As senators Kysten Sinema and Joe Manchin hold up passage of the Build Back Better Act, protesters are getting inventive. In Washington, D.C., several West Virginia natives kayaked up to Manchin’s famous houseboat, seeking an audience with the senator. Arizona activists were even bolder. In a controversial incident, members of Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA, followed Sinema into a bathroom on the campus of Arizona State University. “Yesterday’s behavior was not legitimate protest,” Sinema said in a statement released on Monday. “It is unacceptable for activist organizations to instruct their members to jeopardize themselves by engaging in unlawful activities such as gaining entry to closed university buildings, disrupting learning environments, and filming students in a restroom.”
Sinema has her allies. “Definitely getting $3.5T now,” sniped journalist Bill Scher. Sinema, wrote Charles Cooke in the National Review, was “pursued by a rabble” of activists “wielding camera-phones and speaking in declarative slogans.” He added, “Where I come from, ‘avoiding’ others while using the lavatory is standard procedure. Being followed into the lavatory by angry crowds is not.”
But Cooke is a columnist, not a senator. The distinction matters. Sinema and Manchin are accountable to the public, at least in theory, and protesters wanted an audience. People offended by LUCHA’s tactics could argue, credibly, that the group changed nothing; Sinema probably won’t capitulate on trillions of dollars in spending just because protesters followed her into a bathroom. It’s far too easy, though, to condemn protesters while ignoring a bigger and more important question: If a senator ignores the public, how should voters hold them responsible?
In her statement, Sinema said that she and her office had met with LUCHA members on previous occasions. “It is the duty,” she added, “of elected leaders to avoid fostering an environment in which honestly-held policy disagreements serve as the basis for vitriol — raising the temperature in political rhetoric and creating a permission structure for unacceptable behavior.” This is half-right. Politicians have undeniably created an environment where policy disagreements, honestly held or otherwise, provoke so-called unacceptable behavior. Left unexamined, though, is Sinema’s own complicity. When the easiest way to get a senator’s attention is to purchase a plate at a fundraising dinner, such as the one she flew back from Washington to attend, people have few other options to make themselves heard.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that an activist has to follow an elected official into a bathroom. Manchin’s protest encounter, for example, was different; nobody cornered him, and the West Virginia senator offered activists a few crumbs of engagement from the deck of his yacht. Sinema was trying to avoid protesters altogether. Nor is her argument just about the bathroom. It’s much more sweeping. As articulated in her statement, the campus is — forgive this — a safe space, a “learning environment” that had been “disrupted” by activists. Even if you think the bathroom should be off-limits, it’s harder to argue that protesters somehow erred by tracking her down on campus. Call it a learning experience for her. Choose public office, then block your own party’s transformative progressive policy, and people will eventually get mad at you.
Aggressive protest tactics like the one that so incensed Sinema tend to be a symptom of a much larger problem. When people are shut out of a supposedly democratic process, they have no choice but to agitate. The Senate is a broken institution, one that is hidebound by archaic rules like the filibuster. It is an increasingly expensive proposition to run for office at all, which keeps the Senate in the hands of those who can afford to be there. Activists aren’t wrong to think that democracy is in decline — and that it is threatened, further, by elected officials like Sinema, who attend expensive fundraising dinners while holding up bills their donors despise. That anger is valid, and it has to have somewhere to go. There are options that don’t involve a bathroom stall, but, frankly, there aren’t many, and time is short. If you’re feeling outrage, reserve the largest share for Sinema.