Why is Joe Manchin out on his own in the Democratic Party on environmental policy?

In this guest post, Joel B. Kersting puts his article ‘An environmental education: how the education realignment polarized Congress on the environment’, recently published in Environmental Politics, in context of current events in US politics.

In August, the Biden administration celebrated the one-year anniversary of the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. This landmark piece of legislation allocated more federal funds to combat climate change than ever before. But one notable person was absent from this anniversary celebration: the law’s chief author, conservative and oftentimes anti-environment Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Perhaps this should not have come as much of a surprise as Manchin has spent the last several months lambasting the Biden administration for the implementation of the climate provisions in the IRA. Manchin has criticized the implementation as part of a “radical climate agenda” which will prioritize the growth of renewable energy sources at the expense of fossil fuels.

What may be more of a surprise, especially to those with a long memory of environmental policy in the United States, is that Manchin is almost on his own among congressional Democrats. If anything, Democrats in Congress are both working to prevent Republicans from defunding some of the climate provisions in the IRA and pledging to pass even more ambitious climate legislation if they regain a governing trifecta after the 2024 elections.

Today’s remarkable unanimity among Democrats on the issue of climate change is very different than the fierce clashes between conservative and liberal Democrats over climate policy of decades past. In 2009, congressional Democrats tried to pass the American Clean Energy and Security Act, commonly known as the “cap and trade” bill, which attempted to set a cap on carbon emissions produced in the United States. While the bill managed to pass the House of Representatives, it did so only with the votes of several moderate Republicans as 44 House Democrats voted against the bill.

These 44 Democrats largely came from more Republican-leaning, rural districts where the fossil fuel industry was influential. But there are two more characteristics of these districts worth mentioning. The first is the low percentage of their constituents who were college graduates. The average percentage of college graduates was close to seven points lower than the rest of the Democratic caucus at the time. The second characteristic is that only 11 of these districts would be held by Democrats by the time the IRA passed.

In a recent article published in Environmental Politics, I argued the removal of these conservative Democrats can be explained by the ongoing education realignment in American party politics. In recent decades, many college educated white voters are shifting from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party; and the reverse is true for whites without a college education. Many have attributed this realignment, also called the diploma divide, to the growing influence of social issues in American politics. Higher educational attainment is often associated with more liberal positions on social issues, including on environmental policy. Consequently, more educated, socially liberal Republicans became alienated by the growing social conservatism in the Republican Party and shifted to the Democratic Party; and less educated, socially conservative Democrats left their party over its’ social liberalism.

How this realignment matters for environmental policy is that it produced a change in the composition of both parties’ coalitions in the electorate and more importantly, in Congress. In my article, I found that whether a member of Congress is an outlier in their party on environmental policy is affected by the level of educational attainment among that member’s constituents: anti-environment Democrats came from less educated districts and states; and pro-environment Republicans came from higher educated districts and states. There used to be many of these party outliers on the environment in Congress, but in recent years, they have nearly disappeared; and I found this disappearance can be attributed to the education realignment.

As this realignment progressed, most of the districts and states which used to be won by these anti-environment Democrats and pro-environment Republicans flipped to the other party; and I found that most of these seats that flipped were less educated seats held by Democrats and highly educated seats held by Republicans. The education realignment removed many of the Democrats who were more resistant to environmental regulation and many of the Republicans who were more sympathetic to environmental regulation. This resulted in both parties in Congress becoming more internally homogenous on environmental policy, but also two parties which are more polarized on the environment than ever before.

These changes make bipartisan agreement on environmental policy more difficult, but when one party controls Congress and the presidency, we may expect more action on environmental policy than in years past. Such was the case with the Inflation Reduction Act as it passed under Democratic control in 2022 with every Democrat in the House and Senate voting for it. Even the quite conservative Joe Manchin voted for it and was the chief author behind it. After holding out support on the bill initially, Manchin ended up working with Democratic leadership to craft a bill to his liking to get his much-needed vote in an evenly divided Senate, but his support was secured by a promise from other Democrats to make it easier for federal permits for new fossil fuel projects to be granted.

Joe Manchin has the distinction of being the only statewide Democrat left from West Virginia, but in decades past, Democrats dominated West Virginia politics. It is also the state with the lowest percentage of college graduates in the entire country; and so it becomes an illustration of the effect of the education realignment on American politics and environmental policy. There used to be a lot of Joe Manchin types in the Democratic Party, but now he is almost a last gasp of the socially conservative, anti-environment Democrats who used to be an important component of the Democratic coalition.

Manchin faces very uncertain re-election prospects in 2024: recent polls have him trailing his likely Republican opponents. He may become another victim of the education realignment, but his loss might be a victory for those who yearn for an even more robust environmental agenda in the Democratic Party in years to come.

Maxwell Political Science Graduate Student Headshots 2018

Bio: Joel B. Kersting is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at Washington & Jefferson College. He studies political parties in the United States and his research focuses on the relationship between a party’s coalition and issue positions. His current book project is on the effect of the education realignment on the Democratic and Republican parties on several issue areas. Portions of this research have been published in Environmental Politics and Politics, Groups, and Identities.

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