In our reality TV political theater, the conflict between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a gold mine. Downplay it though they might, there’s a serious disagreement between the two women playing out in the public square, with the all subtle jabs, innuendo, passive-aggressive maneuvering, and outright defiance this conflict entails, it is bound to draw eyes and, more importantly, clicks.
For those not politically sympathetic to the Democratic Party, watching an internecine conflict amongst one’s enemies has an almost pornographic allure. One is tempted to pray that the battle leaves one or both parties seriously wounded, if not outright demolished, and that there will be plenty of inter-party collateral damage as a result.
Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez both represent warring factions within the Democrat Party. Pelosi represents the old guard, along with others like Chuck Schumer and Maxine Waters. Ocasio-Cortez represents the young insurgent faction, along with other new blood like Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. The insurgents are not shy about publicly criticizing the old guard for being “insufficiently liberal” (read: leftist), while the old guard has not been entirely quiet about its distaste for the bellicose and insubordinate flavor of the insurgent faction, Ocasio-Cortez in particular.
It’s not that Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez and their representative camps aren’t philosophically or ideologically aligned. Their ultimate goals are the same. Their disagreement hinges on the best methods of attaining those goals, and the patience required for achieving them.
Pelosi, the elder stateswoman, is content to play the long game, understanding instinctively that too much naked revolutionary fervor unsettles the majority of a country that still ostensibly believes in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and still holds the vestiges of our Founders’ inherent distrust of ever-expanding governmental control.
Ocasio-Cortez, on the other hand, is a firebrand and a true believer. Their coterie believes that the only proper response to the Trump presidency is to move further left. They openly espouse socialism, proudly fly the Resistance flag, and believe senior Democrats to be sorely out of touch. They have no time for (or are perhaps incapable of) half-measures, careful political calculation, or disguised motives.
Alinsky and the Radical New Left
Watching this conflict play out reminds one of revolutionary-turned-conservative David Horowitz’s description of the ideological rift between community organizing pioneer Saul Alinsky and the radical New Left during the 1960s. In the current clash, Pelosi is clearly the avatar of Alinsky, while Ocasio-Cortez is the avatar of the New Left.
The basic disagreement between Alinsky and the New Left was not over the ends, but simply the means of achieving revolution. Alinsky’s famous book “Rules for Radicals” was meant as a corrective to the blatant anarchism and overtly militant posture of the New Left. Horowitz, a former member of the New Left, writes:
Alinsky‘s Rules for Radicals is first of all a broadside against the New Left. What Alinsky attacks about the New Left is its honesty — something I’ve always regarded as its only redeeming feature. While American Communists — the Old Left — pretended to be Jeffersonian Democrats and ‘progressives’ and formed ‘popular fronts’ with liberals to ‘defend democracy,’ we in the New Left disdained their deception and regarded it as weakness. To distinguish ourselves from these Old Leftists, we said we were revolutionaries and proud of it.
Alinsky’s philosophy is built on deception. It is a purely utilitarian program for seizure of power from the “haves” by the “have-nots,” one in which the ends justifies the means (Alinsky famously deconstructed the argument about ends versus means, declaring that the argument was “meaningless”). He was a fellow traveler to the Communists, but never self-identified as a member of their group, because to do so would show his hand.
Horowitz further explains: “The most basic principle of Alinsky’s advice to radicals is, lie to your opponents and potential opponents and disarm them by pretending to be moderates, liberals. This has been the most potent weapon of the left since the end of the Sixties.”
Even if she doesn’t have the explicit ties to Alinsky that Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama have, Pelosi is nevertheless a product of Alinsky’s philosophy and methodology. She knows how to apply Alinsky’s rule 13: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” She certainly understands his rule 6: “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.”
She knows that the most effective means of seizing power and fundamentally transforming a country is slowly, incrementally, and under the guise of forwarding the freedoms that country espouses. As an Alinskyite, she knows that it is incumbent upon her to never reveal her true motives, never let her disdain for the principles and framework of her own country to be exposed, as this will only impede her progress. Duplicity is the name of the game, since it has the best chance of success.
Ocasio-Cortez, on the other hand, exemplifies the New Left’s impatience and guilelessness. She very likely miscalculates the mass appeal of her ideas, but their popularity or even feasibility are irrelevant. She will push her program through by sheer force of will and overwhelming zeal.
Let the elderly play the arcane and outmoded game of revolution-by-minor-degrees. Let them scheme and connive in back rooms. Let them calculate the best way of packaging socialism in a Trojan horse for the unsuspecting American public. The young have no time for these things. In the words of the New Left, Ocasio-Cortez and her cohort “want the revolution, and they want it now.”
Alinsky’s Method Won
In the end, Alinsky won the strategic argument in the ’60s. The fire of the belligerent New Left burned too fast, and was quickly extinguished, while Alinsky’s doctrine of deception shaped an entire generation of would-be revolutionaries, many of whom have risen to the highest levels of political office within the United States.
Alinsky is the reason that in our present political discourse, “the issue is never the issue”––the issue is always clouded by layers of obfuscation, sophistry, and rhetorical attack, because for the Alinskyite, “the issue is always the revolution.” But revolution is only possible if it is disguised. Horowitz explains:
[Alinsky’s doctrine] is a call to revolutionaries who want to destroy the system, to first work within the system until you can accumulate enough power to destroy it. In the movement, we used to call this the strategy of ‘boring from within.’ Like termites, you eat away at the foundations until the building collapses.
So what’s the good news in the present conflict, apart from the possibility of a circular firing squad that destroys the Democratic Party ? Well, for those in the insurgent camp, there’s a well-worn pathway to redemption.
The virtue of the New Left, as Horowitz noted, was their honesty; they did not lie to themselves or to the world. In the same way, a young revolutionary like Ocasio-Cortez, in her artless commitment to her misguided principles, is not deceptive and therefore not self-deceptive. Although radical, she is still malleable and open to correction in a way that a Machiavellian manipulator and self-deceiver is not.
Lest we be too hard on her, let us remember that the tendency of youth is liberal, and many a young person exhibits the same combination of leftist ideology, half-formed ideas, and unbridled enthusiasm for changing the world, only to be chastened by the harsh realities of life to arrive at a more conservative view later on. Indeed, many of the most formidable conservative thinkers (not least of whom is Horowitz) made such a journey.
Ocasio-Cortez would be following an archetypal path if she were to crash and burn, realize the folly of her ideas, and experience a character transformation. She is young, and has gotten remarkably far on sheer passion and charisma. This same passion, if pointed in the right direction (and especially if coupled with some wisdom and better information), could be a powerful force for good in the world. It’s not unthinkable.
The chances for such a redemptive transformation for Pelosi, on the other hand, advanced as she is in years and thoroughly embedded as she is in her worldview, seem drastically slimmer.