For those who haven’t seen (or don’t quite remember) Being John Malkovich, here is a thumbnail of the 1999 film’s plot:  A street-performing puppeteer, adept at portraying the indwelling essence of his characters, accidentally discovers a secret pathway into the mind of the actor John Malkovich. Watch the movie if you want to know where this leads, but I will say that, even when it was new, it was a little too weird to attract blockbuster-scale attention. Being Joe Manchin is unlikely to do even that well, but the matching JM initials alone suggest that it might sustain one blog post.  So, let’s try being Joe Manchin for a few paragraphs.

As the machinations over the two infrastructure bills gyrate their way through their own version of a puppet theater, West Virginia’s senior senator continues to attract more attention than all 534 of his congressional colleagues combined.  If you had to predict the role that Manchin will end up playing in this drama, you might look to a previous senator from West Virginia for a model.  Here is how Politico described Robert Byrd on his death in 2010:

“Byrd held virtually every major leadership post in the Senate, but he is perhaps best known for … funneling federal money to projects in his economically depressed home state. Anyone who has driven the scenic byways of West Virginia, visited the state’s national parks or stopped by the federal courthouse in Charleston, W.Va., has borne witness to his power — Byrd’s name is everywhere.”

Manchin hasn’t seemed to share Byrd’s single-minded focus on plastering his name around the state, but it’s a pretty safe bet that West Virginia will end up with more than its share from whatever infrastructure bills pass this year, and that the state’s voters will somehow be made aware of that if Manchin seeks reelection in 2024.

This sounds a little more cynical than I actually am about this dimension of being Joe Manchin.  It’s simply a fact that infrastructure is pork; there wouldn’t even be a bipartisan infrastructure bill if there weren’t Republican pork in it, and there won’t be a “reconciliation” infrastructure bill if there isn’t a good larding of West Virginia pork in it.  There’s nothing remarkable, then, in the fact that pork barrel politics will play a role in what it means to be Joe Manchin for the rest of this year.  What might be a little more surprising is to realize that, by next year, being Joe Manchin could mean being a Republican.

I’m not predicting this, any more than I’m urging you to download Being John Malkovich tonight, but just think about it for a minute.  Remember that since 1890, 21 U.S. Senators have switched parties while in office, most recently Joseph Lieberman in 2006 and Arlen Specter in 2009. West Virginia is now the perfect place for extending this history.

Throughout most of Robert Byrd’s record-breaking 51 years in the Senate, West Virginia had been a solidly Democratic state.  But by Byrd’s death in 2010, the tide was turning.  Bill Clinton carried the state in both of his elections, but no Democrat has done so since, and in 2020, Donald Trump buried Joe Biden by more than a 2-1 margin.

Manchin himself has so far survived this tidal wave, receiving 60% of the vote in 2012, when Mitt Romney was swamping Obama 62-35%. By 2018, though, Manchin barely eked out a win with 49.6% of the vote, saved from defeat by a spoiler Libertarian candidate who garnered 4.2%.  After the 2020 Republican landslide, Manchin was the only West Virginia Democrat left holding a statewide office.  The governor, Jim Justice, had been elected to that office as a Democrat in 2016, but switched parties the next year at a Trump rally, and then easily won re-election on Trump’s coattails in 2020.

So, if you found yourself being Joe Manchin midway through this Senate term, knowing that if you switched parties now, you would not only be back on the right side at home, but you would make Mitch McConnell the majority leader, eager to extend any gift in his power – what might you do?

This hypothetical glimpse of a near-future Joe Manchin won’t be a welcome one to most readers, who might be inclined to cajole or scold him out of pork-barrel or party-bolting politics.  But the deeper lesson may be a reminder of a hard truth about representative democracy: that finally its health lies in our hands, that if our system fails us, it is our responsibility to repair it.

My point, then, isn’t to predict which party label Joe Manchin will be wearing next year, but to draw attention to how radically bipolar our politics have become.  If we had three or four viable parties, one person switching allegiance from one party to another would seldom be of great consequence.  But with everyone caucusing in one of two rooms, and with the numbers in those rooms being so nearly equal, one person crossing over can change everything.

What Joe Manchin will choose to do in the coming weeks — what particular gifts he will bring back to the Mountain State, which caucus room he will shuffle into — will certainly be matters of interest to many of us.  But of far more enduring concern is whether we as a self-governing people will continue to allow the tyranny of the two-party system to dominate (and far too often to immobilize) our governing institutions or whether we will take the steps necessary to loosen that knot.

In fact, we have already begun to do that, with tentative experiments in a few pioneering places.  Ranked choice voting, now the law in Maine and Alaska and several cities, including New York City, gives citizens choices beyond the either-or bipolarity that masks the complexity voters know to characterize their world.  Redistricting reform, by moving control of this crucial procedure from the hands of partisan legislators to citizen commissions, is beginning to loosen the stranglehold of the two-party system in a growing number of states. These and other citizen-driven reforms are the main focus of Citizens Uniting to Restore Our Democracy and its associated website.  Please join the conversation, if you’re so inclined.

Few of us would welcome the chance to be Joe Manchin just now, even if we could bring piles of cash to struggling communities or determine who controls the U.S. Senate.  But any of us can contribute to the healing of a political system that has allowed itself to be overtaken by a radically polarized two-party system that is increasingly out of touch with the real world we all inhabit.