It was a symbolic gesture in that Sinema will receive no penalty other than public shame. But the gesture was far from hollow. In fact, it’s a revealing signal of Democrats’ intensifying commitment to making the country more democratic — one that will hopefully continue to deepen.
There is a certain kind of symmetry between Arizona Democrats censuring Sinema and Wyoming Republicans censuring a rebel lawmaker from their own state: Rep. Liz Cheney. Cheney was censured for voting to impeach then-President Donald Trump and sharply criticizing his role in inciting the Jan. 6 riot, something the overwhelming number of House Republicans refused to do. The message was clear: The Republican Party would not question Trump’s authoritarianism but rally around him — and ostracize anyone in the party who was not on board.
Arizona Democrats are sending the opposite message: They’ve sanctioned Sinema for thwarting the party’s attempts to protect the democratic process. The state party chair, Raquel Terán, said in a statement that Democrats there “decided to formally censure Sen. Sinema as a result of her failure to do whatever it takes to ensure the health of our democracy.” The “whatever it takes” is striking — it suggests urgency, desperation and a need for creativity. In this case, it was voting in favor of a carve-out to the filibuster that would make it possible to pass vital voting rights legislation without 60 votes.
Censuring has more bark than bite: it’s a formal act of disapproval, but doesn’t in and of itself constrain a lawmaker’s behavior or formal power. But given that it’s an act of collective and public shaming, it’s a useful window into understanding party norms. And what we see from the censures of Cheney and Sinema is that while one party is congealing around hostility to the democratic process, the other is deepening its commitment to it as a central priority.
Censures render certain political stances unacceptable, encourage challengers within the party and potentially dampen donor interest. Sinema has recently lost the support of abortion rights organizations NARAL and Emily’s List. Her colleagues and other Democratic Party elites are apparently encouraging an Arizona congressman to run against her in 2024. To the extent that leaving the party and running as an Independent is an option for Sinema, the party’s rebuke of her may also accelerate the speed with which she makes that choice.
The substance of the censure illustrates Democrats’ increasing interest in reforming a shoddily-created rule that has helped destroy majority-rule governance and entrench the Senate as an institution for advancing minoritarian rule.
In order for Democrats to solve the democracy problems, though, they must push for more than a carve-out to the filibuster; they must seek to abolish it entirely. They also need to seriously consider other meatier democracy reforms over the long-term: statehood and representation for American territories that are denied it; an end to the Electoral College, which would make our presidential electoral system representative of each citizen equally; radical reform of the way the Supreme Court works; and a reckoning with whether we need something as baldly antidemocratic as the Senate at all.
Unlike her colleague Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the other Democrat who voted to keep the current filibuster rules in place, Sinema cannot credibly claim that she's hamstrung by the fact that she’s surrounded by a sea of red. Her fellow Arizona senator, Mark Kelly, is far more progressive, and the state is trending blue. Arizona Democrats are sending the message that Sinema’s behavior is worse than disappointing — they're saying it’s unacceptable within a party that values democracy.