Chelsea Manning first public photo

xychelsea87/Instagram Remix by Jason Reed

Chelsea Manning’s Senate campaign could upend what we think about government

Chelsea Manning won't win. But she could start a dialogue.


Brenden Gallagher


Published Jan 19, 2018   Updated May 22, 2021, 4:13 am CDT

The more progressive wing of the left applauded Chelsea Manning’s announcement last weekend that she will run a primary campaign against Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin.

But the whistleblower and activist spent seven years in prison after being convicted of violating the Espionage Act for leaking thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, and her candidacy was met with immediate resistance from more centrist forces. Some criticized her as a traitor, arguing that while Manning’s leaks revealed wrongdoing by the government, it was not her place to reveal it. Others have strained to connect her to the sprawling Russia theories popular among some Twitter liberals, viewing WikiLeaks as a link between Manning and Putin. Another strange attack on her that has emerged online since her announcement is that we don’t know where she stands on the issues.

Not only are the circumstances of her whistleblowing and subsequent imprisonment a clear indication of her beliefs, but she has backed up her actions with clear, thoughtful words time and again. Manning drafted FISA reform legislation and filed hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests while she was incarcerated at Ft. Leavenworth prison. She has also contributed numerous pieces to the Guardian about the military, surveillance, incarceration, and LGBTQ issues.

Beyond the issues of surveillance, foreign policy, and human rights, Manning has used her Twitter account to shape her platform on almost every major topic since her release from prison in May of last year. Not only has she articulated her beliefs on a variety of issues, but she has expressed a coherent and sophisticated ideology. Her policy positions fit cleanly within the emerging progressive left, and her stances make her a natural ally of organizations like Black Lives Matter, Democratic Socialists of America, and Our Revolution. It wouldn’t be surprising to see endorsements from some of these organizations and other similar progressive groups as primary season approaches.

She is for dismantling the carceral state.

She is anti-deportation.

She supports universal healthcare.

She is for nuclear disarmament.

She supported DAPL activists.

She is an LGBTQ activist.

But can she win?

Chelsea Manning has clear policy positions. And, as Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept wrote on Monday, she is not a Russian agent. That leaves the accusation that she is a “traitor,” which will be the issue on which her candidacy rests. Manning is a convicted felon, but how you view her conviction depends on where you fall politically. It bears mentioning that there a number of ex-convicts who will be running with robust support from both sides of the aisle in 2018. Her candidacy will be a test case for how Americans view state crimes like Manning’s, as she would be the first person convicted of essentially treason to hold public office.

Establishment Democrats have never exactly approved of Manning’s decision to leak classified documents. While President Obama did ultimately commute her prison sentence, it was at the very end of his term. Manning served seven years of a 35-year sentence, which was the harshest ever handed down for leaks. Following the announcement of Manning’s release, some Democratic lawmakers were critical of the move, advocating that Manning remain in prison for her full sentence.

Obama and fellow Democrats were harsh on Manning, in part because they largely agree with Republicans when it comes to intelligence and foreign policy. While Democrats oppose Republicans on most domestic policy issues, many liberals are in lockstep with Republicans when it comes to matters of war and surveillance. Last week, 55 House Democrats voted to extend warrantless surveillance in the Trump administration. Only nine senators voted against a $700 billion defense bill last fall. President Obama aggressively prosecuted whistleblowers. The Democratic establishment supports the military industrial complex and the surveillance state; therefore, they see Manning’s whistleblowing—which included details about the death of civilians and unknown details about the CIA torture program—as an unpatriotic assault.

By all accounts, Manning’s candidacy will be an uphill battle. Her opponent, incumbent Sen. Ben Cardin, enjoys robust DNC support and earned 75 percent of the vote in his last primary contest. Cardin is a prime example of how establishment Democrats can often be indistinguishable from Republicans on defense and surveillance issues. He supports right-wing Israeli organization AIPAC and authored a bill that would have criminalized the boycott of Israel on the behalf of Palestinians. Not only is he anti-protester, but he voted for the defense bill in the fall and has often voted to expand surveillance at home and military spending abroad. 

Manning will also have the unique task of challenging establishment orthodoxy on foreign policy right next door to Washington, D.C. While many progressives like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren focus primarily on domestic issues, Manning’s performance in the Maryland Senate primary will gauge the electorate’s appetite for progressive values when it comes to foreign policy. Since 9/11, the United States government has been largely united in prosecuting an endless war abroad and spying on its citizens at home. Few Democrats have shied away from hawkish foreign policy since the party’s overwhelming support for the Iraq War. Ostensibly liberal forces like the Center for American Progress support that apparatus and will likely focus a lot of energy on beating Manning because she is such a forceful critic of it.

There is an appetite for change in America. Manning’s candidacy will be a litmus test for if the energy around domestic policy issues like increased minimum wage and Medicare for All can extend beyond our borders and into America’s position as a military empire. It is clear that the anti-Trump movement is a reaction to fatigue with Republican business as usual, but Manning’s candidacy will only be successful if the appetite for change extends to our endless wars abroad and the systems that continue to prosecute them. Manning is calling for a fundamental change in the way America operates, and it remains to be seen if such a radical message can find widespread support.

But her candidacy could change the dialogue of America, at home and abroad.

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*First Published: Jan 19, 2018, 6:56 am CST