Kyrsten Sinema and the Myth of Political Independence

Pretending to be independent in a partisan system won’t improve America’s politics. But more parties might.

Illustration of Krysten Sinema
Erik Carter/The Atlantic; Getty

Senator Kyrsten Sinema says she’s had enough of partisan squabbling. Who hasn’t? But the former Democrat’s switch to independent earlier this month won’t solve anything. Sinema is still bound by the parties, no matter which letter—D, R, or I—appears next to her name.

True independence in our partisan system is a fantasy. Like the two other independent senators, Sinema will continue to vote almost entirely like a Democrat. She is what the political scientists Samara Klar of the University of Arizona and Yanna Krupnikov of SUNY–Stony Brook would call an “undercover partisan”—someone who behaves mostly like a partisan but publicly rejects partisanship to show their disdain.

Sinema’s own words show the fallacy in her reasoning. “While Arizonans don’t all agree on the issues, we are united in our values of hard work, common sense, and independence,” she wrote in The Arizona Republic, announcing her newfound political identity. What is “united in … independence”? How do we agree on anything if we are all independent?

Imagine a Senate of 100 true independents. How would they organize? How would they decide what to vote on, when, and under what procedure? Political parties always emerge in legislatures; the same Framers who fretted over political parties when writing the Constitution formed parties in the very first U.S. Congress, when they had to govern. Parties are necessary to organize sustainable coalitions and build governing majorities. In politics, power belongs to groups, not individuals. Politics involves organizing, choices, and affiliations. Parties are the institutions that turn chaos into politics, as bad as politics may still be.

Despite the necessity of parties, the idea of political independence is alluring to many people. “Independent” has been by far the most popular self-identification in U.S. politics for a good three decades now, hovering at about 40 percent of the electorate in recent years—which is not to say that the members of this group are united in their independence. Contrary to common conception, independents are not the same as moderates. Rather, they tend to be simply more dissatisfied with politics than people who identify as partisans are. In the 2016 primaries, independent voters preferred Bernie Sanders (who, like Sinema, is also an independent) to the party’s more traditional candidates. Other leading independents, such as Senator Angus King of Maine and former Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, are similarly, well, dissimilar, at least when it comes to their policy preferences.

What does bind independents is a public rejection of partisan politics, at least as currently practiced in the U.S. by the two major parties. But the problem is that rejection can backfire, making partisan politics worse. American voters are already cynical and distrustful. What they need isn’t more political independents claiming to be above it all. They need more real choices in the form of more parties—parties that represent a greater array of ideas and that can give more people in the American public a voice and connection to their government.

This would require changes in electoral rules. Our current winner-takes-all system of elections is hostile to third parties. Few voters want to “waste” their ballot on a candidate who is unlikely to win, and candidates who do manage to win over a significant percentage of the electorate are viewed as spoilers for the Democratic or Republican nominee.

A number of existing proposals would help give third parties more relevance. Fusion voting, under which multiple parties can endorse the same candidate, could allow more parties to meaningfully participate in Senate elections—while keeping with the Constitution’s requirement that only a single candidate can win. New parties would then have a reason to form: They would have power without having to recruit a candidate who can’t win.

For the U.S. House, where multimember districts would be allowed by the Constitution (but are banned by statute), switching to proportional representation would most directly break the two-party hegemony. Rather than splitting, for example, Arizona into nine separate congressional districts, all Arizonans could vote in the same statewide, multiparty election. Parties would win seats in direct proportion to their statewide vote share, so a party that gets a third of the votes in Arizona would get three of nine seats in Congress. Each party would select its candidates, instead of hosting primaries. Just as in our current system, general-election voters would choose their preferred candidate. The difference is that those ballots would also count toward the total vote share for that candidate’s party. A party that gets three seats would send its three most popular candidates to Congress. Giving political parties the ability to vet and choose their own nominees strengthens the parties’ ability to give voters clear choices.

Collectively, this means that Arizonans would seat a delegation that would better represent the state’s political diversity. More voters would find a party or candidate that represents them. Every voter would matter equally, not just those who live in competitive districts. Fights over districting and redistricting would vanish. Gerrymandering would cease to be relevant.

Sinema is correct in part. There is “a disconnect between what everyday Americans want and deserve from our politics, and what political parties are offering.” But the solution is more parties, not a rejection of them. With more selection for representation, Americans could form inclusive governing coalitions that lead to actual change. Building a personal brand around one’s independence is easy, particularly as a short-term electoral ploy. But building something that lasts, and that gives voters meaningful options, is far harder—and far more important.