This week has seen a flurry of contradictory editorials responding to the choice and repercussions of Kyrsten Sinema’s shedding of the label of the Democratic Party.
There are those who claim that Sinema’s defection are at once “brave” in that they weaken the system of party control, in defiance of party polarization, embracing ethereal bipartisan compromise, despite the definition of the term “bipartisan” dependent on the maintenance of a two-party duopoly.
There is a clear logical contradiction between tacitly supporting both a bipartisan duopoly and at the same time opposing the negative polarization that is a natural outgrowth of such a structure.
Still, there are others though who criticized Sinema over her reactionary opposition to party order.
Both argue that the end goal is “problem solving” through “bipartisanship,” but both streams of thinking have come to opposite means for attaining it. Is a system with two strong parties integral for an ordered political system, or does weakened parties with frequent defection in the name of compromise bring about this aim?
A party indeed can have the power to enforce order, to whip votes, and to soften the ideological edges of its platform, but this is most true when a party has fundamentally undemocratic elements, such as for the Democratic Party in the United States. The Democratic Party’s primary structure for the presidential nomination includes a 20% add-on superdelegate system, including party elites unbound to voter preferences, who even post-reform have the power to cast decisive votes in second-round voting of contested primaries. Besides this, much of the wrangling for funding and then powerful post-election committee placements are controlled by a small number of party higher-ups and are entirely removed from public input.
Such a hierarchical system is what encouraged early drop-outs in the 2020 primary process coalescing between the heir-apparent Biden, it is what encourages moderation for congressional and gubernatorial candidates if they hope to receive national support, and it is the reason why the Democratic Party has for the past two decades produced candidates who largely have supported the status quo policy platform, at the expense of constituent congruence on a whole raft of issues.
This has not meant that the Democratic Party has moved to the left or right in terms of policy aims, but instead towards the repetitively backing the low-profile and uncontroversial legislation supported by its elite power and funding base, inexplicably polarizing infrastructure spending and tax cuts, to the exclusion of everything else.
Whether or not this tendency towards the positions of party-elites encourages “moderation” or “bipartisanship” is a different question altogether, which brings the question over the definition of the goal:
If compromise legislation essentially constitutes adherence to the economic status quo at all costs by excluding any major policy shifts, then there is indeed an overlap between “compromise” and elite maintenance of power. However, this is also a recipe for long-term stagnation and ultimately national decline, not stability or stalwart governance. This is simply because allowing only the elites at the helms of both parties to set policy agendas mean that any policy issues that either escape elite notice, or could threaten existing power structures, will inevitably go unresolved.
The Republican Party, because of its more general openness, and its increasing dependence on parochial single-issue constituencies is a totally different animal. In 2016, it was more raucous, and perhaps more ideologically diverse at the upper tiers of power than was the Democratic Party, leading to the leadership of a twice-divorced coastal elite and actor ironically leading a party that is largely supported by the rural and religious. Due to an accident in history and a trend towards support for so called “delegative democracy” in the hands of charismatic strongmen, it is now largely controlled by a single person, with frequent and unpredictable policy shifts, and ad-hoc rationalizations that are to be unquestionably accepted as a token for admission to the party. One consequence of this has been heuristic opposition towards anyone and everything not inclusive to the current Trump agenda, and therefore gross obstructionism. The only legislation that has been pushed forward has in fact been generally the same party agenda as Democrats, tax cuts and infrastructure spending.
Whether powerful consolidated parties, or weak fragmented parties are better at legislating is a relative question, depending on the society, the system, and the polity, but also dependent on whether the goal of legislating is simply quantified by the raw number of bills passed, or rather the passage of meaningful legislation that addresses societal woes.
If “get[ting] things done” means simply keeping taxes low and bridges from crumbling, but never passing any functional responses to the myriad changes and challenges that face the world, then perhaps the goal is ill-defined.
Alternatively, even if bipartisanship means effectively responding to our problems, perhaps the two-party duopoly whose cultural embeddedness has become tied in with a raft of intractable cultural links, links which encourage people to repeatedly vote for representatives who oppose their own personal interests, is instead what should be challenged.
A shift away from a duopoly, paired with a breakdown of the social and cultural connections to parties that have neutral policy preferences towards a more representative structure, might force legislators to adhere to constituent preferences, or otherwise face replacement, as opposed to spending decades lording over gerrymandered safe seats while accomplishing nothing.
The truth is that Sinema is an opportunistic ladder climber, who likely made the decision to break with the party in order to avoid a primary challenge in 2024. Knowing that running a Democratic challenger in Arizona will split the ticket for blue voters, she is playing chicken with the state party hoping that they will avoid running a competitor. The reality is that she is so unpopular amongst state voters that even without a challenger, lukewarm independents will not be enough to save her from her own unpopularity after alienating virtually the entire voting spectrum. Barring a change in fortunes, she will inevitably lose in 2024 should she dare to stand for reelection.
Her move was neither brave, nor meaningful in any way, it was just a continuation of her desperate attention-seeking behavior.
More to the point, she is a symptom of a deeply dysfunctional political oligopoly that few are inclined to reform. After all, why would the powerful elected officials in the world chip away at the very power structure in which they are so deeply embedded?
A solution: https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/ranked-choice-voting.aspx