How (not) to Become Kyrsten Sinema
In 2003, a young Arizona activist excoriated moderate then-Democratic-Senator Joe Lieberman for his hawkish foreign policy and cruel economic ideology:
That activist’s name was Kyrsten Sinema, and in two short decades she went from protesting wars & calling for moderates to leave her party to voting for huge increases to the defense budget and doing her best to sink the only progressive portions of Joe Biden’s agenda.
How exactly that transformation occurred is, frankly, beyond human knowledge. While the Jacobin story (also linked above) does an excellent job tracing how she changed, the true question of why is as much about the human soul as it is about politics. I can say, however, as someone who also started my activism in south-western local politics that Sinema is far from unique, and have some idea how others can avoid her fate.
Local politics is often imagined as a ladder. Aspiring individuals need only find the rungs and start climbing — eventually they’ll get to the top. The structures and personalities which define local politicking, from nonprofit groups to activist networks to party bureaucracies are imagined in popular culture as the passive background against which politicians paint their careers.
This portrayal could not be less accurate. Far from being a passive background, local politics are more like a black market. It’s hard to find your way in, and even if you do, everyone is trying to sell you something.
By virtue of doing any activist work (in my case, education & environmental policy), you will run into that market. Friend or foe, everyone you speak to will have an agenda, a history, and a network. You find the radicals with 350.org, the careerist from Young Democrats, and the local League of Women Voters. You find that each of those groups will have suggestions for you, widely varying interest or ability to work with you, and an abundant and desperate desire to redirect your goals to meet their own.
It is easy for me to imagine, especially in the relatively left-less hellscape that was post-9/11 US politics, starting out as a radical activist and ending up as a cynical moderate. Every step you take in that world is a battle to try and move others towards your agenda, and the fewer allies you have, the likelier you are to either give up or change your goals.
In my own activist circle, less than half of the radicals I worked with are still organizing (outside of elections), and of those, another half have moved to mutual aid alone.
From my reading of Sinema’s biography, something similar happened to her. She started out radical but was left with few friends and fewer successes. In the name of continuing the struggle, she compromised here and there, got to know more and more people, and eventually (one she was no longer a threat) was allowed into the markets of power where she sold her soul for a Democratic party nomination, victory, and seat in the Senate. I do not know whether she plans to retire after this term. I do not know what her motivations are today. I certainly do not know the fate of her immortal soul — but I do know she is not unique.
It truly sucks that Sinema has abandoned the deal she made with house progressives. The harm she is doing to both America and the world is incalculable. However, she is living proof of something much worse than one awful senator — she is proof that any of us could abandon our principles and become like her.
Fortunately, there is an antidote.
Organizing cannot be done alone. It cannot be done without a movement, and it cannot be done without some measure of democracy. That is not to say individual activists can never make change, or that hierarchical groups don’t exist, but if you want to achieve your original goals, organizing cannot be done alone.
I was and remain extremely fortunate to have friends, organizations, and a life partner who have, would, and will hold me accountable for my views and actions. If tomorrow I were to join the Boston Democratic Party and start talking a bit less radically and a bit more dishonestly, I would not make it a day without being called out. If I were to go further down the Sinema road, I can promise the communities and organizations I am a part of would disempower me, and I would have far less ability to do harm.
By building democratic organizations, communities of fellow leftists, and by maintaining a conversation about our goals, ideology, and moral direction, we can inoculate ourselves to the temptations of power.
This is not a perfect vaccine, as any organizer could tell you, but it at the very least creates systems of accountability which make the road to corruption more difficult and the righteous path easier to travel.
We may not be able to control, contain, or stop this Sinema from harming the world, but at least we can prevent the next one from coming to exist.