The decision by a group of Arizona activists to follow Sen. Kyrsten Sinema into a bathroom and confront her over her obstruction of the Democrats’ social spending bill has drawn a predictable wave of criticism, including from Sinema herself.
The video—which was filmed at Arizona State University, where Sinema teaches a class—is somewhat uncomfortable to watch, because bathrooms are intimate spaces, and Sinema’s retreat into the stall makes things more intimate still. If you or I were followed into a bathroom like this, we would no doubt think that a line of decency had been crossed, and we wouldn’t really be wrong. The protesters, who are members of the Arizona activist group LUCHA, were acting outside the bounds of propriety by following Sinema into the bathroom, and they surely knew it, which is why the video has caused such a stir.
But the people recoiling at the protesters should perhaps ask themselves why it is socially acceptable for Kyrsten Sinema to deny workers a higher minimum wage; stand in the way of people trying to preserve the right to vote; and threaten a bill that would, among other things, keep millions of children from starving, but beyond the pale for a few people to make her uncomfortable about these things for a minute or so.
One of the most enduring narratives about America is that it is a country where The People Decide, where politicians are “hired” by their employers, the citizenry, where our elected representatives are responsive to our wishes.
But that is obviously not the case. In real life, Kyrsten Sinema makes herself frequently accessible to wealthy corporate donors (she even left the negotiations over the reconciliation bill so that she could fly back to Arizona to schmooze with people bankrolling her campaign) and all but ignores the people she was elected to represent. She tells her detractors to “fuck off” while fiercely resisting any attempts at scrutiny by either the press or her constituents (a June New York Times article noted that she “rarely appears at unscripted events or takes questions from reporters.”) She personally helps consign millions to poverty pay with a cheerful thumbs down, and then sends the message that she won’t be explaining her decision. And this is all considered just fine in polite society. A politician causing harm behind closed doors away from all public accountability is just how it goes—it’s when you get an ultra-rare opportunity to confront that person about the harm they’re causing that a line gets crossed.
Mainstream pundits were quick to say that they thought protest was fine, just not this type of protest. “There is a time and a place for these sorts of confrontations,” CNN’s Chris Cillizza (and I can’t believe I am having to take his thoughts seriously right now) wrote on Monday. “And Sinema, as an elected official, needs to be ready, willing and able to deal with those who want to not only oppose her policy decisions but also to do so in a public way.” Great! What is the time and place, then? The town halls she won’t give? The meetings she won’t have? Should the activists pay thousands of dollars just so that Sinema will return their phone calls?
These people were not saying anything particularly radical or controversial. They were asking Sinema to back the Democratic Party’s social spending bill—which has already been weakened and is about to be weakened a whole lot more—and demanding a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people. It’s not exactly “abolish the police” or “end aid to Israel” or even “socialism now.” But our standards of real scrutiny are so minimal that asking a public official to explain themselves even once is out of bounds. The real question we should be asking is not whether it was a bad idea to go after Kyrsten Sinema in a bathroom. It’s why Sinema has so degraded her office that the people she supposedly works for have been forced into stunts like this just so that she pays attention to someone besides a rich person giving her money.