What’s the Point of Democratic Leaders Insulting AOC and Friends?

I don’t understand why any Democratic leader would do this (via Maureen Dowd):

I asked Pelosi whether, after being the subject of so many you-go-girl memes for literally clapping back at Trump, it was jarring to get a bad headline like the one in HuffPost that day — “What The Hell Is Nancy Pelosi Doing?” The article described the outrage of the Squad, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts are known.

Pelosi feels that the four made themselves irrelevant to the process by voting against “our bill,” as she put it, which she felt was the strongest one she could get. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” she said. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”

Nancy Pelosi has been one of the most effective Democratic leaders of the modern era. She is at least partly responsible for most of the good things Democrats have done at the federal level in the last many decades, and for stopping an enormous amount of terrible conservative policy. But this is pointless.

The freshmen and newer faces in Congress including Katie Porter, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Katie Hill, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Pramila Jayapal are providing more energy and excitement than the party has seen since Barack Obama ran for president. From the Green New Deal to the concentration camps on the border, they are doing more to push the Overton Window to the left and hold the conservative movement accountable for its moral debasement than anyone has in years.

Whether it was strategically advantageous for House Democrats to capitulate to Republicans on the funding for asylum seekers or not–and it’s hard to make the case that it was–it was certainly morally outrageous. Some part of the caucus needed to give voice to that outrage.

The same thing could be said for impeachment. The right thing to do, morally speaking, is to impeach Trump. Heck, it was the morally right course to impeach Bush and Cheney. Whether it’s the tactically right choice is theoretically open to debate: progressives like myself argue that it’s smart both in the short term to impeach so that voters realize Democrats have a spine, and in the long term to demonstrate that Trump-level crimes will carry the highest possible accountability in the land this side of GOP obstruction in the Senate.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that Pelosi and leadership are right about the asylum funding and about impeachment. Let’s assume both that winning the next election is the most important thing above all (a debatable question, as we elect politicians to do things), and that taking bold stances on these topics would actually hurt Democratic electoral chances in 2020 (a doubly debatable statement that centrist politicians and pundits gravely intone entirely without evidence.) Let’s assume that if House Democrats didn’t support the GOP Senate position on border camp funding they would be accused of taking toothpaste out of the mouths of asylum seekers’ children–and that even a tiny fraction of persuadable voters would actually believe that nonsense–and that if House Democrats moved to impeach Trump, all the investigations into his misconduct would be tainted as irrevocably partisan in a way that would actually cost Democrats among the mythical O’Reilly voters that Senate Leader Schumer believes exists for some reason.

Even in a world dominated by that level of cynicism, it would still make sense to have some part of the caucus give voice to the outrage shared by the tens of millions of Americans who want to see some level of justice done for tortured children and the beleaguered country. If everything Democrats do in the House is just a show for a small segment of Midwestern swing state voters pending the next election, it would make more sense to put on an entire kabuki performance: let the leadership do what it theoretically must, let the outraged moral compass of the party fume indignantly, and then let leadership admire its courage and clarity while rejecting it tactically, or preferably say nothing at all.

Actively dissing the party’s most energized base to a national columnist makes no sense unless you actively believe that the energized base isn’t just potentially losing the votes of a handful of people who would be irrelevant but for their irrational empowerment by the electoral college, but rather that the energized base truly speaks for only a tiny minority of the country.

Those are very different postulates that demand different tactics. Speaker Pelosi may or may not be right that Ocasio-Cortez and friends have limited appeal in Waukesha County–a hotly debatable premise for many reasons. But if she truly believes that Ocasio-Cortez speaks only narrowly for the Bronx, and not for tens of millions if not well over a hundred million deeply upset Americans who want strong moral leadership, then she is badly misjudging both the mood of the Democratic Party and the mood of the country at large.

As Ryan Grim noted in the Washington Post, far too many Democrats in leadership don’t realize it’s not 1984 anymore. No one needs to stand guard against Walter Mondale. No one needs to Sister Souljah anyone anymore–if they ever did. The country is in a very different place now, with a very different electorate informed by very different experiences.

If the leadership can’t get on board with the new wave yet, at the very least it could spend less time trying to squelch and dismiss it.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.