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Evan McMullin's Senate bid might signal a dangerous new trend

The Senate doesn't need any more Manchin-esque machinations.

During an interview on Meet the Press Sunday, Evan McMullin, who’s running for the Senate as an independent from Utah, proudly proclaimed that if he wins next month’s election, he will not caucus with either party. McMullin has been a vocal critic of Trump, and in 2020, he endorsed Joe Biden for president. But his vow not to caucus with either party ended any hope that his disapproval for the Republican Party would translate into his working with Democrats.

While McMullin did not mention Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., he perfectly described Manchin's outsize role in the Senate.

During Sunday’s interview, McMullin justified his stance. He said his not caucusing with either party "will give Utah an added value of influence in the Senate that we just don't have." While McMullin did not mention Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., he perfectly described Manchin's outsize role in the Senate and how Manchin achieved it. Unfortunately, Manchin’s role is something McMullin wants to replicate. And that's unfortunate, for both Democrats and the American public.

Utah is a deeply conservative state, but, to the surprise of many, its Senate race, once considered a shoo-in for Republican incumbent Mike Lee, has recently been classified as a “wild card” in the battle for the Senate. Lee is an avid Trump supporter, who also supported the former president’s scheme to overturn the election on January 6, 2021. McMullin has found creeping support amongst moderates and non-extremist Republicans, not to mention Democrats.

The two men, who debated Monday, are technically tied in the latest polls, with McMullin within the margin of error. Given the neck-and-neck fight for control of the Senate, there is the very real possibility that, if he were to win the election, McMullin would be the deciding voice in a 50-49-1 Senate, where Republicans have a razor-thin majority.

While having fewer extremists such as Lee in the Senate would be good for the progressive movement more broadly, McMullin’s Manchin-esque approach might also signal a dangerous new trend, whereby hungry or egoistic Senators exploit the two-party system (which is simply not designed for this kind of political calculation — unlike the parliamentary system, for example) to gain disproportionate levels of influence. This presents an even greater threat to the progressive cause.

While McMullin painted himself a stalwart defender of democratic principles in refusing to caucus with either party and therefore be politically constrained, he also packaged his narrative with a lie: “We’ve seen well enough over the past year or two especially that the senators in the chamber who are willing to act with greater independence, serving their constituents, standing up to party bosses, standing up to extremist factions and special interest groups, they have the most influence in the chamber,” he said. “They’re more influential, I think, even than the party bosses, and I want that for Utah.”

Yes, since the last election Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Manchin have on occasion had even more influence in the Senate than party bosses. But that influence hasn’t led to their standing up to reactionary policies or special interests. Manchin has developed a reputation for holding the Democratic and progressive agenda hostage, playing a game of chicken with climate policy, for example, which will irrevocably affect the entire world. In July, after what felt like endless haggling with Manchin on legislation, Sinema almost immediately rescinded her support, demanding tax breaks for Wall Street’s wealthiest. The spectacle of the Democrats’ negotiations with Manchin evince just how badly the two-party system holds up against rogue or solipsistic politicians. Let’s not forget Sinema and Manchin’s joint decision in January to block the Democrats’ voting rights legislation (which passed in the House), assisting decades-long conservative efforts to disenfranchise vulnerable communities, who also tend to vote Democrat.

The spectacle of the Democrats’ negotiations with Manchin evince just how badly the two-party system holds up against rogue or solipsistic politicians.

At a minimum, we should loudly reject the Manchin effect. But this points to the larger issue. That a senator from a low-population state (Utah has around 3 million people, West Virginia around 1.7 million) can determine the American political landscape and make or break legislation that has policy implications for the whole world should compel us to loudly reject the political system that enables these conditions. Inequity is baked into the DNA of the American political system, not least because each state — irrespective of population size — has two senators. California has around 40 million people, while Wyoming has 580,000, yet they have the same amount of representation in the Senate. In a 50-50 senate, Democratic senators represent around 40 million more constituents than Republicans. In less than 20 years, 30% of Americans will be represented by 70 senators and 70% of Americans will be represented by 30 senators, according to political communications professor David Birdsell’s analysis.

The only two Independent senators currently serving — Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine — understand this political reality and have demonstrated a real commitment to democratic and progressive principles by caucusing with the Democrats. McMullin’s political posturing, in which he insists he will never caucus, betrays a more egoistic approach: a me-and-my-state-first first approach, rather than a commitment to the broader ideals he claims to espouse.

“He could be in an extremely powerful situation if he gets to determine which way the Senate is organized, which party gets the majority,” Richard Davis, political science professor at Utah’s Brigham Young University, told The Hill. “I think what he’s going to do is negotiate on Utah’s behalf, get things for Utah out of this.”

Of course, senators and representatives are sent to Congress to work on behalf of their constituents. But these politicians do not exist in a vacuum, and there must be some political cohesion in the form of alliances in order for government to function and, for progressives, in order to advance and preserve basic rights. Using the system’s vulnerabilities to play an egoistic game of chicken is not to be celebrated. While it might serve McMullin’s constituents in the short term, such political games only hurt us all in the long run by undermining our democratic ideals: This is what we call the tyranny of the minority.