Mysteries of the Democrats II: Three Tiers

When people think of American political parties, they usually think of the big names–Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Mitch McConnell, and less so Ronna Romney McDaniel as the chair of the Republican National Committee and Jaime Harrison the chair of the Democratic National Committee.

But it’s really more encompassing than that.

When I taught poli sci (1987-2010), I portrayed the Democratic Party in terms of office holders, the national and state party apparatus, the various civil rights, women’s, immigrant, climate, and LGBT activist groups, relevant corporate entities, AND Democratic voters. Given Dem control of the White House and majorities in the House and the Senate, the “Democratic Party” is now top heavy with President Biden, the White House staff, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer at the summit of party leadership.

That’s not a criticism. The Democrats have suffered setbacks but the Biden administration and Congressional leadership have provided expansive, aggressive, and patient leadership. Unlike the Obama administration, top-level Democrats have not let their daily agenda be set by Fox News and Republican critics, refrained from offering compromises before elaborating their original position, and haven’t been boxed in by Mitch McConnell. The only real criticism I have of the top leadership is that they’re not taking the initiative in the propaganda wars with the right-wing apparatus. It’s a bad mistake but still doesn’t negate all the ways they’ve exceeded expectations.

The effectiveness of top-level Democrats has been under-estimated, but the virtues of the Dem voting base are almost completely ignored. No one in the media is visiting diners, entrances to work places, or meetings of Democrats to find out why they’re voting for Democrats rather than Republicans. I haven’t seen anything on Democratic voters resembling Tim Alberta’s 2020 essays on white conservatives in Michigan. Why is that? Unlike the GOP, the Democrats are an extremely diverse coalition. The Democratic vote is about 60% white but white Democrats are divided between Sanders-oriented progressives and a civil rights-oriented/center-left that’s allied with 90% of black voters and large majorities of LGBT, Hispanic, Asian-American, Muslim, and Jewish voters. The Democratic Party also has a strong set of activist LGBT, women’s, abortion rights, climate, immigration, human rights, Native American and civil rights groups that are in continual engagement with their own constituencies, Democratic members of Congress, and the Biden administration. The women’s group EMILY’s List recently made news by withdrawing support from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema over her refusal to support filibuster reform. Of course, the influence of activist groups can increase or decrease over time. As a result of the difficulties of addressing immigration issues, immigration activists have lost influence compared to Biden administration “moderates.” But that could change again in the future.

What holds such a diverse coalition together? Without information or well-informed commentary, we might never know. The media and many Democratic consultants still view Democratic voters through the progressive vs moderate dichotomy of 2016, but the dominant faction of the Democratic Party is to the left of Barack Obama and much less invested in the kind of big structural change advocated by the Sanders faction. The Democrats are also much more of a voter driven party than the media or Democratic politicians are willing to acknowledge. The 2020 Democratic strategy of nominating Joe Biden for president and appealing from a minority base to college-educated suburban voters was worked out first by the black voters who formed Biden’s voting base and put him in the lead throughout the nominating process. It not only worked in 2020 but will be the core of Biden’s re-election campaign in 2024.

Another side of Democratic voters is that they’re rejecting bullshit, specifically Kyrsten Sinema’s bullshit.

That’s definitely what Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is learning. Campaigning as much as an independent as a Democrat when she won her Senate seat in 2018, she’s now being massively rejected by Democratic voters in Arizona as she jerks around the Biden administration and widely supported Democratic Party priorities. Even at the peak of her Democratic approval in Oct. 2020, Sinema’s partisan support was pretty weak at only 70% and started slipping even before it was cut in half by her self-dramatizing March 5 vote against raising the minimum wage. What’s interesting here is that Arizona Democrats weren’t cutting her any “moderate” slack as soon as Sinema indicated her complete “independence” from them. Democratic voters believe in raising the minimum wage and if Sinema wasn’t going to flaunt her opposition, half of them were going to stop supporting her right off the bat.

Sinema’s remaining 30% support also proved to be soft and her support fell once again to around 20% when she missed the vote for the Jan. 6 Commission. Polling on Sinema has been sporadic as her numbers have fallen and I haven’t seen any interviews of Democratic voters concerning her declining support. But it was clear by late May 2021 that Arizona Democrats had little good will for Sinema and were becoming intolerant of her refusal to support a Democratic Party agenda which was also their agenda. It didn’t particularly matter that the polling didn’t break down Sinema’s support along ideological, racial, ethnic, or regional lines. Opposition to Sinema was almost complete as her disapproval number rose to 70 and her approval sunk to 20% and would become yet more of a consensus as her disapproval rose to 80% after she helped scuttle Democratic legislation on voting rights.

A graph showing Kyrsten Sinema's favorability rating over time among Arizona Democrats.

Democratic voters helped initiate the winning strategy in the 2020 election and have been supporting the Biden agenda even as the administration struggled to get any of it through Congress. As Arizona Democrats kill the career of Kyrsten Sinema, they’re showing the decisive role that Democratic voters play in the party.

Sinema’s Blue Dog Moment, or How Sinema’s being “Liebermaned”

There was a report this week by The Hill on a poll where 72% of Arizona Dems prefer a Democrat other than Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in the 2024 Arizona Senate election. Plus, Arizona Dems prefer AZ Democrats Ruben Gallego, Greg Stanton, and Kathy Hoffman over Sinema by 20 points or more in test polls. I haven’t been to Arizona since 1979 but I’m not sure Sinema would even beat me in a poll of Arizona Dems.

Kyrsten Sinema is at the center of the political whirlwind. Senate Republicans show her a lot of love, pray for her , and try to recruit her to the Republican Party. But at best she’s “warily tolerated” by the White House and Senate Democrats, subject to hostile examination from the Democratic-oriented media, and mostly reviled by Democratic voters. Sinema’s quirky fashion presentation also received a detailed and not at all sympathetic examination by Tressie Cottom in the New York Trimes. Given that Biden absolutely needs Sinema’s “yes” vote to pass anything in a 50-50 Senate, the Arizona senator used to have all the leverage. But the anger and disgust of Arizona Democratic voters has created a situation in which Sinema needs Biden and Senate Democratic support if she wants to be re-elected and that takes away her advantage.

But Sen. Sinema is not just a major player in Biden administration theater. She’s also has a role in the decline of the “center” in American politics. It’s such a familiar story that it’s now part of U.S. political mythology. There used to be moderates like Olympia Snowe, Arlen Specter and Joe Lieberman who could cross party lines to vote, negotiate, work out, and maybe go out for a few drinks later. But that’s almost entirely gone now. There were 59 conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House of Representatives in 2009 but only 14 in the current caucus. Blue Dog Democrats were easy targets for Republican attacks during the Tea Party wave of 2010 and have generally proved ineffective against prominent conservatives outside the Democratic wave of 2018.

At the same time, conservative leaning Democrats have also been subject to being cancelled by the Democratic base with the most famous case being Joe Lieberman, the Democratic Senator from Connecticut and 2000 vice-presidential candidate whose steadfast support for the failed war in Iraq. invasion led to his being defeated in the 2006 Democratic Senate primary. Lieberman won re-election as an independent but has been in bitter exile from the Democratic mainstream ever since and sought to undermine both President Obama’s and President Biden’s domestic agenda.

Kyrsten Sinema was first elected as a Blue Dog Democrat to the House in 2012 and climbed up to the Senate stressing her independence from national Democrats and pledging to vote against Chuck Schumer for Democratic leader in 2018. As a senator, Sinema quickly became friendly with the Republicans who were most noxious to Democrat like Ted Cruz. To the contrary, Sinema has been hostile to Senate Democratic leadership and condescending to Arizona’s Democratic voters. She’s also been a thorn in the side of the Biden administration and Democratic Congressional leaders, peremptorily refusing to support the original 3.5 trillion Build Back Better proposal, making calls to submarine Build Back Better in the House, and becoming a vehicle for lobbyist demands as negotiations continued. Sinema’s refusal to support eliminating the filibuster has been so important to Senate Republicans that they even delayed triggering a debt payment crisis for her sake.

But what Kyrsten Sinema doesn’t seem to understand is that Democratic voters have become more partisan over the last 15 years and resent her ostentatious affinity for Republicans just as much as Connecticut Democrats resented Joe Lieberman in 2006. If current trends continue, Sinema will be “Liebermaned” by Democratic primary voters and out of the U.S. Senate in 2024.