Issues LXIX: Congressional Liberalism

13 Jul

When Nancy Pelosi Attacked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D – CA) attacked four congresswomen in the New York Times over the weekend for opposing a recent bill on the immigrant detention camps on the Mexican border. The self-described progressive “Squad” of Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) have their “public whatever and their Twitter world [b]ut they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”

This is not the first attack she has had on the gang. In April, she also denigrated the progressive wing of the party as “five people” on CBS’s 60 Minutes. The leader of the Squad, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) pointed out that she can attend committee hearings all day long (you know, her job) because she does not have to dial for dollars and waste time with fundraisers like the other congressmen who leave early. She is funded by small dollar donors. She now complains that the singling out of newly elected women of color was “outright disrespectful.”

Identity politics certainly will not protect AOC and the Squad; it does not matter that they are minority women. Their sin is to be progressive and ambitious, and they plan to democratize the public debate to a clear left-wing point of view. As women, they may have avoided attacks for a little longer for pushing against Nancy Pelosi (the media class would have labeled any male opposition to Pelosi as sexist), but their get out of jail card was bound to expire.  Just ask white, straight, and male Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) who received plenty of minority and female political endorsements against a lesbian actress primary challenger from the left in 2018.  Identity politics is a tool only wielded by the center-right political and media establishment against the left and right.  No one from below is allowed to use the tactic in the class war.

This leads to my exhortation to avoid using identity-based attacks and critiques from progressives to the establishment and to instead use deeper theoretical and historical analyses to understand what is happening.  Speaker Pelosi can always deny being sexist or racist or have women and minority politicians deny it for her.  Plausible deniability always limits these tactics, and we need firmer grounds than this.  Hence my translation of the following quote from the late Professor Ralph Miliband from British English and politics to American English and politics.

Parliament, Party and Society

Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic – not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system… the leaders of the Labour Party have always rejected any kind of political action (such as industrial action for political purposes) which fell… outside of the framework and conventions of the parliamentary system.

Parliamentary Socialism by Ralph Miliband at the London School of Economics

This applies precisely to the United States in the following translation.

Of parties claiming liberalism to be their aim, the Democratic Party has always been dogmatic – not about liberalism, but about the Congress… the leaders of the Democratic Party have always rejected any kind of political action (such as strikes and protests for political purposes) which fell… outside of the framework and conventions of the Congress and its committee and fundraising system.

Congressional Liberalism (imaginary translated book)

The problems that Congresswomen Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, and Pressley will find within the halls of Congress are increasingly going to be the vicious reaction of the Democratic congressional leadership.  With their large cohort of member-donors, the Squad can claim that they represent a concrete base of the electorate.  Even though they can self-finance with online donations and can spend more time with legislative and constituent responsibilities, they represent a headache for the party leadership.  Party leadership wants donations from the corporate class and would rather continue fancy $2000 a plate dinners even though it wastes time and energy.  Relying on a well-defined party membership that pays regular dues will net tens of millions easily, but the members will want a say in policy.  If only 10 million of the 65 million Americans that voted for Hillary Clinton donated $10 a month to the Democratic Party, the party would have $1.2 billion to spend on elections, candidate recruitment, and organizers for grassroots mobilization for the year.

This is normal.  In a normal country, a group of people get together (farmers, workers, language groups, businessmen) to create a political party to represent their interests with party politicians.  The policies are set by the members in a convention and the leadership ultimately answers to the members who pay dues.  The members make policy and choose the politicians.  In the United States, it is the opposite.  The politicians choose the voters and the policy.

The British Labour Party was founded over a hundred years ago to represent newly enfranchised workers in the United Kingdom.  Members either joined the party directly or indirectly by being union members.  The Democratic and Republican Parties have no such things.  Despite the clear union origins of the party, over time the Labour members of Parliament began to see themselves as parliamentarians first and foremost and not members of a broad, progressive working class movement.  They viewed the officeholders in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) as superior to the millions of members and unionists.  Instead of a mass movement which elects politicians, it became politicians controlling a mass movement; that means using non-parliamentary tactics like mass strikes, or protests to achieve goals is a nonstarter.  Hence Miliband’s quip that this parliamentary socialist party was more into parliament than socialism.

In the Democratic Party of Congressional Liberalism, we have a party that refuses to see beyond the halls of Congress.  They too see power and policy to be exclusively in the hands of elected officials (or their fancy fundraisers).  Opening up the political-legislative process up to the masses via social media is not acceptable.  Challenging current incumbents in primaries (called “re-selection” in Britain) is nuclear war.  There is no role for protests or strikes to actually swing votes and demonstrate public sentiment (“public whatever” according to Pelosi).  Thousands or millions of progressive donor-members are derided as “just four votes” by Speaker Pelosi.  The same would never be said about the center-right Blue Dogs or the new Problem Solvers Caucus (who prevented human rights regulations on the immigration detention camps in the recent budget vote on the border).

This royal prerogative claimed by the congressional leadership brings a modern twist to King Louis XIV’s quote (“L’é’tat, c’est moi”).  What is the party and the state?  It’s us, in Congress, not you. If Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters want to survive the coming storm, they better improve their understanding of theory and history.  Because we cannot treat until we diagnose.  Conceiving of politics as being more than the decisions and votes of 535 members of Congress and the White House is a complete threat to the entire political establishment, and they will not go down without a fight.

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