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With Help from the Squad, Nancy Pelosi Is Re-Elected House Speaker

Nancy Pelosi won her reelection bid for Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, continuing in the leadership position that she has occupied for 18 years. Her victory demonstrates the folly of reformism, and the failure of the strategy to push Democrats left.

Otto Fors

January 6, 2021
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Image: WSJ

On Sunday, Rep. Nancy Pelosi narrowly won her reelection bid for Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. She will continue in the leadership position that she has occupied off-and-on for nearly two decades, and will be tasked with shepherding President-elect Joe Biden’s neoliberal agenda through Congress. Despite last year’s Black Lives Matter uprisings, Bernie Sanders’ presidential run, and increased support for policies like Medicare for All, the Democrats have refused to adopt even the most tepid reforms. Pelosi’s victory, bolstered by votes from the progressive “Squad,” demonstrates the futility of trying to push the Democratic Party left and use it as a vehicle for socialist ends. 

Pelosi won her nomination unopposed, with no other Democrat mounting a bid for Speaker of the House. She was widely expected to win against Republican and Trump ally Kevin McCarthy, but with an extremely narrow margin. In the November elections, the Democrats lost 13 seats in the House, giving them a slim majority of 222 seats to Republicans’ 211 — the smallest House majority in two decades. In the end, only five Democrats declined to support Pelosi’s bid — a decrease compared to the 15 who did not support her reelection in 2019.. And though Pelosi and the Democratic Party leadership she represents have faced a fair amount of rhetorical criticism from the left wing of the party, every single opposing vote came from the right wing of the Democratic Party. Notably, despite their clashes with Pelosi over the last couple of years, every member of the Squad voted to keep her at the head of the Democratic Party in the House. 

Nancy Pelosi’s career and profile paint a clear picture of the Democrats as an ossified party of capital. Pelosi is a pillar of the imperialist, capitalist machine: voting for massive military budgets and bail outs for the wealthiest Americans — a group which she herself is a part of. Even by the standards of the inordinately wealthy U.S. congress — over half of federal lawmakers are millionaires — Pelosi stands out with a net worth of $114 million. She has amassed this fortune with her husband, who owns a real estate and venture capital investment firm, and through stock market speculation. The Pelosis’ wealth and politics have long been intertwined: they own lucrative shares in Apple, Facebook, Visa, and other companies. 

Although she eked out a victory on Sunday, polls show that only 31 percent of Democratic voters supported Pelosi’s reelection as Speaker. It’s not hard to see why: with 33 years in Congress — 18 of which were spent in leadership — Democrats on both her left and right feel that a changing of the guard is long overdue, particularly as she has presided over staggering House losses. Most galling to the increasingly large progressive base of the Democratic Party, Pelosi and her fellow Establishment Democrats are increasingly out of step with the electorate whom they purport to represent. She does not support policies like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal — which she famously called “the green dream or whatever” — even though both are supported by majorities of all Americans and nearly 90 percent of Democrats. Pelosi has spearheaded and supported numerous attacks on working-class and oppressed people, and  has been a major proponent of austerity, championing policies to offset new spending with budget cuts. 

In fact, although Pelosi has spent the past four years as a consistent recipient of President Trump’s vitriol, she often expends more energy attacking the left. Her tension with the Squad has long been documented, and she hasn’t pulled any punches when reprimanding its members. 

Unsurprisingly, DSA-endorsed Squad member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a longtime critic of Pelosi, spoke in an interview with The Intercept in advance of Sunday’s vote about the need for the Speaker to step down. Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, two new Squad members, also declined to say whether they would vote to reelect her. But Pelosi ultimately only faced detractors from her right: all the progressive Representatives, including Ocasio-Cortez, Bush, and Bowman, voted to reelect Pelosi, a proven and entrenched enemy of the working class, as House Speaker. 

In fact, the Squad didn’t even use their very clear leverage over the Democrats in this close race to extract concessions from Pelosi and establishment Democrats in return for their vote. In the lead up to the vote, progressives called on Ocasio-Cortez to withhold her support on Sunday unless the House voted on Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s Medicare for All legislation. Any vote for Pelosi for any reason is a complete betrayal of the people who she has spent her entire career attacking, but the “fresh faces” of the Democratic Party nonetheless dutifully voted for  Pelosi in the name of lesser evilism. In the end, not a single Squad member took even a half-measure by abstaining from the vote.

These progressive representatives bill themselves as being part of “a new era” of politics, and leftist publications like Jacobin Magazine routinely praise Ocasio-Cortez as “standing up for the left.” The Squad denounce real problems of the political system, and often speak out on key issues. At times, they even speak out against the ossified leadership of their own party — only to be attacked and disciplined. But when push comes to shove, all of these politicians — who have endorsements from socialists and socialist organizations like the DSA — fall in line behind the establishment and rubber stamp its politics. They use their popularity, their charisma and, most importantly, their progressive ideas to funnel progressive energy into a bourgeois capitalist party known as the “graveyard of social movements.” 

But the issue with Congress and the Democratic Party is not just bad leadership, or that the Squad needs to add more young progressives to its ranks. Nor is the problem that politicians like Pelosi are too affluent, though their wealth certainly forms the material basis of their ideology. The problem is fundamentally the capitalist, imperialist government itself. Both Democrats and Republicans are parties of capital whose very purpose is to maintain the rule of a minority of capitalists over the working-class majority. The lesson from Sunday’s vote is clear: the Democrats are a party of capitalists, by capitalists, and for capitalists, and they cannot be transformed into anything else or reformed from the inside. 

Pelosi’s victory shows that reformism is a dead end, and a strategy of moving the Democrats left, pursued by organizations like the DSA, is fundamentally flawed. After a year that featured an insurgent campaign by a self-described “Democratic Socialist,” the deepest capitalist crisis in decades, and the largest uprisings in U.S. history, the Democrats have not wavered in their neoliberal agenda. 

We cannot keep rolling a socialist boulder up a capitalist hill hoping that this time, we will successfully transform the Democrats into a party for the working class. We need to finally break with the Democrats, and stop supporting politicians who doggedly commit to working with those that oppress us. Socialists should run in elections, but we cannot cross our fingers and hope that they stick to their principles. We need our own party with disciplined representatives who are unwavering in their support for the working class and denunciations of the bourgeois government.

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Otto Fors

Otto is a PhD student and lecturer in New York.

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