Nancy Pelosi and Self-Destructive Progressives
Progressives have a self-destructive streak.
I was listening to a podcast the other day and the hosts were commenting on the dissonance between the new “abolish ICE” hashtag circulating amongst fanciful leftist Twitter and the practical centrist immigration reform championed by on the ground advocates that would do real good. The consensus was that campaigns of that sort could be effective as a means of keeping a flighty, largely white, “Jacobin” left engaged but may even be counterproductive as a serious proposal.
For a year Hillary Clinton was buffeted about by the left for her insufficiently pure progressivism and lack of inspiring rhetoric even as the right strung her up as the coming of the apocalypse for her liberalism and her remarkable bureaucratic efficiency. Now it’s Nancy Pelosi in the crosshairs of a well-meaning but misguided segment of the progressive left.
Pelosi is boring. She doesn’t often give speeches and goes more for awkward legislative humor when she does. She doesn’t claim to see harbingers of revolution or make sweeping pronouncements. She is independently wealthy and from a liberal enclave. She embodies everything about politicians that it’s fashionable to hate. All her ten years at the helm of the Democratic caucus has earned her is attention from Republican attack ads orders of magnitude greater than her male counterparts in the Senate.
On the other hand, she is a fierce advocate. When she does give speeches, they are, apparently, eight hours long on the House floor and in spectacular defense of the rights of young immigrants. She was, perhaps, ideologically ahead of her time; on the left wing of the caucus in her early years and, when her politics were the right fit, too experienced in a caucus that revels in purity. She has unparalleled skill navigating the competing interests of her caucus, thrown into only sharper relief by the bumbling of her Republican counterparts, Paul Ryan in particular. The left has little to be proud of over the last decade that didn’t begin and end in Nancy Pelosi’s office.
But progressives are engaged in a tussle over whether or not she should remain the party’s leader at all. A tussle that makes statements like this one, on a column I posted about the way sexism factors into Pelosi’s unpopularity, exceedingly common:
Comment: I know Nancy Pelosi is a political liability and there is a lot of merit to the argument of bringing new leadership into the Democratic Party. But she is also tough as nails and a hell of a negotiator.
Me: Out of curiosity ... what exactly is the argument and why does it have merit?
Comment: That having the same leadership for more than a decade and being in the minority for eight years has led to a stifling of political and policy messaging for younger members that would be more effective surrogates.
To be sure, this is one of the more measured criticisms that at least acknowledges Pelosi’s value to the party, if only briefly. It also is indicative of the sort of self-destructive political instincts that have come to characterize the progressive left of the Democratic Party.
How has Pelosi stifled policy messaging? Is messaging really her job or would we prefer she find the result and push the House toward achieving it? Being in the minority is not good but the massive wave that pushed her from the majority was, in large part, a response to the most enormous piece of progressive legislation to make it through the house in decades. Would we rather her not have pushed it through and (perhaps or perhaps not) retained a majority in the House?
Politics is certainly about rhetoric and messaging, but it’s also about actual impact. Bringing people into immigration advocacy is a good thing, but doing it by attacking senators who voted for and nearly passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill before it was blocked by a small group of Republicans is counterproductive. Pushing Hillary Clinton leftward or wanting a presidential candidate more in line with the party’s politics is fine. Bernie Sanders, however, was universally acclaimed for his inspiring rhetoric and sweeping ideas but was a strikingly ineffective legislator. Nancy Pelosi is not one for delivering grand pronouncements to stadiums full of people, but she is a skilled legislator who makes progressive goals realities in whatever messy imperfect way is possible.
Politics is about making noise and advocating and moving the discourse to a more favorable place, but it’s also about making the machinery of government move in the direction it's supposed to move. It’s about making an actual difference. Both things are necessary but not every job requires a person who does both. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are excellent advocates and would do enormous good as chairs of committees that would give them rhetorical power. Nancy Pelosi is remarkably talented at whipping votes and moving legislation through a messy House process, which is what her job requires. She is, by any measure, one of the most effective Democratic House leaders in a century. Abandoning her should take more than a gut feeling that there is an intangible benefit to change for its own sake. It should take more than a yearning for more inspirational rhetoric.
For some reason, we have it in our heads that it is up to politicians to inspire us. It’s not. It’s up to us to be inspired. At some point, we need to recognize that words, independent of action, seem to inspire progressives (and I count myself among them) far more than progressive outcomes. Big promises and powerful rhetoric get us up from our seats but results, incremental progress, and improvements in the lives of people for whom we claim to advocate never seem worth the same notice. At some point, we need to recognize that that’s a massive problem, not with our politicians, but with us.