Kyrsten Sinema’s courage, Washington hypocrisy and the politics of rage
In Shakespeare’s “Othello,” the character Iago famously declared that “men in rage strike those that wish them best.” It was a warning that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) now understands all too well. Both Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) have refused to be bullied into changing the filibuster rule — a rule that forces the parties into dialogue and compromise.
Sinema supports the voting rights legislation but sees this move as endangering any chance of national healing and resolution. She stated on the Senate floor that “we have but one democracy. We can only survive, we can only keep her, if we do so together.” That deeply felt speech was met with vile, threatening attacks. It appears that, in a nation addicted to rage, even those seeking an intervention can become the casualties of our political distemper.
Sinema offered the same arguments long used to support the filibuster — indeed, the same arguments made by President Biden until this week. Biden once called earlier efforts to change the filibuster “disastrous” for democracy and proclaimed, “God save us from that fate. … [It] would change this fundamental understanding and unbroken practice of what the Senate is all about.” Others joined him then in demanding that Senate Republicans preserve the rule in the name of democracy itself, including then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who insisted that abandoning the rule would be “doomsday for Democracy” and reduce the United States to a “banana Republic.”
All of those speeches were celebrated back then in the media and by Democrats as powerful and poignant.
Yet that is the liberating quality of rage: It is pure and absolute without the burden of reason or recognition. Liberal commentators this week went after Sinema with sputtering, blind fury, many mocking that she became emotional as she described the anger and divisions in the country.
MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell wrote, “Sinema delivers the Senate’s stupidest speech by a Democrat in an edge-of-tears voice to give childish words a melodramatic effect.” Onetime MSNBC host Keith Olbermann tweeted that Sinema “needs to resign or be removed from office immediately. … [She] has become a menace to the continuation of American democracy.” MSNBC’s Malcolm Nance went further and said Sinema’s staff should “resign at the shame of being handmaidens to the death of Democracy.”
Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, who previously called for burning down the Republican Party, tweeted, “Sinema is effectively asking the authors of Jim Crow and vote-rigging to give their permission for her to stop it. This is worse than incoherent or cowardice. It’s a moral disgrace. Ask the segregationists for permission to vote for Civil Rights Act?”
So, senators voicing the same position recently held by Democrats such as Biden, Obama and Schumer are now “segregationists”?
The “Jim Crow on steroids” reference to the Georgia election law was voiced by Biden, who has now yielded entirely to rage politics. He recently pledged to do “whatever it takes” to pass the legislation, and his solution was to go full blind rage in Atlanta by accusing anyone voting for the filibuster as siding with segregationists and seeking the destruction of democracy. The next day, Biden unleashed a tirade denouncing half of the Senate of seeking to establish autocracy through voter suppression.
The president, who once insisted he would be the nation’s unifier, has discovered the license of rage politics — the same license shown by those who chased Sinema into a bathroom last year. Likewise, after Sinema’s floor speech, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) staffer Sarah Michelsen was thrilled to see Sinema close to tears and encouraged activists to “keep going” with the attacks because they are “breaking her.”
It is the same license to hate and harass that was shown by ACLU lawyer Samuel Crankshaw, who opposed high schooler Nicholas Sandmann being accepted into college even after he was shown to have been falsely accused of harassing a Native American activist in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It is the license that recently led a Los Angeles Times columnist to defend mocking the deaths of unvaccinated people.
Some Democrats were quick to promise that Sinema had just ended her career; CNN’s Joe Lockhart wrote, “Probably more accurate to refer to her as former Senator Sinema.” Her speech was, in that sense, reminiscent of another courageous senator, Edmund Ross of Kansas, one of seven Republicans who voted to acquit then-President Andrew Johnson in 1868. He described his fateful vote as “literally [looking] down into my open grave.”
Ross is celebrated as a “profile of courage” for taking such a stand despite the anger of his own party.
So, too, was Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) when he voted to convict then-President Trump in his second impeachment trial; liberal commentators showered him with praise. In 2020, Stephen Colbert heralded Romney as “a ray of hope” who spoke the truth and was “willing to put up with whatever the blowback for this decision is.”
O’Donnell tweeted that “each day for the rest of his life [Lindsey Graham] will live in enraged jealousy of [Romney’s] courage.” While Romney also got emotional on the floor, O’Donnell did not mock him for his “edge-of-tears voice to give childish words a melodramatic effect.”
Schumer went public to “salute” Romney: “The pressure on every Republican was enormous. … The fact that this is bipartisan holds up a beacon to what was right and what was wrong.”
Yet, according to the Liberal pundits, Sinema is no Romney. She had the audacity to stand on principle rather than politics. It is widely believed that other Democratic senators share her discomfort with changing the filibuster, but, thus far, they have not summoned the same courage to face such withering criticism. As I wrote last year, such integrity is rarely rewarded by one’s own party: “Ross, like Romney, jumped — to the applause of opposing party. In the Senate, self-sacrifice remains an act best admired from a distance.”
Sinema’s speech was denounced by those who insist that bipartisanship is a “myth” in the age of rage. She is, according to MSNBC’s Nina Turner, a “soulless coward” for seeking common ground and compromise. She is hated precisely because she did not hate enough. She did not hate Republicans so blindly as to declare them modern Bull Connors like Biden did or to call the filibuster “a relic of Jim Crow.”
In the age of rage, civility is repulsive and intolerable. Sinema made herself a reference point that exposed how unhinged many of her fellow Democrats have become. Remove that reference point, and only rage remains.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates on Twitter @JonathanTurley.
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