The Bennie Thompson Affair
Sometimes, the greatest gifts arrive in the most innocuous packaging.
Late into the night of March 3rd on a partisan vote of 220-210, the Democrats passed the Orwellian-designated “For the People Act” (or H.R. 1) -- with all Republicans voting “nay” save for two who did not vote and all Democrats voting “yea” save for one lone stray. That stray Democrat is none other than Representative Bennie Thompson for Mississippi’s 2nd congressional district -- not exactly a household name but a House lifer since 1993, nonetheless.
Now, Bennie is no ordinary stray. Although not as visible nationally as other progressives, he was an original cosponsor of H.R. 1 which only makes his change of heart all the more breathtaking. A dutiful foot soldier in the progressive movement for close to 30 years, govtrack ranks Thompson 37th among the most politically left representatives -- right up there with the most pious Poputchiki (fellow travelers) of the American left: Ocasio-Cortez, Jackson Lee, Grijalva, Jayapal, Schakowsky, Tlaib, and so forth and so on. You can view Thompson’s full report card here.
What caught my attention is his reason for switching to a “no” vote. In comments to Fox News, Thompson explained “My constituents opposed the redistricting portion of the bill as well as the section on public finances” and "I always listen and vote in the interest of my constituents."
Take that in for a moment. That’s not something we hear very often. While members of Congress are ineluctably obligated to listen to their constituents and vote their will, they routinely govern with a “top-down-we-know-better-than-you” philosophy where their votes of conscience ride roughshod over their constituents’ wishes. They have a grandiose view of their role as elected representatives and an elevated misperception that their conscience and sense of morality trumps anything that can be fathomed by the useful idiots they represent on the left or the deplorable Neanderthals on the right. But the fact is, if their conscience conflicts with the expressed interests of their constituents, they are duty bound to vote consistent with the latter or resign.
Here’s what so fascinating. Much of the pushback to H.R. 1 that Bennie faced in his district, had to come from his black constituency. Mississippi’s 2nd district is 65.6% black and 31.1% white. Even if his entire white constituency voiced opposition to the bill, it wouldn’t be sufficiently meddlesome for him to defy the party and walk back his support. For that, he would need considerable backlash from the black community. He had to feel so under siege politically from so many of his black constituents, that he had no choice but to reverse course.
This is potent political information: recognizing the damage H.R. 1 would pose for election integrity, loyal black voters who supported Bennie’s progressive agenda 14 times rebelled against it with such ferocity that he bailed on his own bill.
Even more compelling is that he made this bold move against Pelosi as a lone defector -- again, he must have really felt the heat. In the end, he likely had her blessing -- his vote wouldn’t change the outcome but ignoring his constituents could imperil his 2022 run -- a loss she couldn’t risk.
As the 37th “most progressive” Democrat in the House who filed a lawsuit against Trump for violating the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, guys like Bennie aren’t playing for our team anytime soon. But his gift is the revelation that tiny fissures exist in the Democrat bulwark: even for progressive voters who have re-elected a progressive candidate 14 times, there is a tipping point if the proposed legislation goes too far. If they remonstrated against the “For the People Act,” maybe they would do the same for the Equality Act, the Sabika Sheikh Firearm Licensing and Registration Act, the filibuster, taxes, maybe even Dr. Seuss.
If there is one Bennie Thompson, there are undoubtedly others -- vulnerabilities the Republicans must identify, target, and exploit. They must root out potential Bennies and blast their districts with ad campaigns highlighting the deleterious impacts these bills have. Constituents must be encouraged to contact their Bennies with spoon fed emails, letters, phone call scripts, and contact information made readily available.
H.R. 1 requires 60 votes to pass in the Senate which, if successful, would eviscerate longstanding constitutionally-granted state powers regulating the time, place and manner of elections. Steny Hoyer insists “Chuck Schumer is going to do everything in his power” to make sure it passes. That can only mean they either reach a compromise, which Republicans don’t seem inclined to do; or, more likely, kill the filibuster -- which would explain the March 7th email from MoveOn.org and Elizabeth Warren announcing their putsch to destroy the filibuster -- "a procedural loophole that lets a minority of senators block bills that have the broad support of the American people.” Masterful. Calling 50 Republican senators tied with Democrats a minority blocking bills everyone else wants!
To save the filibuster, Republicans must put into action the lessons learned from Mississippi.
Politics is not a spectator sport. It requires time and effort that many conservatives are reluctant to give. The mentality that participatory representative government doesn’t require our vigilance, only our votes, must give way to the kind of activism Democrats employ. As Pelosi famously quipped: “We don’t agonize, we organize.” Shored up by a vast network of well-funded organizations focused on action, Democrats have a highly-effective machine to rouse participation and get favorable results.
Traditional conservatives, on the other hand, tend to agonize, not organize. They are the Woody Allens of politics. But Mississippi’s 2nd District informs us that a viable path to defeat progressive legislation exists and reminds us that our involvement is critical.
By way of example, senators Sinema and Manchin need the support of their Republican constituents: Arizona has 1,520,328 registered Republicans, 1,380,405 registered Democrats, and 1,360,898 “others”; and West Virginia has 445,132 registered Republicans, 435,694 registered Democrats, and 270,576 declaring no party. On legislation that is unpopular in their states, like H.R 127 (guns) or H.R. 1 (elections), they need to feel a Bennie-like squeeze from their districts that is so forceful, they will bend to their constituents’ will, not Nancy Pelosi’s or their conscience. The pressure should additionally come from people outside of their districts who are also affected by the legislation -- turning hundreds of daily complaints to thousands, compounding the pressure and overwhelming their offices.
Even if these senators fail us, they will be rattled and acutely aware that their legislative votes might jeopardize their re-elections.
I don’t put much stock in Manchin, who seems to enjoy teasing Republicans with his pivotal votes and always finds a way to leave Republicans in the dust, as just happened with the COVID relief bill where he brokered a compromise to keep the enhanced weekly unemployment benefit at $300 -- as if that were the only problem with the $1.9 trillion pork-laden measure.
We keep Dems like Manchin and Sinema in our sights not because they’re really one of us, but because of Bennie Thompson’s gift that has, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, been there all along: constituents paying close attention who will pressure their representatives to listen and vote in their interests. As things currently stand, that might just be our only hope to save the filibuster and push back against the Democrat agenda.