Sinema's Defection from Democrats Sows Welcome Chaos Among the Political Class

We should appreciate anything that shakes the confidence of both major parties.


For those of us who take pleasure from the tribulations of the political class, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema's defection from the Democratic Party is an unexpected gift in a season that already delivered considerable amusement. Amidst plummeting approval for the president, growing disenchantment with his predecessor, the loss of the House by unpopular Democrats to underperforming Republicans who took just enough seats for control, partisans of the major parties have good reason to sulk. And while it's not clear that Sinema's move will change much in the Senate, it's a welcome reminder that Democrats and Republicans alike have only a tentative hold on loyalty and power.

Sinema announced her decision to depart the Democratic party and sit as an independent in written and video statements days after Democrats briefly celebrated winning a Senate seat in Georgia.

"In catering to the fringes, neither party has demonstrated much tolerance for diversity of thought. Bipartisan compromise is seen as a rarely acceptable last resort, rather than the best way to achieve lasting progress. Payback against the opposition party has replaced thoughtful legislating," Sinema wrote. "Americans are told that we have only two choices—Democrat or Republican—and that we must subscribe wholesale to policy views the parties hold, views that have been pulled further and further toward the extremes."

"That's why I have joined the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington," she added. "I registered as an Arizona independent."

It's a statement reflecting widespread concerns that American politics are an exercise in negative partisanship, characterized by hatred for opponents and abuse of power to hurt perceived enemies.

But Sinema's statement was also the utterance of a politician, which makes you wonder just how much we should believe what she says. After all, September polling found her more popular (or less unpopular) among Arizona Republicans and independents than Democrats, suggesting that her future with the party was shaky, at best. Progressive Democratics planned a primary challenge against her in 2024, probably in the form of Phoenix Rep. Ruben Gallego. He, for one, tagged her exit from the party as pure opportunism.

"Senator Sinema is once again putting her own interests ahead of getting things done for Arizonans," he snarked after her announcement.

But not everybody sees Sinema as entirely driven by self-interest. Among Arizonans who know her, she has a reputation for sincerity, if not for deep commitment to specific principles.

"People accuse Kyrsten of being a political chameleon and an opportunist. I think she's an empath," Tom Jenney, an Arizona libertarian who has worked for groups like the Goldwater Institute and now calls himself a "recovering lobbyist and community organizer," tells me.

"She really likes people and wants to feel what they're feeling," Jenney says. "And, of course, she wants them to like her. When she was hanging out with college radicals and downtown types 15 years ago, and representing them in the state legislature, she channeled their leftie angst and anger and ideology. Now that she's representing the average Arizonan, and talking to a lot of centrists, she's channeling a lot of centrist sentiments. It's hard not to like Kyrsten, if you spend a few minutes with her. When I was with the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers, 15 years ago, we awarded her our Lenin Prize, for being the most socialistic legislator. It was a joke award, but she showed up at our luncheon and accepted the prize—wearing red. She talked with us and our activists and was very charming. She told us that government wasted a ton of money and that she loved the free market. In that moment, I believe that she believed that. At her core, she's not an ideologue. Certainly not a rigorous one."

Unburdened of her Democratic affiliation and party discipline, Sinema may feel even freer to chart a more moderate course and reject radical demands with the flare that has infuriated lefties in the past. That includes the "fuck off" ring she sported last year in response to progressive critics.

Or maybe not.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) confirmed that the senior Arizona senator will retain the committee assignments that she gained as a Democrat. Presumably, she offered some sort of assurances in return for keeping those posts; Senate Democrats must believe that, even as an independent, she'll give them value.

But how independent has Sinema been? Well, that depends on how you assess her time in Congress.

Kyrsten Sinema has supported President Biden on 93 percent of votes in the Senate, according to FiveThirtyEight. That's more than Sen. Joe Manchin's (D–W.Va.) 88 percent, and it's even more than the 91 percent tallied up by democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.).

But not every vote is the same. In ideological terms, UCLA's VoteView puts Sinema at "more conservative than 97 percent of the Democrats in the 117th Senate." Only Joe Manchin is more conservative among Democrats and independents (though there's a big gap between Republicans and Democrats).

Sinema may be calculating that she has a better chance of retaining office in the 2024 general election than in the primary of a party that's drifting to the left and openly rejecting her. Registered Republican voters outnumber Democrats in Arizona, as do independents. While Democrats just took the governor's office, they did so in the form of Katie Hobbs, a near-nonentity, barely triumphing by less than a percent over genuinely nutty Kari Lake. Democrats seem to have taken the attorney general's office from another wacky GOP candidate by 511 votes out of over 2.5 million cast—the equivalent of a coin toss.

"The fact of the matter is Arizona is not a purple state; it's a red state with purple spots," political consultant Paul Bentz told the Arizona Republic.

With little chance among left-leaning Democrats, and the state's Republican Party off the rails, Sinema may well have more of a political future as an independent following a relatively moderate path and appealing to voters looking for a bit less lunacy among political representatives.

But the greatest value Sinema's defection offers is the chaos it sows among the political class. America's major political parties, and their most loyal partisans, have become toxic and dangerous to our liberty. We should applaud anything that shakes their confidence and challenges their grip on power.