October 26, 2021   7 mins

For many liberals, this was the year that Kyrsten Sinema became the most infuriating politician in the United States. The first-term Arizona senator is, along with West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, obstructing the passage of Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion social services and climate change package. The reasons for Manchin’s stubbornness are well known.

But Sinema is more enigmatic. It was said that she demanded $100 billion in cuts to proposed climate programmes, though this was denied by her office. The package was trimmed to $2 trillion, but she still refused to support it. She was accused of being bent on the “destruction” of the Biden Presidency. She had, one commentator wrote, a “death grip” on the Democratic Party.

In public, Sinema was taciturn, even as she was trailed and harried by progressive activists, who followed her into public restrooms, or tried to confront her at a marathon. Nobody on the Left understands her thinking; to the Washington Post she is simply “inscrutable“. So fury, and theorising, is their response. (Hers was to tell them, somewhat cryptically on Instagram, to “fuck off”.)

Biden’s bill has been maimed by Sinema, regardless of what happens in the weeks ahead. Eventually, interest in her may begin to fade, or she might face a primary challenge that ends her career as a senator. But there is another way to look at Sinema, one with wider and much longer-lasting implications for politics and political theory than her obstructionism in the Senate.

In recent years there have been two major shifts in the relationship between politics and political theory. On the one hand, a number of important modern political thinkers, such as Michel Foucault, once perceived in American academic and activists circles as useful, even necessary, for ostensibly radical and critical Leftist politics, have begun to appeal to the Right, which long rejected them. On the other hand, adherence to a capitalism-friendly version of academics and activists’ politics, especially on matters of culture, race and sexuality, became a condition of membership in nearly every important institution in the United States. Ideas that once generated a thrilling frisson of subversion in college seminars among students and teachers, who at the time could see themselves as joined in a common project of Leftist critique, have now become the ever-more explicit moral centre of our regime — or are being taken up by its opponents on the Right.

Such changes can perhaps be traced more easily through the writings of thinkers whose minds, because of their mediocrity, reflect rather than resist larger trends. One such thinker — a former activist and, technically, a scholar — is Sinema, who holds a PhD in “Justice Studies” from Arizona State University. Her 2012 dissertation Who Must Die: the State of Exception in Rwanda’s Genocide, and her 2015 book of almost the same title, are representative moments in the double shift by which Leftists once enamoured of certain strands of radical political theory repurposed it towards the consolidation of a new hegemonic political morality, discarding its subversive dimension — and making it available to the Right.

In her work on Rwanda, Sinema purports, through a handful of incompletely understood concepts drawn chiefly from the writings of Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben, to discover in the genocide committed in 1994 a generalisable lesson about the importance of the rule of law. In its absence, she argues, the worst sorts of barbarities are possible, and indeed likely.

Sinema’s work has no original insights, and hardly any grasp on the theory that supposedly informs it. It is, however, a useful document. It sheds, in the first place, some light on Sinema herself, a former anti-war radical who is now perhaps the most notorious centrist in Congress and who prides herself on upbeat bipartisanship (expounded in her 2009 book, Unite and Conquer: How to Build Coalitions that Win and Last). For those who would rather dim the lights on Sinema, an already highly-visible political personage, her invocation of Schmitt and Agamben offers an opportunity to consider the strange transformation that these theorists’ work has undergone.

Schmitt and Agamben, in principle, should have been uncomfortable reading for Sinema. The former was an early 20th-century German legal theorist who attacked liberal democracy and supplied theoretical justification for the Nazi regime; the latter is a still-living Italian philosopher who used Schmitt’s ideas for his own critique of liberalism, launched from the radical Left rather than the far Right. But, given Sinema’s political and intellectual origins on the anti-war Left of the early 2000s, her choice is less surprising. The two thinkers were critical references for activist and academic critics of American power throughout the War on Terror.

Since the Eighties and Nineties, Schmitt had become first acceptable, and then compulsory reading, for American political theorists, who were taken with what seemed to be his insights into the deficiencies of liberal democracy’s emphasis on the rule of law and the formal aspects of democratic procedure. Some thinkers on the Left, such as Chantal Mouffe, used his ideas to advocate for a reinvigorated form of political democracy that valued frankly acknowledged conflicts over neutral rules and norms. This so-called “agonism” once inspired populist Leftist movements in Europe, but seems to appeal to few American academics after the rise, since the first Trump campaign, of Right-wing populism at home. Norms — such as Nato and Nafta — suddenly appealed to Leftists who had long critiqued them.

While some tried to use Schmitt to attack liberalism from the Left, others, drawing on Agamben’s interpretation of Schmitt, argued that the United States was becoming or had become a dangerously illiberal country. Schmitt had argued, infamously, that states inevitably find themselves confronted with “states of exception” — situations where legal norms can no longer be applied. In such instances, some agent must decide what is to be done so that order can be restored and the normal rules can function again. Schmitt saw this power to make decisions in exceptional circumstances as the essence of sovereignty. He argued that liberal democracies — oriented towards preserving the rule of law, which their leaders and ideologues imagine needs no supplement of sovereign decision-making — ignore this fact to their peril.

Agamben, however, countered that supposedly liberal states are in fact constantly dealing with “states of exception”. Liberals do not, in his view, periodically confront normless states of exception in crises; rather they constantly create these conditions. In a series of works including his 1995 Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Agamben drew on Schmitt and Foucault to warn that what he saw as the paradigmatic instances of the Nazis’ systematic illegality and inhumanity — the concentration camp and the lethal power of doctors over “life unworthy of life” (the disabled, mentally handicapped, etc.) — were also present, at least potentially, in democratic states, which create their own zones in which law and rights are suspended.

After 9/11, these arguments took on great cogency for many thinkers on the American Left. The US Government appeared to them to be suspending fundamental rights of its citizens through the Patriot Act, which suspended long-standing norms about the limits of state surveillance. Meanwhile, in Guantanamo Bay, the Government seemed to consign individuals to a site-specific state of exception in which the norms governing neither the treatment of prisoners of war, nor criminals applied. Agamben’s theories did not offer much clear direction on what critics of the apparently norm-less War on Terror might do to oppose the “sovereign” power of the United States, but they did give a moral and philosophical weight to critics’ sense that the country was on a dangerous slide towards reenacting the worst horrors of the 20th century.

Rather than argue, as Schmitt and Agamben did, that states of exception necessarily appear, or that liberal states continually create them, Sinema insisted that such situations could be avoided by protecting the rule of law. This revealed a basic misunderstanding of her chosen interlocutors’ arguments. Schmitt posited that the rule of law is never adequate, since states of exception requiring the exercise of sovereignty necessarily appear; Agamben likewise argued, following Foucault, that liberal states are inherently unable to live up to their own constitutional norms and in their routine exercise of power, place certain spaces and persons outside them. Sinema, either with naïveté or the cunning of stupidity, simply wishes the problem away and urges us to follow the rules. But, while her intellectual inadequacies are her own, the lameness of her conclusion reflects a change in the political valence of theory.

By the mid-2010s, as Sinema was writing, Leftist opposition to the imperial and illiberal dimensions of American security policy was melting away — or moving to the Right. In the following years, fears about terrorism targeted the latter, painting American conservatives, and the spectre of white supremacy, as security threats in much the same rhetoric that had been used to describe Islamic terrorist networks.

Since the spring of 2020, as Agamben has repeatedly observed, Covid policy has imitated the War on Terror in its suspensions of rights — and intimated the handing over of political power to medical officials in ways anticipated in Homo Sacer. Thus, if Schmitt and Agamben remain relevant for understanding our politics, it is in ways that are uncomfortable for the cultural Left, which now finds itself increasingly running, rather than critiquing, the machinery of American power.

In our present-day sequels to the War on Terror — the campaigns against racism and Covid — hegemonic institutions pursue enemies and suspend liberal norms in the name of our psychological and physical wellbeing. Now in possession of what we might call the commanding heights of the moral economy, from which it produces elites’ and would-be elites’ worldview, this Left no longer needs to perform radicalness.

It can assume instead the position of a centre ringed about by benighted, ignorant, but nevertheless dangerous enemies: conservatives. The latter are not credited with having specific, comprehensible or legitimate objections to the dominant policies and values. They are instead imagined as hateful, prejudiced enemies of legality, science, and moral decency — that is, they are seen not as political foes, but as cognitive and moral degenerates — in a manner that recalls the way Islamic terrorists during the Bush era were said to hate America “for our freedom” and to be full of irrational “Islamic rage”, rather than recognised as having a comprehensible set of objections to American policies in the Middle East.

We should not be surprised to hear pleas for the rule of law and deference for experts from those who once, drawing on radical theory, revealed the subterfuges and hypocrisies behind liberal norms of legality and objectivity. Critique, like terrorism, is a weapon of the weak. The powerful claim to defend security, reason and morality, while those out of power, grown clever and cynical from their experience of marginality, contest these claims and question whether such things even exist to be defended. With the cultural Left in the ascendancy, the political theory by which it climbed has become a ladder to be thrown away — and available to be taken up by the Right.

Long after the furore around Sinema is forgotten, her academic work will glint as one ironic point of light in this vast change in the way liberals and conservatives in America think about themselves and their country.

Blake Smith is a Harper-Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago. A historian of modern France, he is also a translator of contemporary francophone fiction and a regular contributor to Tablet.