According to The New York Times, Rep. Nancy Pelosi quelled the “rebels” in her ranks to retain her speakership by elevating far-left members. While the deal comes with a four-year expiration date, this could be seen as simple practicality—Pelosi is 78 and will be 83 when the deal is done.
However, the framing of the NYT story on this deal and Pelosi’s own words implied much more than a sensible retirement plan: “A bridge to the next generation of leaders, a recognition of my continuing responsibility to mentor and advance new members into positions of power and responsibility in the House Democratic caucus.”
These “rebels” made a similar forecast in their statement: “We are proud that our agreement will make lasting institutional change that will strengthen our caucus and will help develop the next generation of Democratic leaders,” such as Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar (MN), who was pictured in the NYT story. She believes Israel has “hypnotized the world” and seeks to ease restrictions on female genital mutilation. In the NYT picture, she leans into the center of the frame and smiles, looking very satisfied with her ascendant role in the Democratic Party.
The progressive caucus certainly needs to “strengthen” to compete on a national stage. As David Frum pointed out in The Atlantic, twice, “There is no progressive majority in America.” Progressives’ numerous electoral failures in the midterms supports Frum’s estimate—while the nonpartisan Hidden Tribes study found only 8 percent of Americans are “progressive activists” who support far-left views.
But like the disproportionate representation of progressive ideas in Hollywood and the media or the utterly lopsided ratio of leftists in academia, these progressive “rebels” look poised to wield disproportionate influence in the Democratic Party. I sympathize, even identify, with young progressives’ desire to gain power and influence—considering liberals’ golden god, President Obama, presided over a “Great” Recovery that did as much for millennials and the poor as it did for the rust belt.
Full disclosure: I am a left-leaning, millennial academic working in one of the most ideologically skewed fields in the study previously cited. Of the candidates in 2016, I believed Hillary Clinton would have been the most capable executive, but I had no delusions that she was a likable, charismatic, or even a particularly ethical candidate.
Yet many of my friends on the left did not see the glaring weaknesses in her candidacy and chalked her loss up to “a basket of deplorables”: sexists, racists, fascists, etc. are the reason Trump was elected. I admire Clinton in many ways. I also have a lot of respect for Richard Nixon’s political contributions and humble origins, but it is absurd to call everyone who disagrees with my second opinion a misandrist.
Absurdity is in no short supply among far left. As young progressives graduate from punching Nazis to roundhouse-kicking pro-life activists, as the new patriarchy transplains to women their rights and endangers children, and as millennial patriotism wanes, it’s very easy to mock well-educated, middle-class progressives’ ingratitude and declarations of victimhood, and it’s even easier to sink into a moral outrage. The hard thing is to recognize leftist millennials are victims—just not of conservative policies, X-ism, or Y-phobia.
We could examine some of the myriad causes. The failure of many academics, especially those of us teaching in the humanities and liberal arts, to provide an ideologically heterodox, intellectually rigorous pedagogy bear a portion of blame. So does the failure of neoliberal policy-makers—like Pelosi, Obama, and Clinton—to oversee an economic recovery that reached millennials during the critical early period of our careers. The Democratic National Committee’s scandalous favoritism for Clinton in 2016 during the primaries also stoked progressive ire that was never truly reckoned with.
Whatever the cause, the 2016 election created a schism within the American left. As 2018 draws to a close, Pelosi’s deal to retain the speakership as well as the outcome of the midterm elections showed liberals still dominate progressives within the Democratic Party, in quantity and political power. It also promised “lasting institutional change” favoring the progressive caucus and their ascendant role in the party.
Even if Democrats ignore the bad policy that could result from Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive politicians who follow the Democratic Socialists of America Constitution—which has innovative ideas like “a humane social order based on popular control of resources”—they can’t afford to ignore the failure of far-left candidates in 2018 and their approximately 8 percent representation in the electorate.
The Democratic Party’s liberals will need to continue reckoning with these “rebels” for the foreseeable future. These young, highly motivated progressive politicians and citizens have genuine grievances. Liberals in the Democratic Party must start serving their needs and stop deflecting their failure to do so onto President Trump, conservatives and right-wing populism, assuming they want their party to succeed.
Democratic liberals must also recognize that many of these progressives’ principles are opposed to many liberal or even democratic values, so the two ideologies will not be able to coexist in many respects. Speaking for myself—a left-of-center-middle-class-straight-white-cisgender-blabla Jewboy—seeing how fashionable anti-Semitism, other types of identitarianism, as well as incivility or even violence toward people with dissenting opinions has become among so-called “progressives,” I’m not sure I want these factions to coexist.
So when I observe this from a purely cynical position and see the impossibility of liberals and progressives forming a functional coalition that can succeed on a national scale, I must admit to an iota of guilty pleasure that Pelosi’s deal with progressives has set a course for failure. However, mostly I am just sad.
Sad the Democratic Party betrayed progressives during the 2016 primary. Sad the party’s liberal establishment failed so many young, disadvantaged, and working-class people, which undoubtedly catalyzed the toxic reaction of left-wing populism. Sad to see so many idealistic, well-intentioned young people victimized by callow ideologues.
Many progressive educators and the media might be failing to teach the next generation not only that America is truly great but truly good for the people lucky enough to live here, or that the bedrock of this exceptional goodness lies in our unique democratic values, republican system of government, and Constitution. I only hope the failure of progressive politicians on the national stage—or barring that near-certain outcome, the failure of progressive policies—succeeds in teaching both liberals and progressives the lessons they have, thus far, refused to learn.