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Kyrsten Sinema, the Senator of the Exhausted Majority?
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Kyrsten Sinema, the Senator of the Exhausted Majority?

Sinema is a political unicorn. Can she exist much longer in the real world?

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(Photograph by Mandel Ngan/Getty Images.)

The most interesting thing you’re going to read this week (outside of everything on The Dispatch, of course) is in the New York Times. It’s by Michelle Cottle, and it takes a deep dive into the mind and motivations of Kyrsten Sinema, the senior senator from Arizona. Democratic activists just might dislike Sinema more than any other Democrat in America. Yes, they have frustrations with Joe Manchin, but many of them seem to positively loathe Sinema. 

Sensible Democrats know that Manchin faces one of the most difficult challenges in American politics. How does a Democrat hold a Senate seat in one of the nation’s most Republican states? But Arizona seems different. It’s drifting purple, and its junior senator, at least so far, seems to be a much more reliable vote. Sinema? She marches to the beat of her own drummer.

Remember her vote against a $15 minimum wage? Instead of simply saying “No,” she did this:

An homage to John McCain’s famous thumbs-down against repealing Obamacare? Possibly. Provocative to much of the left? Certainly. And now she’s in the crosshairs again (including in the bathroom) for blocking substantial portions of the Biden administration’s proposed multi-trillion dollar “human infrastructure” package. 

While I’ve seen a lot of anger directed at Sinema, I haven’t seen much understanding. How did the former progressive activist who once famously wore a pink tutu to an anti-war rally become Arizona’s latest maverick? Cottle’s explanation makes a great deal of sense. Sinema dove deep into world of far-left politics and didn’t like what she saw:

But her involvement with progressive activists — both as one herself and later as an elected official — left some scars. In her 2009 book, “Unite and Conquer,” Ms. Sinema emerges as a progressive disillusioned by the foibles and limitations of progressive activism. The book, on coalition building, is awash in mocking caricatures of progressives as smug, ineffectual, rigid, self-serious, wonky, disorganized know-it-alls. Recalling her own experiences, she tosses out tough-love observations such as, “Progressives love to talk about coalitions, but we’re not very good at creating or maintaining them,” and “since we’re so smart and have all the answers to the world’s problems, you’d think that we progressives would get more done.”

And don’t get her started on identity politics, which she says boils down to this: “I am different from you in some fundamental respect and therefore need my own group that understands me. And also, I can’t work with you.”

So where did this leave her? Cottle argues that the “rejection of factionalism” is “central to her identity”—more so than “any of her legislative positions.” She’s essentially a moderate Democrat who prioritizes consensus and decency. Where critics see her as a “chameleon” or a narcissist, Cottle perceives a “guiding principle:”

She holds fast to an abhorrence of the toxicity and dysfunction of the hyper-polarized political system, brandishing a potent combination of disgust, frustration and moderation that could, come to think of it, put her in sync with a big slice of Americans.

Cottle argues that Sinema is a better fit outside the Democratic Party, as an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. She might be right. The more I read Cottle’s piece, the more I recognized a particular dynamic I’ve discussed at length. In her disdain for toxic partisanship and vicious polarization, it seems Kyrsten Sinema is part of America’s “exhausted majority.” 

I’ve written about the exhausted majority before, and I think this cohort of Americans is the key that could unlock a better, saner American politics. To refresh, the term comes from the comprehensive, indispensable “Hidden Tribes” study of American polarization. It posits that the lion’s share of American polarization is driven by hyper-partisan wings—a disproportionately white and prosperous minority of the American electorate.

The rest of America resides in the “exhausted majority.” These individuals span the political spectrum but share four key characteristics:

  • They are fed up with the polarization plaguing American government and society

  • They are often forgotten in the public discourse, overlooked because their voices are seldom heard

  • They are flexible in their views, willing to endorse different policies according to the precise situation rather than sticking ideologically to a single set of beliefs

  • They believe we can find common ground

The intriguing thing about Sinema is that she illustrates both the promise and peril of a candidate who reflects “disgust” and “frustration” not so much with the partisan enemy, but with polarized politics itself.

Let’s start with the peril, or at least the limitations. As I write and speak about partisan polarization and animosity, I’m constantly asked why the “exhausted majority” can’t or won’t make its presence felt in American politics. At the risk of oversimplifying a complicated answer, I’ll identify a few factors that could keep Sinema an outlier in American politics. 

First, the nature of the exhausted majority itself holds her back. Presently, the key operative word is “exhausted,” not majority. This means that a politician who hopes to mount a sustained appeal to this immense segment of America is mounting an appeal to millions who’ve simply checked out. Sinema’s foes chase her into bathrooms. Her fans mainly shake their heads in disgust at her treatment and perhaps tweet mildly in her support.  

Indeed, as Cottle notes, progressive groups are already recruiting primary challengers, and her approval rating among Democrats is plummeting to 46 percent (with 40 percent disapproving). Since more consistently progressive candidates—like Kelly in Arizona and Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia—have won key Senate races in reddish-purple states, it’s not necessarily crazy to believe they could mobilize against Sinema and still win against a Republican, especially since parts of the Arizona GOP have taken the express train to Conspiracy Town.

Moreover, since the exhausted majority is all over the map ideologically, it’s very difficult to organize a coalition once you dive deep into the issues. While Sinema has a moderate record on some issues, on others, she’s a straight-line Democrat. She has a 100 percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America, for example, and appears to support even repealing the Hyde Amendment, which could dramatically increase taxpayer funding for abortion.

I raise abortion not because it’s the only American issue but because it illustrates the difficulty of building majorities once you get past a profound sense of disgust at the status quo. When you move from “something has to change” to “how shall we govern” then fragile coalitions can quickly collapse.

But that’s the bad news for the exhausted majority. Here’s the good news. Sinema is a bit of a unicorn in national politics. She has a “strikingly high” approval rating with Republicans. The same poll that put her at a 48 percent approval with Democrats gave her a 43 percent approval rating with Republicans. Her appeal clearly crosses party lines.

In a general election, most of those Democrats would undoubtedly come home and vote for Sinema, and most Republicans would likely still vote GOP, but in 2021 it’s simply remarkable to see a politician only underwater by2 percentage points with the opposing party, 43-45.

Given the third party debate that Jonah launched last week, I must confess that I’m intrigued by Cottle’s suggestion that Sinema declare her independence from the Democrats. No, she is not the third-party conservative that Jonah and I would like to see, but a declaration of independence (especially in a purple state) would free her from the primary pressures of the activist base, and it would test the possibility of a path past the binary choice. 

At the end of the day, what makes Sinema intriguing isn’t so much her independent streak, but the reason for her stubborn refusal to toe the party line. If disgust at factionalism and identity-based politics is truly her “guiding principle,” then she may well be one of the first senators for America’s exhausted majority. May she not be the last.

Colin Powell, A Great American.

Many thousands of words have been written about Colin Powell since his passing, and entirely too many of them have been about the Iraq War. Too few have been about his role in shaping the United States military in the crucial years after the Vietnam War into not just the world’s most lethal fighting force but also the nations’ most consistently respected public institution.

It’s easy to forget that after the Vietnam War, the American military faced a crisis. Morale was in tatters, drug use was rampant, and the public not only distrusted military leaders, it feared that American power was in decline. The Soviet Union seemed powerful and perhaps even ascendant.

By the end of the Persian Gulf War (when Powell served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), the Soviet Union was in retreat, and American arms had just defeated one of the world’s largest armies in a decisive ground war that lasted a mere 100 hours. He served when the American military was at its nadir, and he left the uniformed service when it was the tip of the spear for the only superpower left in the world.

Of course Powell does not deserve sole or even principal credit for the astonishing reversal of America’s military fortunes. There were many men and women who stood in the gap during those vital years, but he played a role we should not forget

To this day, respect for the power of American arms is part of Powell’s legacy. To this day, our nation’s deep and profound bipartisan respect for the military is part of Powell’s legacy. 

In a time when so many voices are proclaiming that America is a nation in decline, it’s worth remembering those leaders who turned previous tides and helped restore American hope after previous periods of malaise. Colin Powell was one such man. Rest in peace, General Powell. You served your country well. 

One last thing …

I’ll end with just two words. Derrick. Henry.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.