Nancy Pelosi’s last couple months haven’t been so great. The House Minority Leader faced a fresh round of criticism holding her responsible for Jon Ossoff’s defeat in the special election in Georgia’s sixth congressional district. The National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Paul Ryan-linked Super PAC, ran ads in Georgia portraying Ossoff as a rubber stamp for her big-spending, San Francisco-inflected liberal agenda.
These are old lines of attack, with Republicans trotting out Pelosi as the liberal boogeyman for the last several election cycles. Whether they work in getting more people to vote against her policies is, like most things in political campaigns, more article of faith than anything else. Conservatives certainly believe such ads resonate with their base—similar ads played in the recent Montana and Kansas special elections—but a Republican strategist told Politico there’s no actual evidence invoking Pelosi affects outcomes. Interpreting special election results is always an exercise in reading tea leaves, with observers left to project their own preconceptions onto the tiny set of data points. That’s especially true in the case of Ossoff, who ran such an ideologically devoid campaign that it sharpens the discourse to consider the CLF’s gibberish attacks about him being Pelosi’s radical ally.
But these ads make a certain sense, even as they are fundamentally nonsense—after all, never mind that the Republicans’ nearly 50-seat majority means there would have been no opportunity for Ossoff to help implement any part of Pelosi’s agenda until after the 2018 midterms. Republicans believe these ads work enough to keep running them, while at least some Democrats believe in them enough to want Pelosi to step aside. The trouble with that is the attack speaks to something deeper and more structural than any individual failing of Pelosi’s, and a hypothetical replacement would succumb to the same problem in short order. Pelosi might be the current liberal boogeyman, but that position is an inevitable byproduct of how the Democratic party works—or doesn’t, as is often the case.
To see this, consider a recent Pelosi press briefing, where she had to defend her record amid rumors of a leadership challenge and calls from a section of the Democrats’ more progressive base for her to step aside. “I am a strategic, politically astute leader,” she told reporters last Thursday. “My leadership is recognized by many around the country, and that is why I am able to attract the support that I do which is essential to our election, sad to say. I am very pleased [with] the cooperation that we’re doing, working with all the social media and small donor community to change how we communicate but also how we attract resources, intellectual and financial to the party.”
It’s risky doing too close a reading of off-the-cuff remarks, but the words Pelosi elides here are telling. The kind of support she’s sad to say is essential to Democrats winning election really must refer to the big-money donor class, which fits with the convoluted reference to the financial resources the party needs. Basically, Pelosi’s argument is that she sits at the junction between the base and the money, able to work with both effectively in a way few others would be able to.
And, as these things go, she’s sort of right, inasmuch as it’s basically impossible for anyone to reconcile those two sides of the Democratic Party for very long. Anthropologist and Marxist theorist David Harvey writes about this in his 2005 book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, where, as part of his sweeping overview of the political and economic system that has dominated the past 40 years, he explains the current Republican and Democratic electoral coalitions. In the late 1970s, the GOP establishment partnered with both the deep pockets of a corporate class hungry to reestablish its traditional power and the newly politicized conservative Christians led by Jerry Falwell.
From Reagan on, Republicans have argued that problems of modern society—be they abstract issues like rampant materialism or brutally concrete ones like the opioid crisis or the collapse of traditional industry—are not economic byproducts of the very policies favored by the Republicans’ ruling plutocrats, but rather entirely cultural failings, signs of a decaying moral order brought on by liberals favoring minorities and special interest groups. It’s all built on a big lie, and the more recent emergence of hardliners who actually believe this incoherent ideology has necessitated ever more extreme efforts to keep squaring this circle, culminating in the election of Donald Trump, who transcends such mundane concepts like “truth” and “lie” and stands instead as a ceaseless foghorn of bullshit.
But if you leave aside the bit where the only way to keep the Republican alliance going has been to hand a reality show oaf the nuclear codes, this partnership works. It keeps winning elections, after all, and has inexorably moved the country’s politics rightward even as every opinion poll shows the electorate moving leftward. And that’s because, as Harvey notes, the Democratic Party is divided against itself, with the material needs of its diverse base standing in general opposition to its donors.
While the Democratic Party had a popular base, it could not easily pursue an anti-capitalist or anti-corporate political line without totally severing its connections with powerful financial interests…The Republican Party could mobilize massive financial resources and mobilize its popular base to vote against its material interests on cultural/religious grounds while the Democratic Party could not afford to attend to the material needs (for example, for a national health care system) of its traditional popular base for fear of offending capital class interests. Given the asymmetry, the political hegemony of the Republican Party became more sure.
And remember, while Harvey’s parenthetical about health care reads as hideously topical, his book was written in 2005. None of this is new. And this is where Pelosi fits in, as she’s just one of a long line of political operators who have tried to bridge the gap between those two sides—hence why Pelosi has both said she supports single payer while saying it’s political unfeasible. It all goes back to what she is sad to say is essential to winning elections. Hers is the politics of how things have to be instead of how things ought to be, but her mistake—the recurring mistake of every liberal technocrat—is the notion that the former assessment is somehow more objective or less ideologically driven than the latter.
We’ve seen various attempts to reconcile these two sides. Hillary Clinton bet hard on identity politics as a way to motivate the base while at best keeping at arm’s length and at worst rejecting the economic populism of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Barack Obama used his once-in-a-generation oratorical gifts to frame the divide between donors and base as the gap between what America is and what it could be, all while losing more than a thousand seats nationwide and doing relatively little to move the country from the former to the latter.
Those most committed to maintaining the neoliberal status quo within the veneer of centrism have begun putting themselves forward as nonideological, as outsiders not in the sense they oppose the establishment—you know, the actual definition of being an outsider—but rather in the sense they stand apart from all those gross and messy beliefs those awful politicians have. That was Ossoff’s strategy, which didn’t work, though it has found success in France with the election of Emmanuel Macron, who was an investment banker and business-friendly government minister before somehow campaigning for president as an outsider. (That his opponent was the fascist Marine Le Pen certainly made that particular line of bullshit easier to swallow.)
Pelosi is not nearly as ideologically bankrupt, but the essential blankness of campaigns like Ossoff’s force voters to look nationally for meaning. That Pelosi’s beliefs are at least defined enough to be caricaturable makes her more vulnerable. Here again, she is fighting four decades of political trends. The Republican coalition first gained strength in reaction to the perceived cultural excesses of a 1960s and 1970s counterculture that Pelosi’s San Francisco still represents in the minds of conservative voters.
“It’s not about me, necessarily: they like to target my district, the city of St. Francis,” Pelosi said at the press briefing. “I am very proud to represent San Francisco in the Congress. It was always about, ‘Do you support gay marriage, do you support this?’ Yes, I do, and I’m proud to do so. So that’s what they play off of. It would be interesting to say if I were from – some other place, but I take their insult against my city as a bankruptcy of value from their part not to recognize the greatness of the city I represent.”
That Pelosi represents San Francisco makes the attacks against her a touch more organic, but this is ultimately beside the point. She comes closer to identifying the issue with her reference to gay marriage, which is the perfect example of the kind of progressive interventionism Republicans have rallied their base against for decades, even as the specific issue changes—marriage equality feels settled, at least for the moment, but that’s given way to the full-on assault on health care.
The real problem is that the liberalism embodied by Pelosi and San Francisco stands in contrast to how government is now viewed. As Harvey notes, where once government was thought of as an instrument of civil society, now it stands as an opponent—think the shift from Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society or even Richard Nixon’s founding of the Environmental Protection Agency to our present era of school choice, endless disruption, and whatever hellish meanness the Republican Party has cooked up this week. This shift was the result not just of Reagan’s small-government conservatism (which had a funny habit of making the government bigger, but never mind) but also of more leftward-leaning impulses, including that same 1960s counterculture’s anti-conformity individualism.
To defend Pelosi or even to argue for her replacement is to assume there’s something specific to her about the liberal boogeyman, when really it’s the inescapable byproduct of how the system is set up. The Democratic Party—and with them the liberals, progressives, and leftists who would make common cause with them—can’t get out of this mess for as long as it’s built on a foundation of quicksand. Those anti-Pelosi attack ads are a symptom, but the cure is far greater-reaching than any one politician.