Money plays an obscenely large role in American politics. It is not unusual for politicians with a reforming agenda to get elected to Congress and then get seduced by the big money interests that lobby heavily in Washington. Kyrsten Sinema, the Democratic senator from Arizona, perhaps holds the record for the speed with which she abandoned the policies that appealed to the people who elected her and became a tool of the plutocrats and corporations. She was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2012 as a progressive and then was elected to the senate in 2018 and it was hoped that she would help wrest control of that reactionary body from the Republicans. But it has become increasingly clear during the recent discussions on the infrastructure bills that she has abandoned any progressive agenda that she might have once had. I recounted her political transformation back in March.
Ryan Grim follows the money and says that the patterns of fundraising by politicians shows that Sinema is living in a world that has moved on and that she is increasingly out of step with it. He begins by tracing how Democrats reacted to being outspent on TV advertising by Republicans in the 1980 elections. That election shook them up and they quickly started chasing big money interests because before it, Democrats had thought that TV advertising was a waste of money.
When that turned out not to be the case, Democrats realized that they needed comparable money of their own, and the fundraising idea was that since Democrats still had durable control of the House of Representatives — they could cling to it for 14 years after Reagan’s 1980 election — businesses that had interests before Congress needed to start ponying up for access.
Access quickly turned to alliance, and the party drifted heavily in a pro-business direction. These “New Democrats” argued that the party had to beat back the power of special interests — and by special interests, they meant civil rights advocates, environmentalists, and labor unions. The presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson in 1988 pushed back against this hegemonic approach, but without a way to aggregate grassroots enthusiasm into the money needed for a national infrastructure, the threat was neutralized. Starting with Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential race, it finally started to look possible that a candidate funded by a large number of small, individual donations could compete with one funded by the rich and corporations. Technology was making it possible for people to quickly translate their enthusiasm not just into a honk and wave on a highway overpass, but also into actual money.
Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama showed the promise of small dollars in 2008, but he also raised an insane amount of money from Wall Street — and, once in office, he abandoned the network of small donors he had built and went with the big money. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., nearly toppled the Clinton machine with his famous $27 contributions. In 2018, the small-donor revolution spread to normie Democrats, with anti-Trump, #Resistance liberals throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at congressional Democrats, enabling them to retake the House. In 2020, small donors did it again, and the resource-rich Democrats took both the House and Senate.
Grim says that even senate majority leader Chuck Schumer has noticed how small money donors have been key to giving him the senate majority, which is why he is no longer as slavishly servile to Wall Street (he is known as ‘Wall Street Chuck’) as he once was. But Sinema is still working on the old model and it may cost her. Joe Manchin who is pursuing a similar agenda to Sinema is protected from a progressive challenge because he is from a state that Trump won by 40 points. But Arizona is different. Trump lost there and Sinema’s fellow Democratic senator from that state Mark Kelly has had no trouble supporting progressive policies.
She and Manchin are both up for re-election in 2024 but Sinema is the one who could be in real trouble. The 2022 mid-term elections will be what people will be watching to see what the electoral trend is.
Trevor Noah walks us through Sinema’s rapid transformation in views.