Article begins

On December 9, 2022, Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema published an op-ed, “Why I’m Registering as an Independent,” in The Arizona Republic. She had entered office four years earlier, the first Democratic senator from Arizona since 1995, after a contentious election to replace Republican senator Jeff Flake. Her slim margin was largely due to the work of intense Democratic organizing. In April 2023, the New York Times Magazine published a profile of her decision to leave the Democratic Party. It began with a discussion of Sinema’s “carefully orchestrated” visit to the border between Mexico and Arizona with five Republican representatives. Like most profiles of Sinema, this one included a meticulous description of her clothing: “Sinema, dressed in a black Western shirt with a white yoke and black jeans with matching spectacles and cowboy boots, exercised her full array of Republican-charming skills.”

In this article, I consider seemingly disparate and unlike things together in order to demonstrate Sinema’s recent political exploits as events that, taken together, are meant to signal “maverickness,” a political persona that was previously performed by two other senators from Arizona: Barry Goldwater and John McCain. In general, the current political moment is ripe for semiotic analysis, particularly as politicians attempt to frame themselves as certain kinds of actors: for instance, as a contrarian, a “problem-solver,” or a “straight-shooter.” Kyrsten Sinema, who has identified herself in different ways to appeal to certain electorates (she started as a Green Party candidate) and has highlighted certain parts of her identity at various points, like her childhood experiences living with poverty, is an interesting political actor to analyze semiotically. Now, five years after her Senate win, what is this identity performance—distinct from the one she originally ran on—doing? Included in the intertextual field I analyze below are Sinema’s border outfit, her resignation letter, her understanding of her Senate seat as “exceptional,” the history of the dispossession of the American West, and Arizona politics. We know, from the perspective of a politician attempting to expand her electorate, that this intertextual field failed: post-resignation surveys indicated that she lost many Democratic supporters and failed to impress the state’s independent and Republican voters. I argue that it also failed to cohere as a register.

Political Performance

American politics has become more performative than ever, and political stances often become tied to clothing choices—especially for women in positions of power, like Melania Trump’s “I Don’t Really Care” jacket, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s “Tax the Rich” dress, and the white outfits worn by Democratic members during Trump’s State of the Union addresses. Sinema’s clothes have often been very direct (“Who Is Kyrsten Sinema Telling to F— Off?”). Her cowboy outfit at the border fence—a site of cruelty, dispossession, and social and ecological genocide—directly referenced the frontier and its forced ownership by the US government. (Her fellow politicians’ outfits were more of a “tech bro” uniform of puffy vests, fleece zip-ups, and running shoes, suggest a different kind of control: algorithmic.)

Her outfit was also reminiscent of her resignation op-ed’s conclusion, which describes her senate seat as “belonging to no one,” underlining the frontierism that, as ahtone and coauthors have pointed out, has shaped the American settler imaginary about the West as terra nullius. In it, Sinema describes Arizona as “far too special a place to be defined by extreme partisans and ideologues,” promising “to be an independent voice.”

I offer Arizonans something different.

Some partisans believe they own this Senate seat. 

They don’t. 

This Senate seat doesn’t belong to Democratic or Republican bosses in Washington. 

It doesn’t belong to one party or the other, and it doesn’t belong to me. 

It belongs to Arizona, which is far too special a place to be defined by extreme partisans and ideologues. 

It’s an honor to represent the state I love so much in the U.S. Senate. And while I do, I pledge to continue doing exactly what I promised—to be an independent voice for Arizona.

This resignation letter is striking in its justifications around claims of ownership: what belongs to whom, and when? Sinema frames herself—and the state of Arizona—as virtuous exceptions to partisan politics. In claiming that she doesn’t own her Senate seat, that it belongs to Arizona, and that because this particular Senate seat is exceptional, just like Arizona, she is also claiming that she is exceptional because it is the seat she holds. Her claims belie the fact that she was voted into office as a Democrat and instead frame her as representative of the independent “spirit” of Arizona. In other words, by closely reading her justifications for leaving the Democratic Party, we see her commitment to self-advancement and the careful way she positions herself as exceptional relative to other politicians. By attempting to frame her resignation as like Arizona the state, she is calling in a fantasy of the state, and of her position in and for it, that is only meaningful to those who buy into it.

The reference to Arizona’s exceptionalism in the letter echoes a media narrative about Arizona politics: that it is “unlike anywhere else.” In part, this narrative arises from the state’s “purple” status (see-sawing between Republican and Democratic control). It is also due to  the large numbers of independent voter registrations relative to other states, which can sometimes make election outcomes, like the 2020 presidential election, surprising (or contested). But the narrative of exceptionalism can also be understood as what Susan Gal and Judith Irvine have called a “dense semiotic site”; in this case, referring back to the American frontier where fantasies of white ownership have structured the widespread land expropriation of North America from Indigenous nations.

Ownership as a form of control and the building out of American empire, particularly at the border and in the western part of North America, is an old story that has been mythologized into the “cowboys versus Indians” binary. The cowboy—in spurred boots and a yoked shirt—is a rugged individual whose approach to justice is vigilantism and who ultimately signifies the extra-legal arbitration of property ownership in the West. Sinema’s border outfit, indexing the cowboy, attempts to frame herself within this tradition.

In considering Sinema’s resignation letter together with her border fence photo op, it is possible to see how an aesthetic signification of the “Old West” cements her participation in a fantasy of the state that rests on real, historical harms and a politics of land ownership that has occurred via the violence of the frontier. In wearing the accoutrements of a politics of ownership, she is attempting to forge a connection between the rugged individualism of the frontier with her own claim to political “independence.” On first glance, this may be an attempt to cultivate a new political identity. But the qualities of the frontier and “independence” have already become tied together in a specific political persona. And it’s a persona that Sinema has a history of attempting to perform.

Maverick Authority

Barry Goldwater was the first politician to cultivate the political persona that Sinema appears to be attempting to emulate. He strutted around in a cowboy hat; he rode a horse around Prescott; and following Philip J. Deloria, he “played at being Indian,” by participating in the “Smoki” group, a fraternity of white men who dressed in native clothing and hosted their own “pow-wows.” Ultimately, the formulation of Goldwater as a kind of political type that connected a personal historiography with political activities created the figure of the modern “maverick” against which later political figures, especially Arizonans like Sinema, might be measured. In flipping Arizona red in the 1960s, he emerged as the leader of what historian Rick Perlstein has called a “guerrilla grassroots movement” that eventually led to the composition of the modern Republican party. Upon his ascension to the Senate, Lempert and Silverstein describe how Goldwater “took on the role of an opposition figure within the Republican Party . . . ‘giving hell’ to establishment figures in his own party as frequently as to Democrats”.” A central part of Goldwater’s politics was casting “no” votes on legislation backed by establishment Republicans. During an era marked by “consensus politics,” Goldwater’s refusal to participate in what we may now think of as “bipartisanship,” and the media spectacle that surrounded this refusal, made him famous, and he was eventually dubbed a “maverick” by adoring media.

The term “maverick” is a media invention based on a Texas family, a member of whom was a rancher whose refusal to brand his cattle led to the surname becoming, according to journalist John Schwartz an icon of “anyone who didn’t bear another’s brand.” The term was more recently popularized by  Arizona Republican senator John McCain, whose subsequent “thumbs down” vote kept the Affordable Care Act alive in 2017despite pressure from his party. At the time, McCain was widely applauded by Democrats. There are indications that Sinema is attempting to take on the mantle of “maverick”: not only has she often crossed party lines to vote with Republicans on approving judges and passing or failing laws, she has also mimicked McCain’s “thumbs down” on the vote to increase the federal minimum wage to $15.

Neither Sinema’s attempt to emulate McCain and Goldwater, nor her border photo-op outfit, which refers to the frontier, nor the language of her resignation letter successfully positioned herself as a maverick. Taken together, and in the context of Arizona politics and a longer-term history of the American West, this analysis elucidates multiple layers of semiosis that shape the current political moment. It also shows the political stakes of register incoherence: a month following her resignation from the Democratic Party, Democratic representative Ruben Gallego announced that he would run against her in the 2024 election. So far, his campaign has outraised all his opponents—including Sinema.

Sarah Muir and Michael Wroblewski are the section contributing editors for the Society for Linguistic Anthropology.


Rachel Howard

Rachel Howard is a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago.

Cite as

Howard, Rachel. 2024. “Frontiers and Failures: Kyrsten Sinema’s Political Aesthetics.” Anthropology News website, January 26, 2024.