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Unite and Conquer, by Kyrsten Sinema
OnTheIssues.org PREFACE October 2021:
Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) stands at the center of negotiations around President Biden's Build Back Better programs. Along with Senator Joe_Manchin (D-WV), Sinema's vote in a 50-50 Senate decides what passes and what fails. Senator Manchin's motivations are well-understood: he's a moderate Democrat whose highest priority is to protect the livelihood of West Virginians, which means protecting the coal industry. Senator Sinema has different motivations: she calls herself a "progressive" but insists on working with Republicans, which in terms of "Build Back Better," means blocking the most expensive provisions to ensure some conservative support. Sinema's insistence on bipartisanship isn't just about THIS bill -- it's at the core of her political philosophy. Our book review of her autobiography from seven years ago outlines that philosophy:
OnTheIssues.org BOOK REVIEW:
Kyrsten Sinema is the newly-elected Representative from Arizona, but wrote this book in 2009 when she was a State Senator from Phoenix. She used the principles outlined in this book to forge a coalition for her election to the House.
This book is a "process book" -- not quite a policy book -- Sinema's policy ideas are presented only incidentally. The book is intended as a user's manual on how to build coalitions. Sinema is a progressive, and targets her process to progressives, but the process works for politicians of any persuasion.
Sinema outlines how, as a freshly-elected member of the state legislature, she was a "bomb-thrower": she made fiery speeches on what she considered morally right. That tactic gained favor with her hard-core constituents, but was ineffective at actually passing legislation. So she switched tactics to building coalitions, with other legislators who agreed with her on a particular issue but disagreed on her general philosophy. She then became successful at passing legislation; made speeches about "coalition building"; wrote this book about it; and got elected to Congress.
Most famously, Sinema led the coalition, through a group called "Arizona Together," which overturned the same-sex marriage ban in Arizona. The key to success in Sinema's coalition was NOT focusing on the morality of same-sex marriage (a push for equal rights, or a push for gay rights in general) -- that would be the "bomb-thrower's" process. Instead, Arizona Together produced advertisements focusing on the "domestic partnership" aspects of the legislation -- which terminated heterosexual domestic partnership benefits in order to terminate same-sex domestic partnership benefits. In Arizona Together's TV ads, elderly couples were shown losing rights, after they had lived together, unmarried, for decades, because their retirement benefits were better when unmarried. Sinema got numerous other groups to endorse the TV ads and to encourage voting to overturn the ban -- such as groups representing the elderly, and other groups targeted in other TV ads. Sinema's progressive constituents considered this a "sell-out," since it ignored the moral issue of how same-sex marriage should be considered equal to heterosexual marriage. But as Sinema points out numerous times, this was the first successful fight against such a same-sex marriage ban in any state, and a dozen states had fought the same battle and lost. In other words, Sinema's Arizona Together coalition won, using Sinema's coalition-building processes, where many others failed.
This book could become a classic of progressive politics in the same vein as Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals." But it has a couple of major fatal flaws that need to be ironed out before it can become a classic handbook. For example, read our excerpt from p. 23, on "letting go of the bear and picking up the Buddha." (That's the title of Chapter 2, not just an odd metaphor). That odd metaphor, Sinema explains, means staying calm in a political fight rather than acting reactively. Maybe that's on the acceptable side of "new political buzzword" rather than "kooky progressive terminology," because at least all the words are in English -- but Sinema uses that odd metaphor to introduce the even odder metaphor of "enso politics" ("enso" is Japanese for "circle"; but it sure sounds like American for "kooky progressive terminology"). Sinema defines "enso politics" as "symbolizing infinity, the perfect meditative state, and enlightenment" (p. 23). That might play well if one is leading a coalition of kooky progressives in Phoenix, but it just doesn't translate nationally. Sinema might rewrite this book, omitting the "enso politics" parts or at least translating them into American terminology, and have a new progressive classic.
-- Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief, OnTheIssues.org, January 2014
Page last edited: Feb 26, 2019