What Shakespeare Can Teach Us About Joe Manchin | Opinion

In a recent op-ed, Senator Joe Manchin (D-VW) once more insisted that he would not meddle with the filibuster, a point he's made frequently since it became a progressive priority. He also explained why he would not be voting for the Democrats' election reform bill, the "For the People Act," which he opposes because only one side pf the political aisle supports this legislation. Manchin explained that it is his duty "to seek bipartisan compromise no matter how difficult and to develop the political bonds that end divisions and help unite the country we love."

Manchin has faced severe backlash from Democrats, who need his vote to pass their legislation. And yet, he has maintained his position. In an interview with Chris Wallace, Manchin continued to believe in the Republican's good faith: "I'm going to continue to keep working with my bipartisan friends, and hopefully we can get more of them."

Manchin, as many have pointed out, still thinks this is Robert Byrd's senate, a place where Republicans put country above party, and prized bipartisan comity. But that, of course, is not Mitch McConnell's senate.

Joe Manchin would do well to remember Shakespeare's tragedy, Julius Caesar. After Brutus and his co-conspirators assassinate Caesar, Mark Antony, a Caesar loyalist, asks permission to speak at Caesar's funeral. Naively, Brutus immediately agrees, convinced that letting Antony speak is the principled thing to do. Letting Antony speak "shall advantage more than do us wrong," says Brutus.

But Antony has other plans. He does not intend to speak "as becomes a friend" at Caesar's funeral, but to use the occasion to "let slip the dogs of war." And let slip he does: After turning the crowd into a raging mob that doesn't care who it kills (they murder Cinna the Poet because he has the same name as Cinna the Conspirator), Antony sits back and gloats: "Mischief, thou art afoot, / Take thou what course thou wilt." Antony and his conspirators proceed to decide which of their enemies will die.

You could say that the ensuing destruction and political murders lay squarely on Antony's shoulders: He planned this riot so he's responsible for the results. But Brutus's political naïveté gave Antony the opportunity. Because they were simply playing by two different sets of rules.

joe manchin for the people act republicans
Senator Joe Manchin is facing criticism for opposing the For the People Act, but his opposition isn't winning over Republicans in West Virginia. Manchin talks with reporters after stepping off the Senate Floor at the U.S. Capitol on May 28 in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Political naïveté is also one of the ways in which Shakespeare's arch-villain, Richard III, is able to murder his way to the throne. "Simple, plain Clarence" cannot believe that his brother, Richard, would send thugs to kill him. Even after the executioners tell Clarence that they were sent by Richard, Clarence persists: "It cannot be, for when I parted with him / He hugged me in his arms and swore with sobs / That he would labor my delivery."

Clarence is no more politically astute than his small son, who cannot believe that his uncle, Richard, would lie to him: "I cannot think it," he says. Richard's bloody ascent to the throne depends, as Richard freely admits towards the play's start, on the credulity of the "many simple gulls" who prefer to believe that he acts in accordance with previous rules and conventions. Guess again.

No doubt, Joe Manchin has made his own political calculation. Given West Virginia's rightward lurch (Trump carried the state by 38.9 points), siding with Democrats would probably spell the end of his career as a senator. And it would probably spell the end of any Democrat winning office there, too. But that's not how Manchin is justifying his refusal to support H.R.1 or changes to the filibuster.

Instead, like Brutus, and the many gulls in Richard III, Manchin bases his stand on preserving values that no one else holds anymore. Manchin wants to privilege bipartisanship above all, but McConnell and company are not interested in bipartisanship.

Consider that the Republicans in the Senate filibustered the January 6 Insurrection Commission because "it could uncover damaging revelations related to former President Donald Trump that would hurt Republicans." McConnell also showed little interest in bipartisanship when he rammed through Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination the Senate shortly before the 2020 presidential election. And when he declared that his main ambition was to prevent President Barack Obama from serving another term (he failed). He is not called "Senator No" without reason.

Appealing to reason, comity, and bipartisanship will not sway McConnell any more than appealing to reason worked for Brutus or Richard III's many victims. Shakespeare's plays tell us that to win, you have to play by the same rules as your opposition. If you don't, look at how each of these plays ended. It's not pretty.

Peter C. Herman is a Professor of English Literature San Diego State University.

The views in this article are the writer's own.