Sinema’s Misunderstanding of the Senate (and of Basic Politics)

The post really isn't about Sinema as much as it about a theory of poltiics.

“Confused Democracy” by Steven Taylor is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Senator Kyrsten Sinema provided her views on the filibuster earlier this week:

Not to get all obscure, esoteric, and fancy, in assessing the clip, but as Luke Skywalker said in The Last Jedi, “Amazing. Every word of what you just said was wrong.”

For example, in the video clip she claims that the filibuster fosters bipartisanship, increases “comity,” stops policy from extreme shifts every two years, and “protects the democracy of our nation.”

Sinema is here relying on cliches and myths. As I noted recently, Framers like Hamilton and Madison argued that the essence of republicanism was majority rule. Further, the notion that super-majority requirements create comity and bipartisanship is simply not true. Indeed, as Adam Jentleson ably chronicles in Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy, the main history of the filibuster has been one of southern states using it to attempt to block civil rights legislation. More recently it has become a more generalized tool of obstruction. One thing is decidedly is not is a rule that promotes comity and bipartisanship.

It also is not what stops wild swings of policy every two-to-four years. First, there is the fact of bicameralism and separation of powers that slows radical policy shifts. Second, the notion that real representative democracy with majority rule in legislative bodies leads to wild and constant policy shifts is a myth in any event. Just look globally as systems where the pathways are easier than in the US and you won’t find these wild swings back and forth that minoritarian rule is allegedly saving us from.

But let’s assume that in some hypothetical world a majority of voters elected a majority of the Congress who then passed legislation that it ended up a majority of voters decided that they didn’t like. How is bad that that majority of voters could vote a new majority into power who would then change the law that a majority decided they didn’t like after all?

What, exactly, is wrong with that scenario? Sounds like responsive representative government to me.

(And yes, if policy did change radically every four years that would be bad, but that is a fantastical scenario not based in reality).

But that is just the preface to what was wrong with her statement. The part that really pops for a political scientist (especially one who studies institutions) is this (source from the story linked in the first tweet):

“The reality is that when you have a system that is not working effectively — and I would think that most would agree that the Senate is not a particularly well-oiled machine, right? The way to fix that is to fix your behavior, not to eliminate the rules or change the rules, but to change the behavior,” Sinema added.

This is monumentally wrong.

When a system is not working effectively you change or modify the system.

“You know, Bob, the waterwheel in our mill is not getting enough water flow to make it work effectively. What should we do?”

“Well, Mike, we could divert water more efficiently to create the flow needed to move the wheel, or we could just hope that the water changes its behavior for reasons.”

Or, to use her own metaphor, if the machine is not being adequately oiled, maybe the machine needs some repair to make sure the oil is getting where it needs to go. If the oil in my car’s engine is not going where it needs to go to make the machine run properly, I don’t just hope that spontaneous new behavior under the hood of my car will fix the problem.

Now, sure, human beings are not just sets of mechanical operations that can be altered to produce outcomes. But human beings very much respond to incentives. Politicians have goals and they seek to pursue those goals within the structures of the rules. Change the rules and you change behavior.

Another non-political example is sports. Pro sports, especially American football, change the rules all the time to produce different outcomes, whether in terms of preventing injuries or in producing certain kinds of gameplay.

None of this is to say that institutional structures and rules predetermine outcomes. I am not saying, for example, that different rules would cause Sinema (or Manchin or anyone else) to change their views nor would eliminating the filibuster guarantee specific policy outcomes. But, without a doubt, a majority-rule Senate would produce different outcomes as a general matter than does the currently minority-veto run chamber.

The study of rules and incentives is not new although it is linked in modern political science to the New Institutionalism that emerged in the early 1980s.* This approach went beyond looking at just the formal rules (the “old” institutionalism) to look at the way in which rules, structures, and other factors influence structures or choices for power-seeking actors.

In this conversation, and embedded in Sinema’s mini-discourse above, is a clear debate that spans the millennia over how politics works. Or, perhaps more specifically, what is the best way to get good political outcomes

When Sinema says things like “The way to fix that is to fix your behavior, not to eliminate the rules or change the rules, but to change the behavior” she is appealing to the notion that philosophers (and theologians, for that matter) have long longed for: better people. It is a call for more virtue. It is the hope that we could all just get together and “do the right thing” or produce “common sense solutions” or, above all else, “do the people’s business.”

But, of course, the problem is that we don’t agree on what the right thing is, not what constitutes common sense nor, really, what the people’s business is.

This is the fundamental core of politics and therefore of governing: you need a way to decide who gets to make the rules and that is where all the messiness emerges.

I would note that the nature of theocracy is that you get the best entity to govern: God! But the problem is that God Himself won’t deign to come down and govern, so it gets left to the priests. And pious as they are, they just can’t quite rule as well as the Big Guy, what with all the mucking about with textual interpretation and whatnot.

There is, of course, the possibility of a divinely ordained monarch, but that really doesn’t produce the net amount of goodness that one might like to actually have, or so history has shown.

We could let the best and most excellent to govern (you know, the aristos and their aristocracy), but whether that means to you allowing the philosophers or just folks from the best families, this really never works out.

Perhaps the vanguard of the party could solve all our woes?

If only people would behave better, amiright?

It almost like some dude said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

As it turns out, human beings are not heavenly beings bound by the divine to act with excellence. This leaves us with the notion that since we cannot rely on the virtue of the best to produce good outcomes, we have to lean substantially on the design of government (i.e., the rules and institutions that shape how power can and cannot be used).

Indeed, to continue Madison’s quote from above (in Fed 51):

If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. 

The notion of “external and internal controls” over government are direct consequence of the fact that we can’t just rely on really good human beings (or, for that matter, angels) to simple “do the right thing.” So, government has to be constructed in a way to shape behavior (the internal controls) and those who govern need to be beholden to other (the external). In this case in Fed 51 Madison is arguing for the role of separation of powers and checks and balances (the internal controls) as well as the republican principle of representation via elections.

Indeed, while it is true that the Federalist Papers were written as political propaganda to persuade New Yorkers to support the new constitution, they nonetheless have some very solid political theory backing many of their arguments. So, I often come back to them not because they are some Rosetta Stone to help us translate the Will of the FoundersTM but because they had some genuine political insights (and because referencing them often undercuts crude originalist arguments). Indeed, I would argue (as have others**) that the core theories of the Federalist Papers were a sort of proto-new institutionalism

As Hamilton wrote in Fed 1:

It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. 

This is a statement that suggests governments can be purposefully designed to produce good governance. Of course, inherent in such a notion is that that design needs tweaking over time. Most of human history is one about force producing governance. And, in my view, just hoping for people to do the right thing (or for behavior to spontaneously change) is to hope for government by “accident” in Hamilton’s formulation.

And, of course, the notion of “establishing good government from reflection and choice” means designing the rules in a way to produce outcomes superior to what “accident or force” might produce.

I am not suggesting that good rules make bad people good nor that good rules always produce good outcomes. I am pointing out that given the constraints of human beings that the best we can hope for is to create governing structures that diminish the ability of bad outcomes and that incentivize responsible behavior.

If we assume, for example, that power-seekers want to have power, linking that power to pleasing large numbers of people via elections is a better, albeit highly imperfect, way of controlling their behavior than simply hoping that they will do the right thing once in office.

To bring this into some specific issue let me note that the reason I harp on the problems of the primary system is that the incentives for power-seekers under that system are not to maximize the number of people who must be pleased so that the power-seeker can retain power. No, the primary system incentivizes appealing to narrow constituencies to receive the nomination, and then because so many districts are not competitive, there is no need to cast a broader appeal to please more voters neither in the general election nor once in office.

To put all of this in a nutshell: contra the dreams of Senator Sinema, politicians do not spontaneously change their behavior, but rather they, like other humans, respond to stimuli as related to their goals.

To conclude, I end up favoring majority-based, representative democracy not because it is perfect nor because it results, automatically in good governance (it can, in fact, go horribly wrong). However, in the panoply of human existence, reliance on mass voting, especially within structure that builds in protections for basic rights, has far and away the best record of all the governmental types that humans have tried to make work over the centuries.

And, fundamentally, if we want better behavior out of politicians we need better rules.

*For some background March and Olsen’s 2011 entry in the Oxford Handbook of Political Science: Elaborating the “New Institutionalism”.

**For example, see the edited volume by Grofman and Wittman (1989). The Federalist Papers and the New Institutionalism.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Democratic Theory, Federalist Papers, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    Sinema’s comment sounds like something my younger self might have said. She doesn’t have the excuse of being 20 years old, though.

  2. Scott F. says:

    …The way to fix that is to fix your behavior, not to eliminate the rules or change the rules, but to change the behavior,” Sinema added…

    …as she stood next to John Cornyn, a Republican Senator from Texas who voted against the January 6th commission and who is a close ally of Mitch McConnell. Sinema, of course, did not elaborate on her robust plan to change poor behavior.

    I almost think the senior Senator from Arizona isn‘t the least bit interested in comity or establishing good government.

  3. Kathy says:

    You’d think anyone serving as little as half an hour in the Senate, would understand the idealistic view of the workings of the Senate bears little resemblance to reality

  4. Gustopher says:

    You may be measuring comity differently than she does.

    Democrats need her vote, so they have to treat her with some level of respect. Republicans like her being opposed to the filibuster, so they will treat her with respect.

    Comity! And Bipartisanship!

    I don’t understand why someone would go through the hassle of getting elected to just do nothing though. Say what you will about McConnell (destructive turtle creature harming America), but he gets shit done. Bad shot, mostly (cut taxes, approve judges, protect status quo).

    Democrats need to identify Sinema’s and Manchin’s pet issues, push bills for them to the senate floor and watch them die by filibuster, over and over.

  5. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: Apart from bills granting specific benefits (whatever they might consider benefits to be) to Sinema and Manchin, what would represent pet issues for either of them? Serious question. I don’t see either one of them as people who ran for office to do anything other than hold the office so that someone else can’t have it.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    Sinema’s goal, like Manchin’s and every other pol’s is her reelection. Like Manchin, but with less reason, she thinks her electorate want to preserve the filibuster. Both throw out barking nonsense to support their positions. But Manchin’s an experienced pro. He manages to sound reasonable if you don’t pay much attention. Does Sinema think her constituents want to reelect an amateur and an idiot.

  7. Stormy Dragon says:


    The “worrying about reelection” story doesn’t hold water when Mark Kelly doesn’t seem to have similar issues yet is polling +12 over Sinema.

  8. Sinema is a Democrat in a purple state. She won election in a relatively close margin. It seems obvious why she’s taking the position she is on the filibuster and other issues.

  9. Paine says:

    Kingdaddy’s analogy of the constitution to board game design is a good one. If some designer responded to a proven flaw in their mechanics by encouraging players to “change their behavior” to play around the flaw, he would be laughed out of the industry.

    The Senate is flawed in a lot of ways, including the filibuster. You can’t expect the players at the table to “play friendly” with so much at stake.

  10. Kurtz says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    It seems obvious. But she doesn’t face re-election until 2024. As @Stormy Dragon points out, Kelly doesn’t seem to be taking those positions. And his race is next year. And he has a much higher approval spread.

    Of course, there is more to consider. Sinema will have to win re-election during a Presidential race. She is a woman and LGBTQIA+. She is also taking a lot of criticism from her own party.

    But her calculus may be that she doesn’t need to worry too much about enthusiasm, because she will be on the ballot with the Dem candidate for President. In contrast, Kelly likely won’t be able to maintain his seat with a lukewarm reputation within his own party.

  11. PT says:

    This is excellent. Thanks, great post

  12. @Doug Mataconis: I am honestly not convinced this is a good explanation for her behavior (as other have noted). Beyond that, even if electoral math is on her mind, it doesn’t make her statement to be accurate in the least.

    TBH, I am not sure what her goals are. When she was elected I was very much in support of her non-conventional nature (given how staid and ossified the Senate is) but over time she feels a bit like a performative rebel without a cause.

    I can accept the purple state explanation for her minimum wage vote (although she seemed to relish that vote a bit too much).

    But, for example, I can find no electoral or political calculus to explain things like this. It feels more like social media performance art for its own sake than anything else.

  13. KM says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It feels more like social media performance art for its own sake than anything else.

    That’s because it is. She’s doing for the attention and is posing as the “Laugh Live Love” Cool Wine Aunt Senator. We don’t need to reform the system – we need to reform ourselves. Why Marie Kando the Senate when we can just remind our coworkers to change their behavior instead? If we could just stop being terrible to each other, the process would work just fine and nobody would have to do anything so crass as to have to take a stand on a continuous political issue! Empty platitudes and meaningless deep-sounding nonsense for all!

    The elephant in the room is of course the Elephant in the room – the GOP not wanting to “be best”. It takes two to tango. What do you do when the bully doesn’t want to shake hands and be friends but rather keep beating your face in? Even Gandhi admitted his tactics only worked because the British could be shamed into better behavior; if your enemy will not be mortified or embarrassed by this kind of chiding, you need to give up on the fantasy. Sinema knows this but would rather repeat the equivalent of “thoughts and prayers” because it makes her look like she’s taking the moral high ground. She’s in it for the ‘Gram, @Steven – that’s what gets the money nowadays.

  14. @KM:

    She’s in it for the ‘Gram,

    This is precisely what it feels like.

  15. Ken_L says:

    Sinema’s wilful refusal to face up to hard choices reminds me of so many managers I’ve dealt with who saw every industrial relations dispute as one that could be avoided in future if only workers could be educated to understand that “growing the pie was better than arguing about the size of the slice”. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, she has to work with the senators she has, not the senators she wishes she had.

    The problem for Democrats is she strikes me as a person who will simply become more obstinate in sticking to her position the more it is criticized, to the extent even of sullenly declaring she’s leaving the party to sit as an “independent centrist”. Their best hope, perhaps a slender one, is that they get a Senate majority in the mid-terms, and primary her into well-deserved oblivion in ’24.

  16. Gustopher says:

    @Ken_L: Mark Kelly polls better than her. I think we can primary her out from the moderate-left with minimal risk.

    If we had someone credible exploring that race, it might make a difference now. Does she want Biden’s quiet endorsement in the primary, or a tacit nod to her challenger? There are other Democrats less bound by tradition to not endorse in a primary (that’s a general rule with Presidents, right? Hard to remember what norms were before Trump shat all over them) who can make a more explicit threat.

    Manchin is harder, since West Virginia is what it is.

  17. James Joyner says:

    As brilliant as the Federalist authors were, it’s amazing how huge their blind spots were. In the above-cited Fed 51, and in the most famous of the Papers, Fed 10, Madison spent an inordinate amount of time explaining that checks and balances (combined with federalism) would be a way to control factions yet never anticipated the already nascent rise of political parties. Near lockstep partisanship pretty much gums up this system—especially if we pile extra-Constitutional measures like the filibuster on top.

  18. @James Joyner: Indeed.

    I would note, however, that I quote them here in terms of broader theoretical claims made, not for their defenses of the system they deployed (and would note that while sep of power is often referred to as “Madisonian” what Madison was defending in Fed 51 was not the system, he had designed).

    And while it is quite clear that they did not understand parties, it is worth noting that Madison’s theory of factions would be closer to reality if we have multi-party democracy and not the rigid bipartism we are stuck with.

  19. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    yet never anticipated the already nascent rise of political parties

    While this is a common sentiment, it really soft peddles the failure here by making it sound like political parties were an unanticipated future development when the UK had modern political parties for nearly a century at the time the US Constitution was written.

  20. @Stormy Dragon:

    modern political parties

    I would consider that an inaccurate statement.

    Granted, it depends on what the word “modern” means in context, but the British government was still very much a create of the Crown under the period under examination and therefore part behavior was not modern. Nor, were British elections during that time period.

    Modern parties, I would argue, don’t really start to emerge until mass democracy starts to form in the earlier, but not super early, 1800s. The UK was not a democracy in 18th Century.

    (I will confess that my detailed knowledge of British politics from, ay 1688 to 1787 is limited, so I may be missing something–but while the notion of “party” was known to the Framers, they simply did not understand how they would form and function in mass democracy).

  21. Christ Marshall says:

    Excellent dissection of the annoyingly odious “maverick” Kyrsten Sinema

  22. Chris Marshall says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Performative rebel without a cause indeed — other than the one of getting lots of attention as a quirky maverick and savvy Kool Kid.

  23. Jim Brown 32 says:

    I also think the place the Senate finds itself in is illustrative of how lack of Diversity (in this case Diversity of trade) can force an institution into ineptitude and irrelevancy. The Senate–indeed Congress–is dominated by the legal profession. I find that to be a problem.

    This audience is sensitive to the military not being beholden to the military thought and biases by having civilian leadership as a firewall to group think. Which is smart policy. But they are completely blind that a law making body probably shouldn’t be beholden to legal thought as well.

    This goes back to the age old question Jesus posed to the Pharisees and Sadducees– if the Sabbath was made to serve Man–or if Man were made to serve the Sabbath. Guess which theory the legal experts chose?

    I can image that lawyers see problems in terms of the technicalities of their trade much like military people view problems in terms of the the art and science of war. What Sinema and others don’t understand is that a Congress that is not responsive damages faith and confidence in Democracy domestically and breeds cynicism that the current run of foolishness needs in order to proliferate. Its the same thing going on in the Supreme Court.

    You don’t need legal experts to dominate these politics–you need leaders who have legal experts on their staffs to provide the technical expertise in law to achieve endstates set by the leader which improve society.

  24. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 and the subsequent Bill of Rights of 1689 had established parliamentary supremacy and while universal sufferage was not a thing, they provided for free election of the House of Commons.

    By the Act of Settlement in 1701, both the Whigs and the Tories existed as organizations. Indeed, it could be argued that the government of the UK switching from one controlled by the Whigs to the Tories in 1760 (and the resulting end to the Whig policy of benign neglect toward the colonies) is what ended up leading the the American Revolution.

  25. @Stormy Dragon: I am not disputing the existence of the Whigs and the Tories. I am disputing that what existed at that time constitutes a “modern party system.”

  26. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    We the “modern party” enough that it should have been obvious that parties were going to be an issue for the constitutional system in the US?

  27. @Stormy Dragon: I have a longer, more nuanced answer, but I think that basic answer is no.