The Problem with Performative Protest

All tactics must answer one question: will they work?

Kyrsten Sinema is the type of politician who used to win media cycles all the time. A venal moderate who takes on some culturally liberal positions while routinely rejecting mild attempts to make a material difference in the lives of the working-class and poor, Sinema is a creature of the Third Way era, when the West Wing set told us politics was about bloodless technocracy and killing your darlings. In 2018, she was a Resistance hero, the tough, openly bisexual woman taking back Arizona for the Democrats, stylishly smacking down Donald Trump from the Senate. Her evolution from Green Party activist to Democratic centrist was mostly shrugged off—Sinema had grown up, and now she was a winner.

What’s remarkable about today is that the prestige media organizations and pundits that used to make excuses for the behavior of a politician like Sinema—a moderate in a swing state torpedoing progressive policy in a disingenuous bid to remain competitive electorally—aren’t having it anymore. Few like Sinema much at all. Saturday Night Live, which has evolved into something of a reliable hive mind for whatever the left-liberal establishment thinks about a particular debate at a particular time, brutally roasted Sinema’s obstruction of Joe Biden’s multitrillion domestic agenda, which includes both infrastructure spending that the Arizona senator theoretically supports and greater expansions of the social safety net and efforts to combat climate change that she decidedly does not. Sinema is even against what is, according to most polls, the most overwhelmingly popular element of the legislation: giving Medicare the ability to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to lower drug prices. Democrats would gain electorally from such a change; voter blowback, even from conservatives, would be nonexistent.

Sinema’s politics are even more infuriating when the political landscape is considered in full. Unlike Joe Manchin, the West Virginia senator loathed by progressives, Sinema represents a state that Biden won. Arizona is trending left, becoming as much a battleground as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Manchin is unlikely to survive re-election in 2024, a presidential year, because Donald Trump won nearly 70 percent of the vote there in 2020. It can be argued that Democrats, for now, can’t do better than Manchin in West Virginia—but they certainly can do better than Sinema in Arizona. As Matt Yglesias pointed out, there was nothing remarkable about her electoral performance in 2018, considering that Mark Kelly, in a tougher 2020 environment, replicated it against literally the same opponent. We may have to suffer Manchin, but we needn’t think only Sinema-style ladder-climbers can win in Arizona and states like them. Jon Tester of Montana, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Kelly himself are not holding hostage Biden’s reconciliation bill for vague and ultimately nonsensical reasons. They are loyal, center-left Democrats.

What can be done about Sinema? Moderates bemoan that leftists are always threatening primary challenges against Democrats, but the Left strategy is correct on this account. Primaries are good. Tea Party candidates dragged the Republican Party to the right in the 2010s by repeatedly threatening and undertaking primary challenges against moderates. Trump himself remade the Republican Party as an insurgent with no ties to party institutions. This is a democracy and elections do determine outcomes. The Justice Democrats and DSA strategy of running progressive and socialist Democrats against weaker Democratic incumbents in safe-blue seats is great. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat Joe Crowley and helped usher in a golden era for the Left in New York City, creating space for all kinds of successful state legislative primaries to happen. Jamaal Bowman is such a net improvement over warmongering Maryland resident Eliot Engel that even Engel’s old defenders won’t debate it much in public.

Sinema, like Engel and Crowley, is more than worthy of a primary challenge. A credible candidate already exists in Ruben Gallego, a congressman and combat veteran who has been very outspoken about Democratic efforts to mobilize the Latino vote. Gallego is more progressive than Sinema while being attentive enough to the ways educated elites in his own party may alienate average voters—he tweeted after the 2020 election that Democrats should stop using the term “Latinx”—and he probably has a good chance to defeat her, especially if the same online donations that powered Sinema in 2018 instead flow toward him. Politicians who fear primary challenges start to behave differently. If Gallego is serious about running in 2024, Sinema will be motivated to do more for progressives and Biden Democrats in general to give him less ammunition.

What I am much less sanguine about is the new school of performative protest. Recently, immigration activists followed Sinema into a bathroom in Arizona and filmed her, demanding that she support the Biden reconciliation bill, which some progressives hope will include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The Senate parliamentarian has ruled that such a measure can’t be included in a reconciliation bill—this process is being undertaken so Democrats can pass the legislation with a bare majority and avoid the filibuster—but activists have a right to challenge the ruling or even demand the parliamentarian change course. Political actions like these must always answer one question, and one question only: will they work? Will they change the minds of politicians, Sinema especially, and sway public opinion? If the workability question is secondary, the action is a failure.

This is not a popular opinion online. Jezebel wrote that protesters should “absolutely bully” Sinema outside her bathroom stall. A socialist friend of mine, Aaron Narraph Fernando, tweeted that “‘going into a public bathroom is taking it too far’ is how you know someone views politics as a game and not class struggle.” The tweet racked up more than 2,000 likes, which isn’t too surprising. Fernando added in a second tweet that “this also applies to liberals who whined that defund activists knocked on councilmembers’ doors and called their personal cell phones last year lol.” The argument from Fernando is reasonable in one sense—politics is not a game and class struggle is real. Decorum means little when weighed against the success or failure of a policy you care about. Mitch McConnell, one of the most cutthroat politicians of our time, was not decorous when he told Barack Obama his Republican-run Senate was not going to appoint Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. McConnell knew all the screaming from liberals and newspaper columnists in the world wouldn’t make a bit of difference if a Republican won the White House in 2016 and he was right. Donald Trump installed Neil Gorsuch and the Supreme Court, today, is more conservative than it’s been in many decades. Modern politics is, absolutely, a zero-sum game with winners and losers, deeply and inexorably polarized. Conservatives have known this for a long time, taking control of legislatures and states with the grim determination of the converted, implementing dangerous policy because they can. If Democrats wield power, they should pursue their aims ruthlessly on behalf of the working-class and poor. Do we want decorum or Medicare for All? No one who cares about the dream of free healthcare will struggle to answer that question.

But some supporters of storming Sinema in the bathroom conflate necessary power games with ritualistic, ego-gratifying spectacle. Protests work when they demonstrate enough of a mass constituency to terrify the person being targeted. They can also work if they are designed to sway public opinion toward the stated goal. Will following Sinema into the bathroom do this? The answer, for now, is probably no. Most Americans view the bathroom as a place of privacy, completely off-limits. It is illegal, in Arizona, to photograph or videotape someone in a bathroom where that person “has a reasonable expectation of privacy.” Civil disobedience is a worthy goal, but filming in a bathroom is not the law worth breaking. The actual video does not demonstrate the Left’s clout around this issue or any other. Instead, there are a handful of activists trailing Sinema in a hallway and filming her as she closes the stall. There might be as many people going to the bathroom, at least based on the video, as there are protesting Sinema. This is a sign, for the viewer, of weakness. Rather than be exposed as the amoral corporatist that she is, Sinema is instead rendered a sympathetic figure. For any movement, this is a disaster. Are we talking about Sinema and immigration today? Or are we talking about filming in a bathroom? If the tactic overshadows the message, the tactic is a failure.

Fernando, in his second tweet, argued this sort of tactic is viable because it has already been employed on the local level. In New York City, activists protested outside the homes of council members, called their personal phones, and even vandalized the apartment building of the City Council speaker’s boyfriend in the weeks leading up to the controversial 2020 vote over the new municipal budget. After George Floyd’s death, many thousands of protesters marched in the streets and demanded New York City radically defund or even abolish the NYPD. Individual members, including the speaker, were targeted in unconventional and personalized ways. Rather than merely show up at City Hall for rallies, protesters marched to where council members lived. Covid had meant all City Council meetings and hearings were remote—yelling from the balcony during a vote was no longer a possibility.

The most radical protesters wanted the NYPD’s budget cut in half. In the end, $1 billion was shifted away, with a significant chunk linked to undefined reductions in police overtime. It was not a budget that pleased activists, but it certainly would not have been possible without the protests that followed Floyd’s death. The more confrontational and combativeprotest tactics could be said to have yielded some fruit. But they also, inarguably, emboldened the opposition. Politicians like Laurie Cumbo and Danny Dromm martyred themselves rather than bend to leftist protesters. The aggrieved simply grew more aggrieved. The more damning rejoinder to the argument that these tactics were successful is that the 2021 budget did not defund the police at all. The movement, in the most tangible sense—in the only sense that matters—could not sustain gains beyond one year. A $200 million increase for the NYPD could very well be maintained in next year’s budget, even with the arrival of more leftist city council members.

Sinema could walk away from the bathroom episode feeling even more defiant than before. She can paint her opposition as unhinged and destructive. She can go the route of performative martyrdom. The question the Left must always answer is how power can be built and sustained. Mass movement politics means, above all else, accounting for the inconvenient mass—the median, in such a formulation, must matter. The median voter believes the bathroom is a private place. The median voter doesn’t want a woman being followed into one and filmed there. If Sinema eventually breaks, moving to vote for Biden’s reconciliation bill and authorizing trillions in new spending, it will not because she was filmed closing a stall door. It will be because larger, more important protests mattered; because people kept calling her office and marching outside of it; because her colleagues pressured her; because Biden pressured her; because, maybe, she is wary of the voters rising up to throw her out in three years. Tactics are good, above all else, when they work.