Kyrsten Sinema has spent the last year participating in a Beltway social experiment that might determine whether an intellectual nullity, clad in Instagrammable vintage wear, might be passed off as a brave and serious centrist ideologue. And it should be said, this plan has been working out spectacularly for the Arizona senator. Of late, she’s been the subject of a fawning Axios article that reveled in the fact that she’d been toting spreadsheets around the Capitol—but didn’t even bother to check her math. And over the weekend, she earned herself a Maureen Dowd profile that compared her to a “silent film star,” probably for no other reason than that Dowd got stuck on deadline, perseverating on the fact the senator’s surname rhymes with “cinema.”
But Sinema’s effort to become what I’ll call the Caroline Calloway of the filibuster hit a snag when her constituents confronted her in a public restroom to rudely demand that she do her job. This, in turn, touched off a paroxysm of media takes about whether such confrontations broke the bounds of civility. This has become something of a pundit subgenre after some similar encounters at restaurants went down during the Trump era, spawning talk of whether the hoi polloi needed an authoritative guide on how to interact with their betters in public.
While we could continue to argue about the proper rules of engagement for angry constituents—restrooms bad; town halls good!—this would be mistaking a symptom for the larger disease. Simply put, a ruder form of politics becomes inevitable when people are deprived of political power. In this case, the critics of her hecklers missed a key detail: Sinema refuses to interact with the public. As one Arizona activist explained, “You have to understand, we have tried all the ‘normal’ ways to talk to her. You cannot get a meeting. Her office is closed. Her voicemail inbox is full. We cannot afford to attend her fundraisers. She has not had a townhall in three years.”
While ignoring her own constituents, Sinema has put herself at the beck and call of donors and corporations, underscoring the ways that it isn’t just Republicans who act at the behest of moneyed elites. Democrats, too, spend an inordinate amount of their day dialing for dollars and privileging the donor class in their policy discussions. As Ryan Grim reported for The Intercept, House Democrats accumulate power and prestige based on how well they do at “raising and dispersing money to colleagues,” in a formalized practice known as the “Points Program,” further incentivizing interactions with donors instead of voters.
Considerable research has pointed to the fact that it is easier for wealthy elites to command the attention of lawmakers and influence elections than it is for an ordinary American to gain similar access to their public servants. But the rights of ordinary citizens are also being attacked on another front: the GOP’s ongoing, multipronged effort to game the system and suppress voting rights. As Matt Ford wrote for TNR, “The common thread that unites almost all of right-wing politics today … is the persistent belief that Democrats are not legitimate participants in American governance, no matter how many voters support them or how often they do so.”
Democrats can, and may, still pass a law to combat and curtail these efforts. Doing so would require Democratic senators to revise or abolish the filibuster, something that Sinema and many of her Senate colleagues have hitherto shown no willingness to do. Should Democrats fail and Republicans succeed in locking Democratic voters out, we cannot expect progressives just to acquiesce to this new reality. Their energy and, in some cases, desperation, will simply follow another path, perhaps from the voting booth to the restroom stall.
Power concedes nothing without demand. But the demands of Democratic voters are reasonable: Just pass Biden’s agenda, already! As the powerful continue to cocoon themselves within a vault of donor boodle and ordinary citizens get shut out of the participatory process, we should naturally expect an antagonistic and more confrontational public to emerge. And while many argue that the people should have the right to be rude, this is clearly not an ideal or preferable way to practice politics. Anyone who doesn’t want that future should stop asserting the ludicrous notion that affluent political elites have some inalienable right to civility, and start insisting that they earn it.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.