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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Pelosi Must Go

It is not acceptable to have a party leader who portrays the progressive left as crazy.

It’s hard to imagine the congressional Democratic Party without Nancy Pelosi, who has been in the House of Representatives for 30 years and led the party for about half of that time. But if the left is to accomplish anything politically, if we truly mean what we say when we pledge to “transform” the political system, it’s clear that Pelosi needs to go, sooner rather than later.

In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Pelosi made it very clear where she stands politically: She is opposed to the left and is working against it. Over the course of the interview, she indicated that:

  • She did not support a wealth tax, and instead wanted “bipartisan” changes to the tax code (i.e., ones Republicans will sign onto, i.e., ones that do not substantially change the balance of who owns what in this country).
  • She would not compromise or reconsider her support of a “pay as you go” rule that prevents any social spending that increases the deficit.
  • She is “not a big fan” of Medicare for All. Mother Jones described Pelosi as trying to “pump the brakes” on single-payer healthcare, and conservative Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus immediately used Pelosi’s remarks as a stick with which to beat the left. 
  • She is against the Green New Deal. Pelosi repeated the damaging myth that there is a tension between labor issues and environmental issues, saying: “There’s very strong opposition on the labor side to the Green New Deal because it’s like 10 years, no more fossil fuel. Really?” In fact, the Green New Deal is specifically designed to harmonize labor’s cause with climate change, to avoid precisely that kind of “strong opposition.”
  • She believes a left message will be electorally damaging in 2020. Pelosi said that “what works in San Francisco does not necessarily work in Michigan,” which is a bit ironic since Bernie Sanders won the Michigan primary in 2016 and Nancy Pelosi is to his right politically. 
  • She intends to portray democratic socialists as crazy. “As a left-wing San Francisco liberal I can say to these people: What are you thinking?”

I’m not going to mince words here. I think what Pelosi is doing is evil. I think it’s indefensible. It is hard enough fighting against corporate interests and the Republican Party without also having the leader of the Democratic Party portraying left ideas as ludicrous. The Green New Deal and single-payer healthcare are morally urgent. The people pushing them are serious, intelligent, and committed. Pelosi chooses to treat them as idiots. (“The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”) She could remain neutral, she could avoid “punching left,” but she’s publicly attacking and undermining the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

When someone tells you who they are, believe them. Nancy Pelosi says she is not with the democratic socialists, that she thinks they’re loony and she opposes all of their signature initiatives. She promises to thwart their agenda by mandating strict rules against deficit increases. She will embrace a Republican tax agenda before she’ll embrace a leftist one. All of this is her publicly stated position. In fact, her office has already tried to actively undermine the left: One of Pelosi’s top aides actually encouraged health policy groups to find problems with Medicare for All so that they could kill it. 

Pelosi has been embraced by many Democrats for her high-profile opposition to Donald Trump. But even that opposition has frequently been tepid. When the New York Times profiled Pelosi this time last year, she did exactly what she is doing now: attacked those to her left rather than Trump. The Times said she has “little patience” for the “new generation of activists” she calls “the lefties.” She used the opportunity of the profile to mock the staunchest opponents of Trump’s immigration policies and portray impeachment as extreme and unnecessary: 

There were a lot of Democrats, I suggested, who believed that bipartisanship had been rendered antique in the Trump era. “Yeah,” Pelosi replied, smirking, “and I have those who want to be for impeachment and for abolishing ICE” — Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the federal law-enforcement agency spearheading Trump’s crackdown on immigration. “Two really winning issues for us, right? In the districts we have to win? I don’t even think they’re the right thing to do. If the evidence from Mueller is compelling, it should be compelling for Republicans” 

In fact, Pelosi caved completely on immigration earlier this year, passing a multi-billion dollar border enforcement bill that she had vowed to oppose, and dropping her insistence on protections for migrant children. (Pelosi said she would pass it, but with a “battle cry” against its provisions, for what that’s worth.) Pelosi opposed impeachment as “divisive” for a long time before finally giving in to pressure, and is still failing to present the case in a compelling way to the public. (Impeach Trump for his real crimes, such as mass murder.) 

Pelosi has had a long time to distinguish herself as a champion of justice, and has failed at critical moments. During the Bush administration, she was told of the CIA’s torture program and kept quiet about it, doing nothing to stop it and then dissembling when confronted about her silence. She issued statements of unqualified support for Bush at the worst possible moments, exactly when Democrats should have presented a united anti-war front. Pelosi has had a hand in everything from privatization schemes to mass surveillance, and voted for the PATRIOT Act, NAFTA, and No Child Left Behind. Her major contribution to the party is supposedly her unparalleled fundraising ability, but translated that simply means that Pelosi represents exactly the kind of money-driven Democratic politics—written about so well by Thomas Frank—that has killed the party’s popular appeal. (Pelosi’s own public “favorable” rating is five points lower than Donald Trump’s, which is… a bad sign.) Pelosi herself gives the usual defense that “it will take money to win the election to get people there who believe in taking the money out,” which overlooks the fact that the people with lots of money only put people there who are never actually going to take the money out. 

The Democratic Party has spent years failing to deliver for people. During that time, Nancy Pelosi was its leader in the House of Representatives. (Pelosi’s own San Francisco district is arguably the epicenter of the American inequality crisis.) If we are to have a new kind of politics, we desperately need new leadership.

Unfortunately, most people think that Nancy Pelosi is untouchable. She raises too much money, she has too many connections, she is too good at politics. I think the first task of the left is to reject this pessimism and “demand the impossible.” Pelosi must go. The Party can’t be led by someone who is going to punch left at every opportunity. Every day she is in office makes it harder for us to advance progressive politics. 

The good news is that there is an excellent primary challenger currently running against Pelosi, Shahid Buttar. I have written about Shahid before. If he wins, it will completely upend Democratic politics. And before you say “That will never happen,” remember that people would have said exactly the same thing about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s improbable campaign, as a 29-year-old bartender challenging one of the most influential Democrats in the House. Sometimes you have to put aside predictions of doom and simply have faith and work hard. 

Here’s what Larry Lessig has to say about Shahid: 

Shahid Buttar is everything that Congress needs—brilliant, principled, young and incredibly committed, empathetic, insightful and especially articulate. I’ve known him well for many years, especially well since 9/11/2001: Shahid was a student at Stanford; I watched and admired him as he, a Muslim American, weathered the abuse of ignorance that that tragic event triggered. He was patient and informed, open and empathetic — as an American — in a context filled with people who only wanted to see him as something other than us. They went low; Shahid went high. Since those days, Shahid has done nothing except fight a good fight—as a lawyer, and activist, and American. His latest stint has been at the extraordinary Electronic Frontier Foundation, building a national grassroots movement devoted to supporting civil liberties everywhere, especially online.

We have, then, an opportunity to put a genuine principled leftist into power. In fact, Pelosi’s seat should be occupied by a principled leftist. It’s one of the most heavily Democratic districts in the country. Whatever the arguments for having moderates in swing districts (and I think they are poor), San Francisco should not be represented by an anti-single payer, anti-GND member of Congress. But even if Shahid didn’t win, coming close to winning would send a powerful message that might make clear that no Democrat can attack the “new generation of activists” without paying a price.

Nancy Pelosi is such a fixed feature of Democratic Party politics that it’s almost impossible to imagine a world without her influence. Yet we have to start. Pelosi has made it clear that she is incapable of standing up to Donald Trump on things that matter, and that she opposes progressive policies and will try to thwart them. Removing her from office could be as important as capturing the presidency. So let’s embrace it as an indispensable step toward improving the political system. Pelosi must go. 

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