The feud between Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi broadened on several fronts over the weekend, drawing in other members of Congress, their staff, and outside interest groups. It is a near-textbook example of how identity politics turns normal debate toxic in an instant.
To be sure, there are normal political issues informing Democrats’ current acrimony. There has been a long-simmering tension between the left and some Congressional Black Caucus, or CBC, members who have been friendlier to Wall Street. The more immediate flashpoint was the recent border spending bill, which was backed on a wide, bipartisan basis.
“The squad” — Ocasio-Cortez and Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — and their allies chose to view the current crisis at the border solely as identity politics. After the border funding measures passed last month, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, called the relatively moderate New Democrats and the Blue Dog Caucus the “New Southern Democrats” who “seem hell bent to do black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s.” Although Chakrabarti later deleted that tweet, he continued to claim that “if we don’t have progress on racial justice it will be because of the new Dems and blue dogs. Just like in 1940.”
The Blue Dogs, who have seen their numbers rise in recent years, are co-chaired by Florida’s Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Vietnamese-American refugee. The group also includes African American members who lived through segregation. (Similarly, one of the New Democrats is Rep. Terri Sewell, an African American woman who represents Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham, Alabama.)
Chakrabarti further dismissed, more than once, Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids, who is Native American, as the enabler of a racist system. These were the comments that moved Pelosi to admonish the caucus about squawking publicly (which was at least the second time she has had to rebuke them in the first months of this term). Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, claimed the scolding was not directed at far leftists; Pelosi later admitted she was responding to complaints about Chakrabarti.
Accordingly, when Ocasio-Cortez accused Pelosi of persistent “singling out of newly elected women of color” for criticism, other Democrats had enough. Last Friday, New York Rep. Greg Meeks told the New York Daily News, “You don’t go after the speaker like that,” and that if Justice Democrats (a group aligned with Ocasio-Cortez) planned to primary CBC members such as Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries and Rep. Yvette Clarke, both from New York, Ocasio-Cortez might find herself facing a challenger as well.
In the same story, a Democratic leadership source blasted Justice Democrats as an elitist group attacking black members from poor districts who take corporate donations. The source singled out Chakrabarti as a Harvard graduate who worked on Wall Street before getting into left-wing politics through Justice Democrats and Ocasio-Cortez. The House Democrats’ official Twitter account similarly delivered a written smackdown of Ocasio-Cortez’s presumptuous chief of staff:
Hammill, previously charged with tamping down this conflict, now jumped into it:
— Mike DeBonis (@mikedebonis) July 13, 2019
In addition, an anonymous Democratic aide accused Ocasio-Cortez of “only [being] a woman of color when it’s convenient.” The aide also called her a puppet, texting The Hill’s Scott Wong a photo of a puppet Goomba, a brown mushroom character from Super Mario Bros.
For those curious, here's the image of the Super Mario Bros. Goomba the senior aide texted me pic.twitter.com/3tMFoYm6J1
— Scott Wong (@scottwongDC) July 12, 2019
Squad members returned fire on Saturday during an appearance at Netroots Nation, a conference for progressive activists.
“There’s a constant struggle with people that have power with sharing that power and we’re not really in the business of sharing that power,” Rep. Ilhan Omar tells Allison. She says they’re in the business of grabbing the power and bringing it back to the people.
— Ryan Brooks (@ByRyanBrooks) July 13, 2019
“I don’t want to bring a chair to an old table,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley. “This is the time to shake the table.” She says the country doesn’t need anymore brown, black, or queer voices that decide not to speak for those communities once they’re elected.
— Ryan Brooks (@ByRyanBrooks) July 13, 2019
Later on Saturday, Justice Democrats and aligned leftist groups issued a statement decrying the escalation by senior Democratic Party leaders and their aides.
Such are the wages of identity politics. When “the personal is political,” attacks of the latter kind are nearly certain to metastasize into the former. Moreover, once people are sucked into the maw of identity politics, the struggle for power will devolve into a battle over who has authority in a system based on identity (a problem intersectionality tries but fails to solve).
Both sides in this uncivil war are claiming the other does not authentically represent non-white people. And few things are more likely to inflame the argument than attempts to erase each other’s identity.
As a political matter, the squad’s attacks are almost comically unfounded. The far left is disproportionately white; the squad represents the Democratic Party they want, not the party they have. The Democrats’ current front-runner for president, Joe Biden, has slipped recently but remains ahead on support from black voters.
Even on immigration, which set off this new round of ugliness, the squad does not represent a broad constituency. On Friday, at the annual convention of League of United Latin American Citizens, the Washington Post found an unexpected “undercurrent of unease … that the Democratic Party, in its revulsion over Trump’s harsh policies and obnoxious rhetoric, is positioning itself too far to the left on immigration.”
President Trump’s recent comments and tweets defending Pelosi and attacking the squad are arguably counterproductive, inasmuch as they shift the focus from Democratic disarray to the president, as he is wont to do. On the other hand, whether intentional or not, due to the magic of negative polarization, these statements will effectively undermine Pelosi and strengthen the squad among Democrats. Trump’s intervention may even force a truce, which would associate the Democrats more with the squad. Given that Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, and socialism are widely unpopular with working-class voters in swing states, daring Democrats to defend the squad may serve the president’s reelect campaign.
None of this means the Democrats’ intraparty conflict will be truly going away anytime soon. True believers in identity politics view America as founded upon and still reflecting white supremacy. In their view, only revolutionary action can unseat white supremacy, which means more establishment Democrats of any color are collaborators. It is also a convenient philosophy for young radicals who need to unseat the old folks grasping the levers of power (youth politics itself being a cheap form of identity politics).
People left of center, from Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall to Maureen Dowd at The New York Times, still do not seem to comprehend that the squad’s game is, as Omar openly stated, to grab power, not share it. They will be doomed to repeat their shock.