stating it would “yield tremendous immediate and long-term benefits.” 

Joe Manchin’s views on people living in poverty are anti-Black, xenophobic and out of touch with the truth. Families have overwhelmingly spent child tax credit money on basic needs like putting food on the table and paying the electricity bill.

Manchin’s comments assuming the CTC is being used on drugs is steeped in a long history of sexism and racism around social safety net policies, and isn’t supported by reality. The initial results of Stockton, California’s SEED guaranteed income program—similar to the CTC in its distribution of unrestricted cash payments—found the money was spent on essential needs like rent and groceries. 

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Mekie (center), a mother of six and grandmother of six, is a recipient of Stockton’s SEED program, which distributed $500 a month for 24 months to 125 recipients. Studies have shown guaranteed income drastically improves job prospects, financial stability and overall well being of recipients. (SEED)

It’s not difficult to prove how wrong Manchin and the 50 GOP senators opposed to BBB are. The real challenge is, how do we enact progress when 51 people can stand in the way of what the majority of us want

We should start by listening to women—namely, the Squad. This group of progressive leaders, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Cori Bush, warned their colleagues and the American public that allowing the initial infrastructure bill to be passed without BBB would lead to this exact scenario. They were brushed off as difficult, naive and dramatic. 

Instead, we see they were devastatingly accurate—their warnings that giving up the only leverage Democrats had over Republicans by passing the bipartisan-supported BIF bill would inevitably lead to the demise of the more ambitious (and beneficial) BBB legislation. We also need to ditch the sugar coating and call out Manchin’s racist views head on. If we continue to avoid analyzing how racism impacts policymaking, things will never shift. 

The idea of going high when they go low is a lovely sentiment, but is better suited to a greeting card than negotiating a policy that affects the lives of millions of people. 

We can no longer conduct business as usual in these highly unusual times. As long as we continue the charade of respectability politics, we will never break past the status quo that keeps us from achieving gender and racial equity in this country. The idea of going high when they go low is a lovely sentiment, but is better suited to a greeting card than negotiating a policy that affects the lives of millions of people. 

Poverty and our unequal economy kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year. We cannot continue to allow racist, sexist and classist politicians with an identity crisis to subvert our evolution into a country that finally fulfills its promise as one that works for all. The fact is, Democrats who hold true to their values will inherently be taking the high road—one that entails a belief in science, that Black lives matter, that in the richest country in the world no one deserves to starve. The danger in attempting to appear respectable is that it pretends we’re at a garden party instead of the trenches of a war with real lives at stake, in which we’re battling for nothing short of the soul of this country.

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About , and

Jhumpa Bhattacharya is vice president of programs and strategy at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development in Oakland. You can follow her on Twitter @Jhumpa_b.
Saadia McConville is a writer and former television journalist. She currently runs communications for several economic justice and policy organizations.
Stacey Rutland is the founder of the national grassroots movement Income Movement for basic income equality.