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Democrats’ Timidity Will Kill Us All

The climate is too far gone for Joe Manchin’s “compromises”—all of which seem to include handouts to fossil fuel companies.

Joe Manchin speaks at a podium.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin speaks during a news conference.

Professional equivocator Joe Manchin is back in the headlines again: After months of picking apart the White House’s Build Back Better plan—summarily shooting down proposal after proposal—the senator now claims to be pursuing bipartisan climate and energy legislation. Reports say he’s shopping around a policy package that will boost both clean energy and dirty energy: give some tax credits for wind power and aid for domestic pipelines, for example. His approach, in essence, is the definition of centrism—finding the middle ground. A little something for everyone, right?  

But … this is climate change. This is different. There is no middle ground on the path to a livable future, at least not anymore. And especially not for the party that purports to “believe in science.” The science is screaming at us: We need to transition off fossil fuels, immediately. Any effort to drill new oil, lease new wells, build new pipelines is not just risky but suicidal. While the exact details of Manchin’s proposed compromise remain murky, it would be impossible to celebrate the paltry climate wins he’s hinted at so far if they’re paired with propping up the fossil fuel industry, even a little bit. That locks in suffering at a biblical scale. You can’t kill and save a planet at the same time.

Manchin is far from the only Democrat still beholden to the gospel of centrism. Today, we’re paying the price for decades of half measures and incessant stalling by moderate politicians—many of whom are still in office. If climate change had been taken seriously back when politicians first learned of it, in the 1970s—or even in the early 2000s—there would have been a lot more room to meet in the middle. But the can has been kicked too far down the road. It’s created a world in which calls for extremely basic human necessities like clean water and breathable air are heard as radical. Bipartisanship is dead, and centrists killed it. Every single time Democrats try to meet Republicans in the middle, they sprint further to the right—from policies like a carbon tax to individually mandated health insurance. There is no sense in going back to that waterless well. 

Over the course of my nearly four decades on this planet, the Republican Party has gotten steadily more extreme and more dangerous. I was born in the Reagan era and had just settled into adulthood when it blossomed out of its warmongering George W. Bush chapter into its Tea Party phase. In the past half-decade, it’s gone full fascist. If you’ve been paying attention, it’s not surprising, but it is terrifying.

At the same time that the Republicans have metamorphosed, the liberals have sat on the sidelines either willfully ignoring their new reality or, worse, pointing and laughing. Over and over, they fall victim to bad-faith arguments, mistaking pure shamelessness for stupidity. And that leaves Democrats asking themselves two constant but conflicting questions: How are they—i.e., the right-wingers—so stupid, and how do they keep beating us?  

It is mind-boggling that mainstream Democrats still think that they can negotiate with this group of goons—the party of the mob who stormed the Capitol to kill them! They lament the Republican Party of yore, like they miss their old classmates who won’t come out to play anymore, and routinely underestimate Republican radicalism. Very Serious Democrats still quote polling data as though it’s scripture: the same polls that assured them that Trump had no chance of seizing the nomination in 2016, much less the presidency. That’s because polls tell you what exists—not what’s possible. 

These same Democrats still argue that Republicans are targeting trans kids in Texas to score political points—ignoring the fact that their opponents are not playing the short game, or even the long game. They’re not playing a game at all. Centrist Democrats think everything is a game and everyone’s out to score political points because they’re worried about political points. So much so that governing season never comes and campaign season never ends. As such, citizens are always voters and never constituents. Probably no cohort feels this more acutely than the “climate voter” who heard Biden promise big climate action in 2020 and then green-light fossil fuel infrastructure the minute gas prices shot up. He weighed his options against electoral polls, while the planetary poles melt.

The reality could not be more obvious: The right wing is a party of zealots. They believe in what they’re doing. They hurt LGBTQ people and people of color and refugees and women because they are bigots, point blank. They believe in white supremacy, whether or not they call it that outright. It’s akin to liberal Beltway pundits’ shock that Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine: Putin has been publicly testing the world’s boundaries for years. The man quite nakedly interfered in our election and infiltrated a major political party in broad daylight and with global impunity! He’s not erratic, he’s emboldened.

Centrist is no longer the right moniker for politicians who want to “compromise” with the radical right. Centrist implies reasonable—someone willing to meet in the middle and consider many approaches to reach a goal. But at this stage, if you’re in favor of new fossil fuel infrastructure when all the science says that’s a death sentence, what exactly is your goal? 

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Astonishingly, the people in favor of burning enough dinosaur bones to melt the Arctic by 2035 have the nerve to call climate activists “hawks.” “Hawk” implies someone who chooses the most extreme, aggressive measures first, even when there is a plethora of other solutions at their feet. Climate advocates are not that. Climate advocates want to save the planet from a genocidal, ecocidal industry. They want peace. That would make them doves, not hawks.

Manchin, on the other hand, is a literal coal baron and the fossil fuel industry’s inside man. If he’s supposed to be a centrist, what exactly is he in the middle of? Nazis on the one side and people who (checks notes) want a livable future on the other? There’s no way to label Joe Manchin a “centrist” without validating folks who believe in actual lizard people as a legitimate side of the political spectrum. In his enthusiastic and unquestioning support for a clearly violent industry, Joe Manchin is nobody’s centrist. He is a fossil fuel hawk, and we should call him that.

But, the story goes, we have to support Joe Manchin because he is the best Democrat we can possibly get out of West Virginia. As a Southerner, I find that notion offensive. It seems clear to me that the reason we can’t get a more progressive Democrat in West Virginia is because the Democratic Party has disinvested from the South since the 1970s. It’s quite apparent when you look down the ballots and notice that so many Republican candidates run in the South unopposed. When Democrats do compete in the races, their strategy is simply to meet voters where they are, but once elected, they never take them anywhere else. No wonder so many citizens in these districts fall victim to misinformation that tells them climate change is a hoax and the election was stolen.

The Democratic Party has given ground for decades then turned around to proclaim that our salvation lies in “moderation.” How much longer can we do the same thing and expect different results? In the face of the climate crisis, moderation is madness. There is no more time for pussyfooting and half measures. The science is clear, and the fire is getting hotter. If the Democrats believe the science, it’s time to act like it. We know what we need to do, and there’s nothing moderate or centrist about it. 

This essay was based on several pieces that originally appeared in the Hot Take newsletter.