When a Party Censures
Julia Azari and Seth Masket sat down to talk about Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s recent censure by the Arizona Democratic Party and what it tells us about parties more generally. Stephen Breyer announced his retirement during this chat and they actually managed to work that in. That’s how good they are.
Seth Masket: Kyrsten Sinema was recently censured by the Arizona Democratic Party for her vote on the voting rights bill and the filibuster. What should we make of this censure? Is this normal?
Julia Azari: I guess I don't have strong feelings about what state parties should normatively do. I will say that when I speak with parties scholars based in other countries, there's often a lot of surprise about how little internal discipline our parties have. On the other hand, maybe censure should be reserved for wrongdoing rather than policy disagreement. But, it seems clear that the Democrats are trying to brand themselves around the voting rights issue, and also that I sort of have an impression that a lot of the same people who complained about the DNC controlling the nomination process now want the parties to enforce more discipline against Manchin and Sinema. Which seems to reflect the larger state of institutional trust - wanting institutions to do more, but also not trusting them very much.
SM: This is fair. Normatively, I do have a problem with this. A lot of folks were very critical of the Wyoming GOP censuring Liz Cheney for voting to impeach Trump. I don't think parties should make a habit of censuring their own nominees except in the case of ethical or legal transgressions. But obviously parties don't have to listen to me.
But you're right that the parties seem to be using censure to signal the central issue they care about. For the Republicans, it's the idea that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. For Democrats, it's support for voting rights.
JA: Why does the Sinema censure bother you so much normatively?
SM: Well, the main job of a party is to pick candidates to stand for election. They're usually pretty good at picking people who will advance the party's agenda. Once in a while, they make a bad pick. I feel like a) that's on them, b) censure is an alternative to actually remedying the situation. To be sure, there's not a ton the AZ Democratic Party can do right now if they don't want Sinema as their nominee in 2024, but they can certainly signal some support for an alternative candidate.
(When I say she's a "bad pick," I'm simply suggesting that the party could have gotten a lot more party-loyal behavior out of a different nominee without jeopardizing that person's reelection.)
JA: I guess I just don't have a strong procedural feeling about this. Like, we are so way past procedural commitments at this point - not coincidentally, maybe, that's part of what bugged people so much about Sinema's vote against suspending the filibuster for this bill.
Do you think the censure will signal things to other candidates, or mainly to the electorate about the party's priorities?
SM: Parties often act in somewhat more subtle ways if they're not happy with one of their nominees. Party leaders can recruit other people to run, or just say they have no objection if someone challenges her. But yes, this censure can at least signal to other Arizona Democrats that the party expects more party-line behavior. Some strong incumbents can resist that pressure, and lord knows Arizona has a history of that sort of thing, but it's a signal to candidates nonetheless. I'm less sure what it signals to voters.
JA: Probably nothing except to highly engaged voters.
SM: Right. And they have their preferences and they're going to show up for the primaries anyway.
JA: Yes. I guess we're just gonna have to disagree -- I think the censure is fine, if odd in the context of party history.
SM: There are a handful of state parties that issue pre-primary endorsements that can influence primary elections. Arizona's parties do not do this. So I suppose if they have preferences, they need to resort to somewhat more blunt instruments like the censure.
JA: Our second question, which we've already touched on, is "what can a party do in this situation?" It seems like you think the legitimate action resides in nomination politics - I guess I don't really get why still. But the other question, I think, is how the current threats play into this. Like should Democrats have a pro-democracy set of values that they expect candidates to uphold, extending to support for things like voting rights bills?
SM: I mean, I also don't think Republican voters should participate in Democratic primaries and vice versa, but suffice it to say most of the country is not with me on this. But on your second question...
JA: So you think parties should be discrete and flaccid?
SM: I would use different adjectives.
But yes, it seems reasonable for a party to have a set of principles and to signal to its candidates and incumbents that it expects them to work for those. Obviously there will be some range of opinions about just what the party's core principles are and how intensely those positions are held, but when there's a great deal of unanimity behind one principle, such as Democrats on voting rights right now, sure.
JA: Totally fair, because I'm being a complete troll, but I am now officially puzzled about your theory of party legitimacy. (3 papers, 2 book chapters, approximately 1,000 cowritten blog posts later. What else don't I know???)
SM: This is all reminding me of the old saw about the party leader telling a candidate that we have a gun, and if we nominate you, we're handing you the gun and you can turn it on us. (Source: Theodore H. White, “Kefauver Rides Again,” Colliers 1956.) Parties only have so many tools to discipline incumbents once they're in office.
JA: I don't mean principles in the abstract, though. This is party politics seminar stuff, c. 2004! I mean do Democrats have a special obligation right now to try to make sure pluralistic democracy survives? And does that give them sort of "emergency powers"?
SM: This seems reasonable! For one thing, Democrats essentially adopted this pro-democracy position in the 1960s and it was costly for them to do so. It's a good brand. For another, democracy is legitimately under threat right now, particularly following the 2020 election. I don't think it's a good thing to have the pro-democracy position be the central agenda item for just one party in a two-party system, but better one party doing this than zero. Also, it seems somewhat easier to rally partisans behind this position, rather than, say, pandemic response, environmental regulation, income redistribution, or other issues that have proven somewhat more internally divisive.
Not sure about the "emergency powers" thing. Also I'm not sure the censure is all that powerful.
JA: Right. I take your point that there are some costs to make this stuff partisan, but unfortunately I think Republicans have turned a corner on these issues. I would prefer to have two parties championing democracy - even marginally differing conceptions of it - but to me the options seem between 1 and 0 and the Democrats seem ... liable to pick the zero option
I do want to get to the question of what we think Sinema is doing, even though I don't... really know.
SM: Right. There are reports that she sees some path to the presidency through all this. To be sure, it's hardly news if a senator sees themself becoming president some day, but this path she's taking is not a well-worn one. I don't see how angering everyone in her own party is the path to advancement, and I also don't see her credibly switching parties. And good luck becoming an independent president.
JA: So I had too much time to think about this the other day while driving to work in the snow, and I have an abiding theory that there might be a Republican "rump" when the party nominates someone off the rails in 2024. Is Sinema thinking she'll be Mitt's VP for such a ticket in 2024?
SM: That is a serious long shot position, but I can't rule out that she believes this.
Also, her path to this point has been a strange one. I have data! According to Voteview, she's one of the most conservative Democrats, and she's held this position since she was first elected to the House:
But according to Shor & McCarty's roll call data, she was one of the most liberal Democrats in the Arizona statehouse while she was there (2005-2012). It seems like she's changed her approach, changed her beliefs, or changed what role she's positioning herself for. But I don't have a great sense of what's going on.
JA: I know this all sounds batshit and probably I won't even be allowed in the (zoom) room at the next party politics scholars meeting, but, like, party change and/or crossing has happened in times of crisis. There's all the fun stuff around the civil war, of course - the creation of the Republican Party, the worst crossover even in history in the 1864 ticket. Eisenhower also 1) actually was president and 2) kinda longed to dump Nixon for a moderate Democrat in 1956. These are all a long time ago. But it's not like unpredicted things never happen party politics.
SM: Right, that's true. And McCain did apparently consider Joe Lieberman as his VP, even though his party would not abide it.
JA: This is probably going to annoy everyone, but I see shades of Buttigieg's 2019 presidential bid in that too. He tried to position himself as a progressive, until the moderate late seemed more open. But it's possible she had a political change of heart, or that this reflects changing constituencies.
SM: In some ways, you can see Kamala Harris this way, too. She positioned herself as fairly conservative (for a Democrat) in her rise in California, but then pivoted leftward for the presidential run in 2020.
JA: The thing is, though, if she had decided to vote for the filibuster change, leaving Manchin in the position of being the sole no vote - maybe even pressuring him into changing that vote - Sinema probably would be on track to be in the 2024 ticket if Biden doesn't run.
SM: I agree. I think it actually would have helped her to draw out the drama and then ultimately say democracy is more important than Senate traditions.
JA: Right. And if you want to be president, you want to... appeal to your party.
On BBB, I'd been pretty sold on the theory that she has political financial relationships with various corporate interests who were opposed. But that doesn't explain Voting Rights.
SM: Right. Now, I suppose there's still plenty of time for her to signal support for her party on other key matters. (This could include supporting Breyer's replacement.) And maybe the filibuster defense ends up looking like a nod to more moderate voters and general electability. But my impression is that her vote last week loses more Democrats than it gains her independents, no less Republicans.
Like who really loves the filibuster, other than sitting senators?
JA: Yeah, I actually don't have a great sense of that. But probably no one.
I'm also enjoying the idea of a moderate third party ticket of a bisexual woman wearing "fuck off" rings + Mitt Romney.
SM: He did participate in a BLM rally, so he's definitely on this path...
JA: When you factor in that it's all white and Western, you actually have a pretty good picture of moderate populist anti-partyism.
SM: "Moderate populist anti-partyism" seems like a long way of pronouncing Arizona.
SM: But yes, that particular strain of populism is very white and Western.
JA: To the point at hand, I really have no idea where the electorate as a whole even is on any of this. It all seems below the radar, compared with inflation and covid, yet it's very central to creating a functional government that might have a chance at solving those problems.
SM: Sinema, her vote on voting rights, and the censure just have to be pretty low on most voters' list of worries right now. Democratic decline is somewhat more central, although probably not nearly enough considering the actual threats and the potential costs.
Well, I'm not sure if we've solved anything.
SM: Well I think we concluded that the censure may or may not be appropriate for a party to use, but if it is, this is probably the right issue to use it on?
JA: Yeah, maybe. I want to think more about this "parties and emergency powers" idea.
SM: Yes. Not to get all 19th century here (I know that's your gig), but it used to be way more common for parties to rotate their incumbents into other offices. I don't see that power returning any time soon, but this might be a time to exercise it?
Like if you're really angry at Sinema, make her be lieutenant governor for a while. That'll teach her.
JA: She has a JD from Arizona State. I hear there are some judicial openings...