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The Perils of Pelosi vs. The Squad

I wish Pelosi would open up to her left colleagues, but it’s not likely to happen anytime soon

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., center, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., left, pose for a group photo of House Democrats in the Capitol Visitor Center, who plan to wear "suffragette white" to the State of the Union address to show solidarity for women's agendas on Tuesday, February 5, 2019. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., center, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., left, pose for a group photo of House Democrats in the Capitol Visitor Center, who plan to wear "suffragette white" to the State of the Union address to show solidarity for women's agendas on Tuesday, February 5, 2019. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seems to be going out of her way not simply to distance herself from but to disparage the more progressive members of her own caucus, recently throwing shade on Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley for their refusal to support recent legislation funding Trump’s detention-concentration camps. Paul Waldman, in his recent Post column, “Why is Nancy Pelosi doing this?,” rightly points out that Pelosi’s antagonism towards these four, and what they represent, seems unnecessary and indeed counter-productive to the goal of enhancing Democratic political power:

Pelosi’s majority depends more on what happens in the presidential race than anything else. In 2016, the correlation between presidential votes and House votes was a near-perfect .97, higher than it had ever been before. That’s the reality of our polarized electorate, where every race is nationalized.

To put it simply, if the Democrat wins in 2020, Democrats will hold their House majority, too. If Trump wins, they might lose it. What Pelosi can do at this point to make that election turn out the way she wants is to marshal every tool available to her to damage Trump.

It’s hard to blame more liberal Democrats for thinking she’s doing less than she could. And whatever you think about impeachment or any particular piece of legislation, at a minimum Pelosi could treat the activist base with a little less contempt.

I share Waldman’s distress here, and I think it is very important for those of us who have any kind of “platform” to do what we can to express ourselves and seek to influence the current debate, calling Pelosi to account, and advocating for a much more aggressive and perhaps even radical opposition to Trumpism.

At the same time, it is important for us to fully reckon with the limits of our arguments in the face of political realities — institutional mobilizations of bias, long-standing coalitions and networks between political elites and donor networks — that place profound constraints on political action and channel it in some directions much more easily than others.

Why is Pelosi doing what she is doing, to frustrate impeachment proceedings that could seriously challenge Trump (she has probably already killed the chance of such proceedings), to insist on doing legislative business as usual (budget compromises on Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policy, absurd efforts to craft an infrastructure “deal,” tamping down on Green New Deal discussions), and to rhetorically discipline some of the most energetic, charismatic, and politically serious members of her caucus, throwing cold water on their idealism whenever possible?

Why?

Pundits necessarily focus on Pelosi’s moderate disposition; her long-game legislative savvy (I have already argued that she is too clever for her own good and our own); and even her personal pique at her newer, younger colleagues, especially the four above-named women (known as “The Squad”) who question her, and rival her authority, just as she has “arrived” as The Most Powerful Democrat in Washington, D.C. (for now at least; but the clock keeps ticking . . . ). As Chris Cilizza put it in a piece on “Why can’t Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez just get along?”: “The point is that from Pelosi’s perspective, she’s been fighting the liberal fight — and winning — for nearly four decades now.”

There can be no doubt that interpersonal dynamics, rivalries, jealousies, and feelings of personal righteousness play some role in the way Pelosi has been responding to AOC and her associates. And of course, speaking as someone broadly on the left, I think it would be very good if Pelosi could be less hostile to her younger and more radical colleagues; take seriously their energy, their millennial base, and their ideas for moving the party forward; and actually lead the party into the future with a new vigor.

At the same time, we must remember that the Democratic party is not a neutral playing field, and intra-party debates articulate both positions and interests.

And Pelosi, who has served in the House for over thirty years, and rose to leadership during the heyday of the Democratic party’s much-discussed move to the center, is deeply invested in a conception of the party that AOC and her “Squad” companions are determined to challenge and to change.

There are at least four, interlocking dimensions of this difference of interest, which of course corresponds to a difference in power, and together they help to explain why the tension between Pelosi and her colleagues to the left is unlikely to simply fade, however much we might wish it so.

The first tension is institutional, and relates to the authority of entrenched party leaders: “The Squad” are insurgents who articulate challenges to long-standing Democratic policy positions and to the long-standing party hierarchy. AOC and Ayanna Pressley both won their seats by “primarying” and defeating Democratic incumbents in relatively “safe” districts, calling out the incumbents’ failure to be sufficiently progressive, and winning. Ilhan Omar was elected to replace Keith Ellison, a strong Sanders supporter in 2016 who stepped down after seeking leadership of the DNC and losing to Tom Perez. And Rashida Tlaib was elected to replace the retiring John Conyers after winning a hotly contested primary. These young Democrats represent a new generation who are not content to simply wait for their seniors to retire. Pelosi is above all committed to supporting incumbents in her caucus, and especially those incumbents who hold leadership positions (Joe Crowley, who AOC defeated, was the no. 4 Democrat in the House). There is thus a built-in tension between Pelosi and these insurgents. For they rose to power in part by challenging the establishment that she represents. And the more they succeed, the more there will be talk about left groups running other insurgent candidates in the upcoming House primaries. As the Times put it in February, “Justice Democrats Helped Make Occasio-Cortez. They’re Already Eying Their Next Targets.” However collegial AOC and her colleagues attempt to be, however much they attempt to walk a fine line between standing for their insurgent values and collaborating with more conservative colleagues, they represent a challenge to the current House leadership, its priorities, and its seniority.

The second tension is also institutional, and relates to function: while Pelosi is the leader of a large and diverse legislative caucus with members representing every state of the U.S, many of whom come from “purple” or “red” states, “The Squad” are leftists and first-term insurgents who represent very “blue” districts and therefore speak for very different constituencies than the majority of House Democrats. Pelosi’s primary purpose as House Democratic leader: maintain the support of her caucus by catering to as many of its members as possible, doing as much as possible to help each of them get reelected, so that the House Democratic majority can be maintained if not expanded, and her status as Speaker can be maintained if not expanded. The purpose of AOC and her colleagues is different: they ran for office not to protect and expand Democratic incumbency, but to challenge the party’s very priorities, in some cases by challenging Democratic incumbents and being willing to draw the ire of the party establishment. Their priority is not mere election; it is to use electoral campaigns and victories, and legislative office, to shift the political agenda itself. They share a political interest very different than Pelosi’s.

The third tension, also institutional, is rather simple, and relates to money: while the Democratic party establishment for years has drawn heavily from large donors often linked to Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Big Pharma, insurgent candidates, for reasons both ideological and practical, run grass roots campaigns that reject Big Money and seek to mobilize large numbers of ordinary citizens both as small donors and as activists who will not simply contribute to insurgent campaigns but work for them and develop a sustained interest in their policy commitments. As Ryan Grim and Lee Fang pointed out in The Intercept, with explicit reference to 2018’s crop of insurgent Democrats:

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candidates who campaign on populist, progressive platforms find grassroots supporters who can collectively rival the corporate donors who have powered the party for so long. “Our movement is developing an alternative infrastructure to support populist campaigns so they never have to court the big corporate donors who push so many Democrats away from a working class agenda,” said Waleed Shahid, communications director of Justice Democrats, a group pushing for more populist progressives in the Democratic Party.

“He who pays the piper calls the tune” surely has its limits as political analysis. But it cannot be doubted that Pelosi, and the Democratic party leadership more generally, has long relied on a different “infrastructure” of financial support than that being mobilized by “The Squad,” and that this translates into a very different sense of priorities. While Pelosi is a corporate Democrat, AOC and her colleagues are profoundly anti-corporate, and much more inclined to challenge existing institutions and policy priorities more generally. The ascendancy of a strong left tendency within the party that does not wish to be beholden to financial interests, also symbolized by the Presidential candidacies of Sanders and Warren, frightens those very forces to which Pelosi is wedded.

And this brings us to the fourth tension, which is ideological: “The Squad” is clearly part of a broader leftward shift within the party that has a strong generational dimension though it is not limited to millennials, as the very figures of Sanders and Warren personify. AOC and Tlaib are both members of Democratic Socialists of America, and their electoral victories were powered by grassroots activism and the support of local DSA chapters. And while neither Omar nor Pressley belongs to DSA, both ran insurgent campaigns that drew from progressive organizations such as Justice Democrats, MoveOn, Demand Justice, and the Center for Popular Democracy, and also had the support of many DSA activists.

These figures represent the tip of a much broader and deeper ideological iceberg within the Democratic party, as for example recent DSA successes in PennsylvaniaChicago and New York indicate. This tendency is far from dominant. But it is growing, and it promises to transform the party’s agenda on a wide range of issues.

There is thus a built-in tension between the party’s long-standing political leadership, epitomized by Pelosi, and these newer forces. As Steve Israel, a Democrat and former representative of New York who is close to Pelosi, put it in the New York Times: “This is an inevitable tension between a few progressives with one priority, which is their ideology, and a speaker with many priorities, including preserving the majority in the House, electing a Democratic president against Trump, and responding to the consensus of her caucus.”

Pelosi, in short, is trying her best to play the game of politics as usual — the only game she has known as she has ascended the party hierarchy. “The Squad,” on the other hand, is trying to change the rules of the game, in the name of a vision of a more activist party committed to major policy innovations to deal with economic inequality, climate change, the hollowing out of democracy itself, and the specific dangers presented by Trumpism. While Israel is not wrong to identify Pelosi’s many complex concerns and to contrast them with “The Squad’s” value-based politics, he is wrong to imply that politics as usual is possible right now given the way that Trump behaves, with the support of McConnell and the Republicans in both the Senate and the House. Trump’s immigrant detentions, obstructions of justice, and hostility to labor rights, social justice, and environmental policy represent threats to constitutional democracy itself, and they demand strong response, not looking away in the hope that everything will simply be settled in November 2020. Israel is equally wrong to imply that a value-based left politics is simply about abstract ideological commitment. What he misses, and what Pelosi misses, is that while a “play it safe” approach might make sense for House incumbents in “purple” or “red” states, it makes much less sense if the goal is to win the Presidency and perhaps the Senate, and to begin to make the changes that are necessary to engage the sources of public disaffection so that Democrats cannot simply win governmental power in 2020 but hold onto this power by actually doing good things. In this sense, it is not Pelosi, but her young leftist critics, who are the pragmatists.

In short, a resurgent Democratic party needs vision, precisely the sort of vision that Pelosi’s antagonists represent. As Waleed Shahid, Justice Democrats’ communications director, said back in February: “It takes movements like ours to push parties to prioritize what the base wants and what the values of the party are. That is the role of our movement, to give a policy vision for this country to a party that often lacks a clear policy vision.”

There are real risks to a more aggressive and radical posture for the Democratic party, risks to the House majority, and even risks of losing again to Trump. It would be a huge mistake to exaggerate the current popularity of the party’s left. Most of the 2018 “blue wave” involved victories for Democrats who are neither democratic socialists nor Justice Democrats. In 2018, 26 of 79 candidates endorsed by Justice Democrats won primaries, and of those 26, 7 — seven — won House seats in November, out of a total of 64 new Democrats in the House. And none of those victories was in a swing district. As Ella Nilsen and Dylan Scott pointed out in Vox, “Most of the new Democrats in the House are more moderate than you think .”

At the same time, there are arguably greater risks to a more conventional, play it safe approach. This, at least, is the way that many Democrats on the left are thinking, including “The Squad,” Justice Democrats, theCongressional Progressive Caucus, and indeed many of the Democratic Presidential hopefuls.

As I put it last month:

The Democratic Party now faces a number of serious challenges. There is tension between the narrow strategic calculus of Pelosi and the broader electoral strategy required to retake the Presidency in 2020. There is tension between the party’s aging and hidebound Congressionally-based leadership — Pelosi, Schumer, Hoyer, etc. — and a newer generation of young and dynamic leaders, symbolized by AOC, not wedded to “business as usual” and seeking to move the party forward, pressing new issues and mobilizing new voters. And there is tension between the party’s long-standing centrist policy commitments, and the development of a new left promoting social democratic and “democratic socialist” policy ideas and a Green New Deal.

There is, another words, a real struggle going on for the “soul” of the Democratic party.

This struggle will not abate in the current election cycle, and it is likely to continue for a number of years to come.

It is very important for this struggle to be allowed to play out — in Congress, in the presidential primary, and in public debate — in the lead up to 2020 and beyond. And, as I wrote in the Nation back in April, it is equally important for all of us to proceed with a sense of agonistic respect. “We need serious debate. About ideas, policies, and strategies. Those who consider themselves socialists will surely have disagreements with those who consider themselves liberals or progressives or feminists. Such disagreements can bridged through coalition-building around commonalities. But such bridgework is often difficult. For ideological differences involve emotional investments and styles of communicating and ways of being. There will be misstatements and overstatements, fights and hurt feelings and the reopening of old wounds and the creation of new ones. Hopefully there will also be mutual understanding and mutual learning. Otherwise, it is hard to see how we can effectively come together to defeat Trumpism and to advance the values of freedom, justice, and environmental sustainability. And too much is at stake to risk failure.”

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: Democracy in Dark Times (1998); The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline; and Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion.

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