Like many who follow politics, I was surprised when Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema announced last week that she was leaving the Democratic party to register as an independent. I have never understood Sinema, who, along with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, is credited with sabotaging much of President Biden’s agenda over the last two years. I did not know much about her other than that she was regularly condemned by progressive Democrats as being in the pocket of special interests because of her opposition to proposed tax increases on corporations and much of the President’s infrastructure spending.
Curious, I read Sinema’s explanation of her decision to declare herself an Independent. In part, she explained, “Everyday Americans are increasingly left behind by national parties’ rigid partisanship, which has hardened in recent years. Pressures in both parties pull leaders to the edges, allowing the loudest, most extreme voices to determine their respective parties’ priorities and expecting the rest of us to fall in line.” I nodded my head in agreement and thought not only about loudmouths like Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) but also of his New York colleague, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
Sinema went on to write, “In catering to the fringes, neither party has demonstrated much tolerance for diversity of thought. Bipartisan compromise is seen as a rarely acceptable last resort, rather than the best way to achieve lasting progress. Payback against the opposition party has replaced thoughtful legislating.” Once again, I nodded my head in agreement.
Although I agree with Sinema’s explanation for her dramatic action, I do not support her upcoming 2024 re-election bid. She is said to have changed parties because she faced a primary within her own. The Democratic party of Arizona disciplined Sinema a few years ago and, I am told, many within that party have been planning her demise as a response.
Then there is the issue of understanding the positions that Sinema has taken—they have been unpredictable, which is one reason many believe she “sold out” and does not belong in the Democratic party. Was Sinema demonstrating independence for the past two years or engaged in something sinister? I do not know, but, if I lived in Arizona, I would want someone else, someone predictable, to represent me.
Since Sinema’s announcement I have discussed her party change with several friends and wrote an editorial on it for another publication. The reaction to both surprised me. There was little sympathy for Sinema and a lot of cynicism about her explanation. Nobody seems to believe her. I was politely called naïve by a few friends, who, I suspect, also wonder about my honesty because I have routinely condemned the Republican party for the past six years. The message, at least as I understood it, was “John, get back in line. This woman left the party. Good riddance.”
I have yet to discuss Sinema’s new independent status with anyone who agreed with me that there is too much partisanship on Capitol Hill. Everyone, it seems, is interested in the success of their party’s agenda, even if it means throwing civility out the window or, in the case of both parties, taking actions that weaken our legislative institutions.
Among Sinema’s worst offenses, in the eyes of many Democrats, is her opposition to throwing out the filibuster. Because the filibuster’s shady history as a tool to block civil rights legislation and more recent function as an obstacle to moving huge pieces of domestic legislation when you do not have a Senate majority, most Democrats want to see the filibuster gone. Maybe her opposition was at the behest of monied interests, but, as someone who worked for several years as a Congressional aide, I am sympathetic. I do not like legislation rammed through Congress on straight party votes.
So, what should we make of Sinema’s decision? First, President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Schumer are right when they suggest that not much will change. Sinema has suggested she will caucus with the Democrats. In the last Congress, she voted 93 percent of the time with the President. Second, I am not sure that her new-found independence will help her in her 2024 re-election bid. She will now face a Democratic challenger and is unlikely to garner much support from hard-core Republicans who view her as a RINO. Third, the rationale for her decision, based on the destructive aspects of extreme partisanship, appears to be falling on deaf ears. That is unfortunate.
Thus, I regret to say, the bitter, destructive take-no-prisoners partisanship that has gripped Washington for the last six years is unlikely to change anytime soon. That worries me. It is inconsistent with democracy. A citizenry at war with itself cannot govern. And without the ability of a legislature to function in the interest of the common good, democracy will not survive for long.
J.E. Dean is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, and other subjects.