Manchin won't meet Biden in the centre (Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency/Getty)

July 24, 2023   6 mins

Third-party candidates in America don’t make history. But last week the senior senator for West Virginia made headlines, at least. Joe Manchin is hinting that he might run for the presidency in 2024, representing a new “No Labels” party advocating for compromise between Left and Right. Currently a Democrat, Manchin wants to challenge the dominance of the two major American political parties, both of whom, he believes, have strayed too far from the centre. But if he’s actually serious about running, his project could make matters worse. 

Manchin’s rejection of the Democrats has been a long time coming. His voting record is complex, diverging from the party line on numerous occasions. A lifetime member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), Manchin opposed the more progressive elements of his party after Sandy Hook. And as one of the few anti-abortion Democrats in Congress, he has consistently voted in favour of restrictions on abortion access. Meanwhile, his support for the coal industry — an important economic driver in his home state and the industry that made him a millionaire before he entered politics — has often put him at odds with their green agenda. He was also the only Democrat to vote in favour of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination in 2018, drawing the ire of many within his party, and he voted with Donald Trump more than 50% of the time.

Manchin’s ideology is consistent, though. It’s grounded in the history of West Virginia, a former Democrat stronghold that has become solidly Republican in recent years. And his conservative bent could be perceived as a survival strategy. After all, he is currently staring down a 55% disapproval rating in West Virginia, as he contemplates seeking another term in the Senate. His opponent is likely to be the state’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, a former conservative Democrat who switched parties. And one does wonder: why doesn’t Manchin jump ship to the Republican Party, given his voting patterns seem slightly more aligned with theirs? Trump, in 2022, actually suggested on Truth Social that Manchin be brought into the GOP.

But Manchin’s comments signal a desire to reject both major parties. In America, there is a large cadre of “politically homeless” voters: roughly 49% of the electorate according to some polling. Where once they might have been drawn to candidates who could see the other side’s point of view, these voters now seem disenchanted with party politics altogether, put off by the extreme fringes of the Republicans and Democrats alike. Manchin is appealing to them.

While polls show dissatisfaction with candidates within both parties, Manchin’s potential candidacy would inevitably benefit one of them. He could appeal to a critical 1% or 2% in Rust Belt swing states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, which would probably be enough to tilt the scales in favour of the GOP.

More broadly, his rhetoric is a sign of a shift in American politics. Bipartisanship and consensus decision-making, celebrated ideals for nearly three decades after the end of the Second World War, have lost their lustre, ceasing to animate the base of either party. Marginal struggles currently define internal and external political battles. But Manchin and allies, such as former Democrat Krysten Sinema — now representing Arizona in the Senate as an independent — believe there’s still a silent majority to be found in the centre, one that is indifferent to the culture war that drives the loudest political engagement. 

Manchin’s paradox is that, while the most active voters are increasingly drawn towards the extremes of their respective parties, he is gambling on the centre. While his voting record paints a picture of a moderate Democrat — often erring on the conservative side — this suggestion of a third-party candidacy implies a critical redefinition of his political stance. Instead of being the swing vote within his party, Manchin would be a fulcrum between the two major political forces. Would he survive it?

Much of Manchin’s political career has been characterised by his unusual resilience in the face of the onrushing deep-red political tides in West Virginia. His endurance owes much to his somewhat unconventional stances, which resonate with a Rust Belt populace disenchanted by what they perceive as the Democratic Party’s preoccupation with identity politics at the expense of working-class concerns relevant to their area, such as the protection of jobs in fossil fuel industries.

But is there a national appetite for this brand of centrism? The country is polarised. The Pew Research Center has found that twice as many members of the two main American parties now view their opponents unfavourably, compared to 1994. In a sociopolitical environment where labels — LGBTQIA, America First, MAGA, they/them — have become essential to the identities of young people, not to mention their self-marketing, will there be significant support for a “No Labels” campaign?

Third-party bids have gained some traction in America’s political history. Billionaire Ross Perot’s Reform Party campaign racked up some impressive numbers in 1992 and 1996. But while Perot aimed to transcend partisan politics in order to win, Manchin appears more focused on exerting influence to create a moderate shift in policy. If he runs, he’s more likely to follow in the footsteps of activists such as Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, remembered more for inadvertently tipping the scales in favour of Republican George W. Bush in 2000 than for his actual campaign. And since America today is even more polarised than in the Nineties, ultimately the implications of a third-party bid are more dangerous.

The mooted “No Labels” party does seem like a hurried experiment in political transcendence, a far too simple answer to the broad discontent with the current political binary. But if Manchin wants to be remembered as the man who shed the shackles of partisanship, this move may tarnish the legacy he has already created for himself. His bold attempt to coax the country towards the centre could end up deepening the divisions he has exposed.

This has been the case with his prior attempts to preserve or create a “centre” on controversial issues. On gun control, Manchin co-sponsored the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey bill following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, which proposed expanded background checks for gun sales. Seen by much of the Left as an inadequate middle-ground solution, it failed to gain traction. As a result, the United States has been unable to make even minor changes related to background checks, and the two sides have only become more entrenched.

On energy policy, Manchin’s support for the fossil fuel industry is out of step with his party’s support for a progressive “Green New Deal”, while his reluctance to fully endorse the coal industry’s unregulated expansion has drawn ire from the Right. Manchin has recently joined with Republicans to oppose the climate legislation to which he had added a degree of moderation. But in general, seeking the centrist position in America does not lead to a union of the factions; rather, it leaves the centrist isolated, at odds with both sides.

His campaign would simply highlight the structural flaws of America’s political system, in which centrism can empower extremism. Part of the problem is the dynamics of party primaries. Candidates often find themselves compelled to pander to the ideological extremes to gain the nomination, pushing them away from the centre. Even if they later shift, their original stances are remembered; in the long run, this discourages bipartisan cooperation.

Here is a lesson for moderates, if they really want to effect change: instead of conforming to extremism, they should look to their long-term influence on political norms and the policy-making process, as Manchin at least tried to do prior to signalling his frustration with the Democrats. They need to somehow communicate the importance of pragmatic governance, and the necessity of compromise in a democracy — ideally through political advertising that emphasises the value of bipartisan dealmaking over ideological purity, of “fighting gridlock” and “getting things done”.

It won’t be easy. Divide and conquer has always been a potent strategy for generating enthusiasm, and centrists such as Manchin are working in an atmosphere where both parties are cynically leveraging polarisation. Democrats have recently started funding extreme Republican primary candidates, whom they believe will be easy to beat in the general election. It’s a manoeuvre that, while it may yield short-term electoral gains, could backfire, by enabling candidates with more extreme views to gain power. And, if moderates abandon the major parties, they will only empower these extreme candidates, driving the Democrats and Republicans further and further apart. It would be an ironic outcome for Manchin, who claims to want the parties to come together.

So what is Manchin really trying to achieve? He has been a self-avowed independent within the Democratic Party for years; his last-ditch embrace of a potential “No Labels” movement, then, could be characterised as an act of egoism. At the age of 75, Manchin is probably not seeking political longevity. Rather, “No Labels” feels like a legacy move. Manchin might just be looking back at his long career of crossing party lines, and making a final, and perhaps sincere, plea for American politics to move back to the centre. 

Then again, if he is against the erosion of collective solidarity by personal politics, there would be an irony in him launching a highly individual campaign. There’s no point standing in the ideological centre if you’re there all by yourself.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work