“But our message, our progressive message, is down the middle.” — Nancy Pelosi, 60 Minutes
What does Nancy Pelosi want, really?
We know what the Democratic Speaker doesn’t care about. As Splinter noted:
On Friday night, the president tweeted out a video that included now-familiar clips of Rep. Ilhan Omar speaking to the Council on American-Islamic Relations in March, juxtaposed with images of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The message of the video was clear: Omar, a Muslim woman, is inextricably linked to the 9/11 attacks. “WE WILL NEVER FORGET!” the tweet read. This attack from the most powerful man in the world comes less than two weeks after a New York man was charged for threatening to kill Omar, calling her a “terrorist.”
Condemnation came swiftly from some quarters. And a curious silence from others:
Once the size of the blowback was known, as Omar received death threats, Pelosi moved quickly to cover lost ground. As CNN reported:
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she talked with the House Sergeant-at-Arms, the House official in charge of security, about the safety of Rep. Ilhan Omar and said she wanted to make sure a security assessment was being conducted.
She said she wanted “to ensure that Capitol Police are conducting a security assessment to safeguard Congresswoman Omar, her family and her staff” following President Donald Trump's tweet on Friday. “They will continue to monitor and address the threats she faces,” Pelosi said in a statement.
The damage had already been done. And it confirmed the Left's impression of Pelosi. The Speaker's dislike of progressives is hardly new. Go down her record. She has a career-long history of pushing back against change. Earlier this week, Pelosi claimed a massive political shift amounted to a barbershop quartet plus one:
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told CBS's “60 Minutes” that the left flank of the House Democratic caucus represented by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is “like five people” in a Sunday interview. Asked by Lesley Stahl about potential insurrections or pushback from the progressive wing of the party, Pelosi responded, “That's like five people.” She also disputed that there was a distinction between herself and progressive Democrats, saying she herself identified as a progressive.
According to Gallup, fifty-one percent of American young people “are positive about socialism.” I don't have access to the Speaker's advanced math, but unless my abacus lies, that's slightly above a quintet. As The Intercept wrote:
If socialism isn't “ascendant” in her party, why did 16 Democratic senators join with Sanders in September 2017 to introduce his Medicare For All Act, a bill “enthusiastically” endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America? Lest we forget, only four years earlier, Sanders introduced a similar bill in the Senate that had zero Democratic co-sponsors. Here are a couple of other questions for Pelosi to consider: If socialism isn't “ascendent” in her party, why did nearly six in 10 Democratic primary voters in 2016 say it has a “positive impact on society” and four in 10 Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa describe themselves as socialists? Why did the New York Times publish a piece in April that was headlined, “'Yes, I'm Running as a Socialist.' Why Candidates Are Embracing the Label in 2018”?
Indeed, Pelosi is a progressive in the same way that I am the Speaker of House. Regarding Pelosi's claims of forward motion, I always think of that remarkable CNN Town Hall in 2017. When an NYU Sophomore Trevor Hill asked the Speaker if, gosh, the Dem leadership could kinda, sorta just be a little more progressive on the economics question, Pelosi showed that deft, sensitive wit for which she is so famous:
The Speaker muttered a few words about Adam Smith, and it was horrible for everyone, including you. In a post to NYULocal, Hill was quoted after the event, saying
“She can't possibly understand where I, or millions of other millennials who are drowning under capitalism, come from,” said Hill of the response, noting she is very wealthy and is attuned to the establishment. “She refused to admit that the Democrats needed to move in a populist direction, which is what so many millions of Americans are crying out for them to do.”
In 2018, after winning a historic midterm election that brought a groundswell of progressives, women, and people of color to the Democratic ranks, what was Pelosi's first instinct? Why, to appease her own base—the one that really mattered to the Speaker:
Less than a month after Democrats — many of them running on “Medicare for All” — won back control of the House of Representatives in November, the top health policy aide to then-prospective House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with Blue Cross Blue Shield executives and assured them that party leadership had strong reservations about single-payer health care and was more focused on lowering drug prices, according to sources familiar with the meeting. Pelosi adviser Wendell Primus detailed five objections to Medicare for All and said that Democrats would be allies to the insurance industry in the fight against single-payer health care.
Then there was her initial stance on the Green New Deal:
Pelosi said Wednesday, however, the panel would not be tasked with writing a specific bill, and brushed off the idea of the Green New Deal as a “suggestion.” “It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive,” Pelosi said. “The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they're for it right?”
There was her moral surrender on the first Ilhan Omar controversy. In the same 60 Minutes interview, Pelosi claimed a glass of water could win the nominations in district like hers or AOC's. There was the Pay-As-You-Go provision. And so on. As HuffPo noted in February, the Speaker has a curious sense of gratitude:
... Pelosi owes much of her power to progressives. They never made an issue out of the California Democrat's history of taking corporate PAC donations, and Pelosi quickly locked up their support during the speaker's race, even though high-profile Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez had initially wavered on Pelosi. With the more liberal wing behind her, Pelosi was able to define her opposition as a group of white, moderate men, which in turn put pressure on those Democrats to get behind her.
Pelosi’s instincts are curious, though. Forget the popularity of left policies. Let’s return, briefly, to the Omar example.
The President is one of the most unpopular people in America, a sworn enemy to Team Blue. He made an obvious incitement against a Muslim woman of color, a progressive, and part of Pelosi’s caucus. Until she was pushed to it by social media and media outrage, the Speaker could have cared less. She didn’t exactly throw Omar to the wolves. She merely failed to do anything to stop it. Even if she dislikes Omar personally, refusing to defend her is a baffling move. Seen cynically, Trump’s Omar attack was a God-sent opportunity to win points from her flock. The Resistance—the Left—the media— everyone. Why didn’t she?
There’s a phenomenon in biology called Antagonistic pleiotropy, or AP. “Antagonistic” means what you think it means, and “pleiotropy” is the fancy science word for when a gene produces two or more unrelated effects.
Wikipedia, solver of all human bar bets, describes AP as “when one gene controls for more than one trait, where at least one of these traits is beneficial to the organism’s fitness and at least one is detrimental to the organism’s fitness.” We have all kinds of genetic bombs waiting to go off in our DNA. Given the harsh rules of natural selection, why do we still carry them? Simple: In the short term, these genes aid our chances of passing on our genes. In the long term, they endanger us. All nature cares about is the genes surviving. Evolution doesn’t much care about your individual well-being beyond reproduction.
What genes do, people also do. In fact, our entire society is carved along these lines. Short-term thinking is baked into our cultural hardware. There’s a horrific logic to it. The human species escaped the Malthusian death trap like, yesterday. We’re geared towards survival. For most of history, short term planning made sense. It was the only way, in a world where people didn’t live very long. Forget “living my best life”—I want to know how to survive this drought, this tiger, this village stoning, this open mic comedy night.
Pelosi was elected to Congress in 1987. The next year, Bush recruited famous hell-spawn Lee Atwater to run the most obviously racist Republican campaign until Trump: see Horton, Willie. 1988 was first Presidential election since 1948 in where the ruling party won a third term. Bush the Elder crushed Dukakis in the electoral and popular vote. Why did Dukakis lose? As Rick Perlstein wrote for The Nation:
What was the entire rationale for his [Dukakis’] successful 1988 nominating campaign? That he was anti-ideology, all the way down. The signature line from his acceptance speech was, “This election isn’t about ideology; it’s about competence. It’s not about meaningless labels; it’s about American values.” ... He forced the second-place candidate, Jesse Jackson—the ideological guy, the guy whom the party actually would have nominated if it had been “controlled by its most extreme faction”—to wait in the convention parking lot before he would meet with him.
Pelosi is stuck in 1988, trapped in the mindset of survival: we can’t ever stop punching left! Someone might think we believe in things! It’s a self-serving politics based on fear. There is no problem with Nancy Pelosi’s age: you cannot disqualify her and keep Sanders.
The Speaker’s problem is that she’s reading from a disproven, dated script. Pelosi is often contrasted, but not compared, to Donald Trump. But they are alike in one way. Both of them are essentially figures who never left the Reagan era. Of course Pelosi and her followers are serving their donors and their class interest. That’s obvious. But I think Pelosi believes what she’s saying.
Pelosi and the center are absolutely terrified of progressivism in America. They are practicing the political version of Antagonistic pleiotropy. Being a craven centrist allowed some gerrymandered Dems to get reelected in 1981, when Reagan reigned supreme. But that window closed just as quickly as it opened. America has needed progressive leadership for decades, and hasn’t had it. Pelosi-style fear has damned the country for forty years. Moderate, spineless Dems lead to voter disenchantment, which leads to them staying home, which leads to more conservative Dems, and so on, until the process compounds itself. That’s how you move from The New Deal to a Dem Speaker who won’t push back on a Presidential threat to one of her members.
The Speaker wants to survive. It’s a pleasant life, isn’t it? Staying in power as long as you can. It’s a fine thing, to win reelection. But as a people, as a party, as a nation, survival means more than biding out the calendar. You don’t wait for the times; you make the times. Sitting by and watching the Republic burn—this is not my idea of courage, or leadership. We can’t just plan for the short term. Not with this President, and not with this climate. We’re living for something more now. The future is long, but not long enough.