The Pelosi-Versus-Squad Paradigm
After President Trump said that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her allies in the House, all women of color, should “go back” to where they came from, the conflict between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez’s “Squad” was suspended. But the underlying rift between the progressive insurgents and the establishment of the Democratic Party remains, on issues from border aid to impeachment to college debt.
Is the Democratic Party in the process of radical change? And, if it is, how should establishment Democrats react, especially given the importance of defeating Trump next year? To talk about these questions, I spoke by phone with Rick Perlstein, the author of a series of books on the postwar right. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed Pelosi’s vision of her role within the Party, the lessons that Democrats can learn from Reagan, and whether the left is too dismissive of the necessity of winning over the center.
Do you feel that something seismic is happening within the Democratic Party?
I think that this is a very big dispute that is not going to go away, which I don’t necessarily think is a bad thing. The only way out is through. For the time being, the factions—these four young representatives of color, and Nancy Pelosi—are temporarily united because of Donald Trump’s latest outrage. But I don’t think this is going to go away, because it really comes down to a profound difference in strategy and ideology, an ideological difference deeper than left versus right.
At bottom, I think what we are talking about is that Pelosi is motivated by an ideology of consensus. It’s a way of thinking about politics that has extremely deep roots in American history. It’s the idea that tacitly believes that divisions within America are so deep, and the passions between partisans so potentially frightening and destructive, that the role of mature leaders is, fundamentally, to keep closed that Pandora’s box. It goes all the way back to the crisis over slavery in the eighteen-thirties and eighteen-forties, preventing open conflict between sections of the country by any means necessary. The House passed a gag rule that banned submission of petitions to Congress opposing slavery. They banned a specific clause in the First Amendment, which is that petitioning Congress to redress grievances is the right of every American. If you look at the élite discussion at that time, the people who were most frequently singled out as posing the greatest danger to the Republic were the people we now see as the heroes, the abolitionists. If you look at the nineteen-fifties, the villains were the people we see as the heroes, the so-called militant civil-rights activists. They were opening the Pandora’s box of racial conflict in the South and preventing the unity we needed for this existential fight against Communists.
What Pelosi is up to, I think, is upholding this ideological tradition. If you study her rhetoric from the spring on the subject of impeachment, it is really fascinating. People have accused her of being all over the place, but there is this remarkable coherence. It’s clearly language she has thought about really deeply. It’s about avoiding conflict by any means necessary. She talks about seeking a path that unfolds independent of anyone’s political will. If we can just accrete enough mutual facts, it will become so self-evident that no argument against the facts will be possible. Do you want to hear one of her quotes I am really fascinated by?
Do I have a choice?
“I do believe that impeachment is one of the most divisive forces, paths that we could go down in our country. But, if the path of fact-finding takes us there, then we have no choice. But we are not there yet.” She says you are wasting your time unless the evidence is so conclusive that the Republicans will understand. That’s what I am talking about—the idea that you can come up with this path that doesn’t require any clash of absolutes or incommensurate moral values. It is going to lead us inexorably to this agreement, because, in these times of moral turmoil for the country, the opposite of agreement and consensus is almost too anguishing to contemplate. That’s clearly what the Squad finds more difficult. It’s not that they want a fight or a war for its own sake. They recognize that we are already at war, and either you fight it as such or you lose the war, and I think that’s what they see Pelosi as doing.
Is the war with this racist Administration or the Democratic Party?
They see themselves at war with the racist, authoritarian Administration. I don’t know how they conceptualize the Democratic coalition. I do know how it seems Pelosi conceptualizes her role. The striking thing about Pelosi’s side in this fight is that what it seems to be pushing away is, yes, if you are the House Speaker, your job is largely about working behind the scenes to pass legislation and keep your coalition. It’s not really to be a national spokesman for your Party’s values. That’s traditionally the role of the President or other sorts of spokesmen. But the fact is, if you are on a team, it requires all sorts of elements. They used to talk about some congressmen as show horses and some as workhorses. You need both. If she doesn’t want to be the spokeswoman, if she doesn’t want to make strong moral arguments about a vision for the country and the fight we are in, great, then she can delegate it to someone else. But these people who are stepping forward to do it—she doesn’t seem to be saying to them, “Let’s get together and see how we can pull together in the same direction. Let’s figure out how we can work on this division of labor.” She seems to see them as anathema to whatever the goal is that she is trying to achieve. That is really problematic in a pluralist Party that has a lot of jobs to accomplish.
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I don’t disagree with that, but it seems to me that, if you listen to Bernie Sanders and hear the people around the Squad, they also want to revolutionize the Democratic Party, regardless of the fact of Trump. There is something else the left wants to accomplish.
That’s right. I think, frankly, that it’s a long time coming. You can look at how many seats the Democratic Party has lost over the last ten years in state legislatures. I think something has to happen. You can’t separate this from a context in which, frankly, we are facing this multifaceted, multidirectional collapse in the authority and efficacy of all sorts of core American institutions. You can say you are afraid of these people who want to transform the Democratic Party into a vehicle for the left. But that’s almost a distraction. The left-and-right thing can be very distracting. What if we are talking about settled institutional orders that all sorts of people are rejecting, whether they are Trump supporters or Sanders supporters or Elizabeth Warren supporters? We have a bunch of stakeholder institutions whose legacy sinecures are becoming more and more insular and less and less responsive.
I think that Nancy Pelosi seems to fit that identity to a T. She really seems to see the world in the context of what happens on Capitol Hill. And I don’t think that is very attractive to people all over the country of all sorts of ideological perspectives, when institutions and stakeholders and legacy figures seem to have failed the world so profoundly. I don’t think you have to be for nationalizing the steel mills to basically appreciate a party that has a little backbone and a little toughness to it. She has the job of holding together a fractious coalition, and she has the job of holding the House and maintaining or gaining seats in areas of the country that are not as left-wing. That’s absolutely true. This is “red America.” But we also have this stereotype of these parts of the country: toughness is a core primary value. All of us remember 2004, when George W. Bush won reëlection explicitly on this rationale of saying we know people disagree with his issue positions, but we are going to position him as the guy who sticks with his gut no matter what.
O.K., but when I listen to a lot of left talk now, there is no appreciation for what I think Pelosi would define as her predicament, which is that, no matter how tough or anti-establishment you are, you need to compromise on some issues. I do think a lot of people I read now think that the notion of going to the center politically is just giving in.
I am not going to defend stupid writers and stupid tweeters. I don’t really know how it happened that the public life of a great nation gets decided in two-hundred-character tweets. But did you see the Squad’s press conference two days ago?
A.O.C. is up there, and she is talking about her childhood visit to Washington, staring into the [Lincoln Memorial] Reflecting Pool. She directly addresses all the children of America, saying this country belongs to you. It’s not merely just issue positions. It’s people willing to speak in an unstintingly moral language. She uses words like “love.” She calls out wickedness. She speaks in terms of the long arc of history. She is speaking “American.” To a lot of people that’s uncomfortable language. People on Capitol Hill are uncomfortable with moral language. But the alternative is not saying that Donald Trump is going to impeach himself if we do enough backroom investigations that have not shown any fruit whatsoever, in a country where one of the parties is defying subpoenas and daring the other party to do something about it. That’s just a bad look.
I agree, but nothing you have said requires any sort of compromise. And I don’t mean it as a fetishistic thing, but in terms of what you are selling voters, and—
Ronald Reagan famously compromised all the time, both as governor and as President. He passed all kinds of tax hikes, and he always did this in negotiations with Democratic-controlled legislatures. This happened in a very cordial way. Everyone who negotiated with him said he was a perfectly amiable negotiator. But, on the level of rhetoric, whenever he had to trim his sails on a core ideal, he would always talk about it in a way that shored up his moral vision. He would say that this just proves the other side is worse than I thought, or we have to work harder for these core values. He didn’t say in 1982 what Barack Obama did in 2010—that we had a shellacking and we have to find a way to compromise. Reagan said after his shellacking that we have to stay the course. The compromises have to happen. But they happen at a different level of the system. And that’s what Nancy Pelosi is very good at. Her role in passing the Affordable Care Act was absolutely heroic and should not be gainsaid. But there has to be a role for spokesmanship, on the level of moral values.
How do you think what we are seeing in the Presidential primary campaign fits into this paradigm?
I think that we really get wrapped up in what’s happening today and this week and in this debate. You have the Democratic candidates laying down markers that are probably problematic in the context of a general election, when they talk about getting rid of the role of insurance companies. But what skilled politicians do is they find ways to pivot. It’s tricky, and it’s one reason people don’t always like or trust politicians. But to reify the candidates who are speaking in a very adamant way and say that will sink the Democrats seems, to me, premature.
That was going to be my next question, but what I meant to ask was how you think the candidates fit into this Pelosi-versus-Squad paradigm.
I think that Bernie Sanders speaks in this moral language quite consistently, and Elizabeth Warren does, as well. Others not so much. Kamala Harris has already triangulated about school desegregation. [She has taken several positions on whether she supports federally mandated busing.] She has climbed down in a way that maybe she didn’t have to in the give-and-take of a Presidential debate, in which a lot of things are going to happen in the next eighteen months. Again, to go back to Reagan, who was always able to really walk and chew gum at the same time, when it came to the back room and the podium. I am talking ultimately about a division of labor. If you are embracing the idea of consensus as your core value, as the Pelosi faction seems to do, I don’t think it really responds to the deeper energies of our time.
Sometimes I feel like we overanalyze Trump’s victory.
Liberals and progressives seem very aware of the structural inequalities of politics right now, from the Senate to the Electoral College, but, given that those things aren’t changing anytime soon, do you think that the Democrats have to make compromises that another political party wouldn’t if the structural situation were different?
Speaking of compromises—and historical compromises party coalitions have to make—in 1978, not too far away from this period in the 1980 election cycle, do you know the percentage of Americans who announced themselves as identifying with the Republican Party?
I do not.
Twenty-two per cent. There are always historical conditions that make reaching out to a broad coalition imperative. But how Ronald Reagan made that choice in a 1975 speech was to raise a banner, in a weird gender thing, of No Pale Pastels.
What does that mean?
Bold colors. It’s really striking to look at his rhetoric at the time and to see what the pundits were really concerned about. How could a conservative win the nomination when the country is so obviously in the center? How is it possible that the country could elect a conservative when there is this and that poll result on issue after issue that shows the American people don’t want to cut social programs and are not as obsessed with taxes as Ronald Reagan is? But what Ronald Reagan’s genius was all about was that he saw a vision of a conservatism that could reach out to what he called Democrats and Independents. And there were all kinds of ways he did that, and some of them were problematic and disturbing and involved racist dog whistles and issues like welfare. The creative politician who is going to wind up on top of the heap two or three years from now might be doing it in ways that aren’t really legible to us now—ways that don’t necessarily match up in obvious ways to the tactical coalitions, to issue alignments. We have to think in terms of the arc of history, and I think we are bogged down in a kind of Capitol Hill insularity right now.
That’s fine, but another takeaway from what you are saying could be that, if you don’t have someone with once-in-a-generation political skill, then—
Right, and you have to be open to new energies and new kinds of politicians in order to nurture once-in-a-generation politicians and not just cram people down, and nastily dismiss them and say it is just four people with Twitter followers. You have to have an openness. One of the things that is Nancy Pelosi’s calling card is her maturity and her experience. And the unfortunate thing about it is that she is behaving in a very callow way when it comes to her position within the institution, which she seems to value more than the role of the institution itself. Let’s not forget the House of Representatives is the people’s House. It is institutionally set up as a check on an elected king. These people are trying to do what the Constitution said the House should do.
Let me tell you a story. After Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 and inherited this awful war and even seemed to be expanding it, George McGovern went to Henry Kissinger and said, “Henry, why can’t you just pull out of this war and say it was the Democrats’ doing and declare victory and go home?” And Kissinger said, “If we did that, the country would become ungovernable.” That’s the instinct that a lot of élites in the country have always had, that the grass roots are so fractious and frightening that they have to be tamped down at any cost. Moral language is really frightening in that context.