Talking Points

The unpersuasive intimidation of Kyrsten Sinema

Here's a question for the activists who followed Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) into a university bathroom at Arizona State University over the weekend: What did you think you'd accomplish? 

Video of the encounter quickly went viral. It showed young progressives standing outside Sinema's closed bathroom stall, pleading with her to support lefty priorities like President Biden's "Build Back Better" bill and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants. All the while, other women passed in and out of frame, presumably using the facilities for their intended purpose.

It might be tempting to laud the activists. The Arizona senator is one of the most frustrating figures in Democratic politics right now, as it's significantly her fault the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill remains in limbo. But the demonstration was unproductive, if changing Sinema's mind (and vote) was the goal: "Yesterday's behavior was not legitimate protest," she said Monday in a tweeted statement.

This is not a call for civility. Many progressives have made clear their contempt for good manners in politics, deeming them a wrongheaded accommodation of white supremacy and other malign forces. So, fine, forget about niceness. But what about persuasion?

Democrats will need Sinema's vote to pass any of their preferred legislation. They have no other choice. A 50-50 split Senate leaves zero margin for error. That means progressives will have to coax her to come along, probably using both carrots and sticks. But not all sticks are equally persuasive. The Arizona protestors were most effective when they told Sinema they could work against her re-election. Entering a public official's private sphere — following Sinema into the bathroom, yes, or demonstrating outside a Supreme Court justice's home — is much less likely to work. Such tactics run the risk of alienating those officials as well as members of the broader public who sympathize with lefty causes but are averse to intimidation.

We still live in a democracy. Persuasion still matters, even if it's becoming a lost art. Sinema's vote matters. The Arizona activists might have attracted a lot of attention with their bathroom stunt, but they didn't convince the senator or (probably) anybody else to take their side. Instead, they came across as rude and intimidating. If they had a chance of persuading Sinema, they probably flushed it down the toilet.