The spectacle of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez complaining that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is persistently “singling out of newly elected women of color” for criticism is an occasion for much schadenfreude on the right. But conservatives should be careful about drinking too deeply from the mug of progressive tears.
The feud between Ocasio-Cortez and Pelosi represents a clash of two different types of politics, the outcome of which will define the Democratic Party and American politics for some time to come. This schism likely will be resolved outside Congress, which may give Ocasio-Cortez’s forces the advantage.
The most recent eruption of bad blood stems from Pelosi’s recent interview with Maureen Dowd. The House speaker dismissed Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley (also known as “the squad”) for voting against the GOP Senate’s border spending bill, which Pelosi backed (to support more moderate House Democrats). Pelosi told Dowd: “[T]hese people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.”
Ocasio-Cortez took to her preferred forum—Twitter—to respond. “That public ‘whatever’ is called public sentiment,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “And wielding the power to shift it is how we actually achieve meaningful change in this country.” Omar similarly tweeted: “Patetico! You know they’re just salty about WHO is wielding the power to shift ‘public sentiment’ these days, sis. Sorry not sorry.”
This exchange encapsulates not only the essence of the feud between Ocasio-Cortez and Pelosi, but a larger feud currently consuming the Democratic Party. Pelosi represents traditional politics in general and traditional Democratic politics in particular. She continues to view politics along the right-left spectrum and tactically is concerned about holding the center of her caucus.
Ocasio-Cortez represents a post-2016 theory of politics. As a democratic socialist she is far-left, but she is also a populist. This is why Ocasio-Cortez is willing to sponsor an anti-lobbyist bill with Sen. Ted Cruz. Tactically, Ocasio-Cortez learned from Donald Trump how to use social media to raise her profile, target opponents to rally support through negative polarization, and set an agenda (because traditional media continue to confuse Twitter with reality). She also represents identity politics in a way Pelosi never would.
But Ocasio-Cortez is not the president, and she is not Trump, which probably puts a ceiling on her power. So long as the conflict remains within the Democratic caucus, Pelosi can probably win. The Green New Deal — Ocasio-Cortez’s pet project — will not come to the floor for a vote. Neither will the Medicare-for-All proposal favored by the far-left of the caucus. Support for impeaching President Trump has grown within the ranks, based on constituent demands, but even here Pelosi may yet hold the line against a politically toxic course of action.
Unfortunately for those who would prefer Pelosi’s modes of politics, the conflict is not confined to Congress. It is also playing out in the Democratic presidential campaign, where Ocasio-Cortez’s politics likely have the advantage.
Out on the trail, Joe Biden is representing for more traditional politics. His pitch to Democrats is a “return to normalcy” and he has taken several digs along the way at the new New Left. But the vast majority of his rivals are representing the 25 percent of Democratic voters inclined toward Ocasio-Cortez’s populist-socialist approach. And in the first party debates, Biden took a solid blow from Kamala Harris, who insinuated that Barack Obama’s wingman is a segregationist sympathizer.
Biden lacks the official authority Pelosi enjoys to control the terms of debate. Worse, the sheer lopsidedness of far-left representation in the 2020 field conveys to Democratic voters the false impression that more traditional liberalism has become a minority view within the party.
Furthermore, a broad swath of the establishment’s chattering class is effectively supporting the Ocasio-Cortez brand of politics, not only by defending her most ridiculous comments, but also by hyping almost any of the alternatives to Biden, chiefly Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Granted, the establishment media is less enthused about Bernie Sanders than in 2016, but this is largely because they believe more palatable versions of him are available. Notably, this faction of the media also dumped on Beto O’Rourke as a cisgender white male—traits he shares with Sanders and Biden.
In short, Pelosi has a gatekeeping power over the progressive caucus, while Biden is at the mercy of gatekeepers who prefer candidates aping the Ocasio-Cortez brand of identitarian socialist populism. The unanswered question is whether the media environment will also help convince the Democrats’ silent majority that they are in fact a minority.
The outcome of presidential primaries may greatly influence the feud in Congress, perhaps settling it outright. Once Democratic voters have chosen a standard-bearer, they will largely close ranks around that nominee. Such is the lesson of Trump’s ascendancy in 2016. Party elites ultimately acquiesce to their voters, recognizing they must hang together lest they hang separately.
If the Democrats nominate Harris, or even Sanders, Pelosi’s position will almost certainly be weakened. And if a far-left Democrat were to defeat Trump, it might spell the end of Pelosi’s reign as speaker.