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Point/Counterpoint: Senator Kyrsten Sinema Retires

Sen. Kyrtsen Sinema (D-AZ) speaks at a news conference after the Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act at the Capitol Building on November 29, 2022.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema announced that she would not be seeking re-election, a development that changed the dynamic in what's expected to be one of 2024's most competitive races. Though her tenure in the Senate was just one term, few elected officials were more polarizing or distinctive. Here, Defector presents two perspectives on her political career and legacy.

Point: Kyrsten Sinema Was The Perfect Senator For A Moment Without A Purpose, By David Roth

The political obituaries for Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, many of which give the impression of having been prewritten in the way that newspapers do for public figures whose last and signal contribution to their legacy will be dying at some point TBD, tend to mention what she was and did before she came to the United States Senate five years ago. These are interesting things, especially by Senate standards—Sinema was a social worker and an anti-war activist, a failed progressive candidate for local offices and then a successful and progressively less principled one for national ones. All of those are more interesting than the years of undistinguished and lavishly well-compensated corporate board service that await Sinema, who is 47, over the rest of her life. None of them really seem meaningful at all in light of what she became, which is something like the living emblem of America’s luridly uninhabitable upper house. Hit a cheeky curtsey while casting a thumbs-down no-vote on a bill raising the national minimum wage to $15, and whatever or whoever you were before having done so will naturally matter less. Or, anyway, all the various possibilities latent in that biography seem less significant than what you have become instead.

The U.S. Senate, in its current toxic senescence, offers a great deal to loathe. Its members posture and bluster and never do anything or leave; the ubiquity of the filibuster during Mitch McConnell’s time atop the institution ran it into a state of permanent brownout long before McConnell himself started powering down like C-3PO during public appearances. Nothing works, nothing happens; as a general rule, the most action in the Senate is either when it pulls together to deliver itself of a 3,000-page omnibus funding bill once per year or when one of the chamber’s many grandiose octogenarians seems notably closer to death than usual. With the filibuster’s supermajority threshold making regular business impossible, there is nothing left but a competition between variously exhausting aesthetics. 

And if Sinema was not a worse senator than most—if she seemed, given her status as “a committed centrist,” to be trying her hardest to be either the 50th best or 50th worst senator, depending on your perspective—her aesthetic was undeniably among the most exhausting on offer. When Walter Benjamin warned of the aestheticization of politics as a hallmark of fascism, it was in a broader sense—a familiar one in which voters who have given up on actually getting anything from their politics instead express themselves by proxy through their alignment with various degraded and degrading champions. Sinema, in her load-bearing outfits—lunchboxes and statement necklaces and eyeglass frames that would give Prue Leith a tummyache—was the farcical version of that running concurrently with the tragic version currently climbing like black mold over every corner of American public life. In lieu of noteworthy public service, there was just a relentlessly public serving of lewks.

She was not an avatar for her state’s voters, with whom she made a habit of avoiding any kind of contact from the moment she entered the Senate; she was also not, in the way that senators tend to age and blanch into something indistinct and vaguely the color of money, just dressing for the job she had. Sinema was representing herself and herself only; she raised money and still has it, $10.6 million in campaign funds that she now won’t spend, but her compromises, which came in time to become the whole of her politics, left her with nothing much to sell. The stilted meta-governance that became her hallmark guaranteed that the references through which she communicated weren’t really attached to anything. Her thumbs-down against the $15 minimum wage echoed the one cast by Arizona Sen. John McCain, but was in point of fact just an echo. He cast his against a Republican vote to end the Affordable Care Act, and that heresy became a part of his legacy; she cast hers against that minimum-wage increase, and it wasn’t really a heresy at all, just someone ostentatiously performing the blank sadism of centrist politics. It was just her doing what she did, in short, which was keep things from happening in a visually busy way. Sinema governed, in that moment and in general, like a layoff email with an incongruous and jarring number of Zany Face Emojis in it.

It is worth taking a moment, here, to consider what the 50th-worst senator actually does, and how lousy such a public servant would be. “She refused to help Senate Democrats end or weaken filibuster rules, which require 60 votes to advance most legislation,” the Wall Street Journal wrote after her announcement. “She made Biden scale back his multibillion-dollar Build Back Better agenda. She singlehandedly forced the party to scuttle its plans to raise the top marginal rates for corporate, capital-gains and individual-income taxes. Later, she made the party drop plans to increase taxes on a key source of private-equity managers’ income.” It is true, I guess, that Sinema could have been worse; it is also hard to see how she could have done much less. All those bygones in her biography suggest that Sinema might have been more, or different, than the neon pylon standing athwart any kind of equity or progress that she became, but that wasn’t really her, or how she understood the job. 

That, too, was symbolic in a damning and familiar way. Like many other people who once presumably had beliefs, she came to mistake the Senate’s smug and sclerotic unworkability as its function; as such, she misunderstood all the things that she prevented from happening as her doing her job, and seems to see all the governance-shaped anti-governance that she authored as her legacy. “Because I choose civility, understanding, listening, working together to get stuff done,” she said in her announcement on Tuesday, “I will leave the Senate at the end of this year.” That sentence is opaque and cynical and self-congratulatory, but there is also no indication that she doesn’t believe in it, to the extent that there is any evidence of belief to be found here.

Mostly, though, the sentence does not really scan, and in a way that perfectly fits its author—it has all those senatorial words in it, but the “because” makes it incomprehensible. Here’s the real epitaph for Kyrsten Sinema as a senator, then: She did what she did, and said what she said, and it was all very bright and easy to see, but “because” was always her undoing. Signifiers and symbols, accessories and flair, wrapped around nothing—not a reference, not even an echo, but just a strange testy silence. It is difficult to imagine an enigma whose solution could be less interesting.

Counterpoint: Kyrsten Sinema Is A Vicious Day-Glo Demon And The World Is Demonstrably Worse Because She Was Born, By Albert Burneko

What a horrible nightmare of a person Kyrsten Sinema is. That she might end up having been the signal political figure of our time—a period in which the day-to-day work of elected officials has become so hopelessly divorced from the material conditions their work nominally governs that "Looks like those clowns in Congress did it again. What a bunch of clowns" can function as the full ideological expression and sum total contribution of an actual senator—does nothing to redeem her, personally. At a certain point you could extend her a kind of sour grudging credit, I guess, for having pioneered a new depth of undisguised cynicism in politics, a dark idiocratic abyssal layer where nothing has any value except to the extent that it demonstrably foils one's own political party and sells out one's own voters in service to one's patrons. This is the kind of credit you give when you walk into an apocalyptically ruined public bathroom, freeze, and say, "Whoa, somebody took one crazy friggin' dump in here."

This society's total prostration could hardly find a better—which is to say worse—avatar than Kyrsten Sinema, the mandate that nothing may ever be allowed to disrupt its consumption (or even to facilitate the hope that it could be slowed) congealed into a sneering blonde Karen theatrically performing her own imaginary cuteness while she kills even mild and popular compromise initiatives toward a better future. It's rare for a single person to hold that kind of power, and unspeakably awful and sad that it fell into the hands of an absolute F-minus of a human being.

In any case, if holding her spiteful, obstructive, nihilistic line turns out not to have benefited any electoral ambitions—there's no real broad base for a program best described as "the most hateful possible centrism," to the surprise of no one else—it's also not clear that Sinema ever authentically had any, at least as such things might be said to exist separate from her own quest to get ahead. Which fits, since she also lacks any authentic political beliefs, convictions, or sympathy to or solidarity with humanity, at least as such things might be said to exist separate from her own quest to get ahead. Her constituents as electoral politics defined them hated her guts; on the other hand she all but explicitly did not consider them her real constituents. Her real constituency (assuming Literally Dracula doesn't count here) is the class of rich freaks for whose benefit she will now even more openly serve. Few could promise to protect them with as little shame, or as much sheer sadistic glee. I wish her all the very worst, forever and ever.

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