I think Kyrsten Sinema was sent to earth to illustrate the limits of identity politics. It turns out that quirky bisexuals who serve lewks can also be regressive prima donnas who stand in the way of progress, seemingly for no reason other than pique and ego. Pieces like this, and there have been many, have not aged well.
I have a critique of Democrats that is not uncommon to the radical left. The Democrats are a neoliberal capitalist party that is dedicated to imperialism, militarism, and the ceaseless expansion of market relationships in all things. They are also better on almost all issues than the Republicans, ranging from far better (such as on abortion), to somewhat better (immigration), to barely better (foreign policy). The issue is that “better than the Republicans” is a bar about as low as “better than slowly lowering your genitals into a blender.” The other issue is that the Democrats pursue their agenda with far less zeal, and frequently with worse political strategy, than the Republicans. I always thought the Onion captured this dynamic very well:
There’s an existential bloodlessness to the Democrats, an addiction to procedure and appearing “reasonable” that is very poorly suited for getting into the street fights that Republicans relish. Though it’s typical to call this a “center-right country,” the Democrats enjoy some serious structural advantages, the most obvious of which is that Democratic economic positions are consistently more popular than those of Republicans, and people vote according to their pocketbooks. (I concede, however, that the Senate and the Electoral College are powerful impediments.) But Democrats never seem to pursue their objectives with the same fanatical intent as the GOP. Some will say that it’s that fanatical intent that has made the Republican party a death cult, but one way or the other, there is little percentage in being the more restrained party when restraint is making you lose. I think this is exemplified in the presidency of Barack Obama, who appeared to be doggedly attached to appearing to be more reasonable than Congressional Republicans, never seeming to grasp that there was simply no advantage to having that laurel.
And yet I have voted in every national election I have been able to since I was first of age in 2000, and have voted for Democrats in every vote where my vote mattered. (I was not able to vote in 2016, as New York’s draconian voter registration laws kept me from doing so, but Hillary Clinton was not going to lose New York.) I have supported left-wing primary challengers like Bernie Sanders, have occasionally gone outside of the Democratic party line in local races where the alternatives are not the Republicans but various left parties and independents, and I am not afraid to fail to vote for a Democrat I loathe if their victory is assured. But still I have consistently voted for Democrats when it mattered. (Most recently in the New York City mayoral primary. Ranked choice is cool.) And I have put important principles aside, at times, to do so. I voted for Joe Donnelly for Senate, violating a commitment to never vote for pro-life politicians for any reason, because the Senate seemed so important. Donnelly rewarded me by generally being a drag on any progressive agenda and getting his ass thrown out after one term, but I would probably hold my nose and vote for him again. I have also said, and will say again, that Joe Biden is so far the best president of my lifetime, though this is another low bar. I have done what Democrats have demanded anyone on the left do, even though many of those Democrats are openly contemptuous of the leftists they insist do their bidding.
It’ll never be good enough. I can tell you from experience that actually voting consistently for Democrats does not allow you to avoid their contempt. Like Zizek’s postmodern father, they want you to choose Democrats and to love choosing them. The way Democrats “appeal” to the left is always a hostage negotiation.
But then you vote blue no matter who and sooner or later you get a Joe Manchin or a Kyrsten Sinema, someone who carries the badge of Democrat but who is so inimical to the party’s policy agenda that you end up in the same place as if the Republican had been elected. Which seems like a rather obvious flaw in the whole strategy - the only leverage voters have is their vote, and if they give it up for nothing, they’ll inevitably get someone who recognizes their lack of leverage and do whatever she wants. Yes, if Sinema’s Republican opponent had won, Biden could not have passed his agenda, but since Sinema won, Biden… can’t pass his agenda. I don’t pretend that these outcomes are just as bad. I do know that this outcome is still really bad, and a perfectly predictable consequence of believing that you can give anyone your undying support without any quid pro quo or standards.
The fundamental problem with the rabid enforcement of supporting Democrats no matter what is that there has never been a coherent path to progress associated with it. If Democrats lurch rightward, as they have for most of my life, then “better than a Republican” gets worse and worse, and yet you are not permitted to consider not supporting them or supporting a third party. And, since the politicians know that most of the people who vote for them will do so simply because they’re a Democrat, there is essentially no external pressure on them to be better. Representative democracy only works if the representatives are accountable to the demos, but our partisan system and the power of party identification means there’s often precious little responsibility to voters to be found.
I mean, think about it. I would certainly like to believe that I would be good to a romantic partner of mine simply out of principle. But would you want to say to your spouse “it doesn’t matter how you treat me, I will never, ever leave you”? When there’s no consequences, there’s no accountability. If every leftist follows the “blue no matter who” philosophy, why would any Democratic politician ever do what the left wants? What’s the incentive? And if not voting for Democrats doesn’t solve that problem, neither does blindly voting for them with no repercussions when they repeatedly govern against your interests. There has to be a theory of change, and if never-vote commies don’t have one then neither do fuming Democrats.
It’s time for the people who think “vote for Democrats” is the first and last word on political progress to lay out a more detailed plan, especially given that they tell us to use the primary process and then spend the primaries attacking us as unserious self-righteous children corrupting their very, very serious party. Look, the left wing has played ball. Bernie Sanders stumps for Democrats relentlessly. Most DSA people preach the necessity of voting and “pulling the party left.” Very few of the many leftist podcasts that have large audiences disdain voting. The various activist groups I am tied to here in NYC are harshly critical of Democrats but come election season most of them put out voting guides that call for voting for Dems anyway. And here’s what the left gets for its obedience: some corporate centrist none of us ever liked is standing in the way of some modest positive reforms, and yet when many Democrats think of problems within the party, they think of its left-wing first.
Perhaps there is some other option between pledging eternal support of Democrats with no expectation of getting anything for our votes or declaring all electoral politics a sham that can never result in progress. Perhaps there is some better path where you can acknowledge the importance of voting as a tool and of partisan politics as a seat of power, and believe that voting for the Democrats is usually the best decision, while also recognizing that supporting someone no matter what is fine if they’re your children, but not if they’re politicians. “I love you, drunk or sober” is not a political philosophy. What could have prevented Kyrsten Sinema from derailing the agenda of a party that holds a federal trifecta and which is facing likely annihilation in 2022? If you could go back in time to fall 2018 and talk to the Democratic voters of Arizona, but believed in voting blue no matter who, you’d have no chance to change anything. This does not seem healthy, to me. Perhaps there’s a better way. But we have to be free to think beyond voting for Democrats and hoping for the best, if we want to find it.
I forgot to mention - it is frustrating that so much of Democratic discourse is about how the system isn't fair (the Senate, the electoral college, districting), but when people point out that the primary process favors moderate establishment candidates (such as all the institutions of the party pushing hard for Hillary in 2016), the response is, hey, that's politics baby. Find a way to win. Not a really consistent attitude.
'I think this is exemplified in the presidency of Barack Obama, who appeared to be doggedly attached to appearing to be more reasonable than Congressional Republicans, never seeming to grasp that there was simply no advantage to having that laurel.'
This is a core misunderstanding of American politics.
By appearing 'reasonable' Obama was able to reassure the PMC (media, social workers, educators, etc. etc. etc.) about everything that he sought out to do. As a result he had carte blanche to do what he wanted: he launched a catastrophic intervention in Libya, expanded drone wars over much Middle East, presided over a border crisis wasn't scrutinized ('kids in cages'), he let the banking industry get away with murder, expanded imperial presidential powers, etc. etc. etc.
There's a swath of Americans - an ersatz elite with some power - who want respectability and reassurance. Providing them with that gets you a lot.
Now that Obama's in his fat Elvis phase (to quote Matt Taibbi), partying with celebs, living in his mansion, planning the construction of his imperial mausoleum that will take the place of a park in Chicago, and generally not giving a fuck, we perhaps have a better view of who Obama is and what he was able to get away with.