On January 3, 2021, the same day the 117th Congress was sworn into office, Nancy Pelosi won reelection as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Pelosi, who has led the House Democratic Caucus since 2003, won 216 votes from her fellow representatives to Republican Kevin McCarthy’s 209. The vote broke down almost entirely along party lines, with every Republican vote going to McCarthy and all but five Democratic votes going to Pelosi (one Democrat voted for Tammy Duckworth, one voted for Hakeem Jeffries, and three voted “present”). Each of these five defections was from the corporate wing of the Democratic Party; every member of the growing group of Justice Democrats-endorsed Representatives in the House (“Justice Representatives”) cast their vote for Pelosi.
Pelosi’s reelection is a serious problem for Justice Representatives and the social justice advocates who support them. Pelosi’s rejection of progressive priorities like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal is only the tip of the iceberg. She has locked progressive congresspeople out of committees and oversight roles, blacklisted consultants who work for progressive challengers, and campaigned for anti-reproductive choice, NRA-friendly Democratic incumbents (while trying to oust one of the most progressive Democrats in the Senate). Despite her performative opposition to the Trump presidency over the past four years, Pelosi has also routinely given Trump additional military and spying power, funded Trump’s inhumane border detention system, and deliberately steered the focus of Trump’s impeachment away from his blatant corruption. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Pelosi had considerable leverage over Republicans, she negotiated a massive corporate giveaway; even the Democratic messaging bill she advanced in May included millions upon millions of dollars for the rich.
The Justice Representatives who voted for Pelosi are well aware of the obstacle Pelosi presents. So why did they vote for her anyway?
The answer boils down to one word: power. And if social-justice-minded individuals, organizations, media, and congresspeople want to effectively advance policies that millions of people need in the coming years, we must start wielding it more effectively.
Let’s assume that the progressive vote for Pelosi was the outcome of a negotiation. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the most famous Justice Representative, implied as much in a December 16 interview with Jeremy Scahill, calling the speakership vote a “specific leverage point” and saying, “when it comes to using this leverage, I do think that there are things that we can do.” What sorts of things? In response to a tweet from Justin Jackson recommending that she demand a floor vote on Medicare for All, Ocasio-Cortez replied that she would be more inclined “to push for…a $15 min wage vote in the first 100 days [and] elevating longtime progressive champions to important positions of leadership.” In her interview with Scahill, Ocasio-Cortez offered another potential demand: repeal of “an obscure House rule that is extremely influential and significant known as PAYGO…which is saying that any expenditure that a bill has must have a tax increase or spending cut essentially accounted for in the legislation.” If “full repeal” wasn’t possible, Ocasio-Cortez said, she’d want “PAYGO waivers on Medicare for All, tuition-free public colleges, and more.”
The first of Ocasio-Cortez’s suggested goals, a $15 minimum wage vote in the first 100 days, is a little hard to understand. House Democrats passed a $15 minimum wage in 2019 and Joe Biden has already said he supports it, so it shouldn’t be something for which Justice Democrats should have to fight too much. Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed timeline may be the key part of this potential demand, and Justice Representatives may have been angling for a commitment from Senate Democrats to make a $15 minimum wage a priority, but we don’t have any evidence that they got one. Especially given the Democratic Party leadership’s approach to end-of-year government funding and coronavirus relief legislation (which Ocasio-Cortez called “hostage taking”) and party leadership’s recent refusal to fight for stimulus checks, it appears that progressives did not win any clear policy commitments in exchange for their speakership votes.
It also doesn’t look like Justice Representatives succeeded in “elevating longtime progressive champions to important positions of leadership.” They did get some committee appointments, including Cori Bush on Judiciary, Jamaal Bowman on Education and Labor, and Bush, Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib on Oversight and Reform, but we have not yet seen any committee chair or leadership appointments that represent progressive victories. In one of the most high-profile committee fights recently, in fact, Pelosi helped Kathleen Rice – a “Blue Dog” Democrat who voted against Pelosi for Speaker in 2018 – get a seat on Energy and Commerce over Ocasio-Cortez.
The victories that Justice Representatives have been touting are in the House rules package, which contains procedural reforms to PAYGO and limits Republicans’ ability to hold up legislation with a Motion to Recommit. Yet House Democrats did not win full repeal of PAYGO and did not even secure the specific exemptions for Medicare for All and free college that Ocasio-Cortez mentioned in her interview with Scahill. The exemptions they did get, for COVID-19 and climate change, are not inconsequential. However, it is important to remember that PAYGO exemptions do not guarantee that Pelosi and other Democrats in the House will allow bold legislation related to these topics to advance; the exemptions just remove one obstacle to such legislation. And the Motion to Recommit reform appears to be much more a win over Republicans than over Pelosi, as corporate Democrats stand to gain from it as well.
It is theoretically possible that Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues negotiated other wins that they have not revealed yet. But what we currently know – that Justice Representatives secured a couple rule changes while losing some big policy and committee battles – does not seem worth a vote for Pelosi.
This outcome is especially troubling when we consider that Justice Representatives should have had the numbers, as a bloc, to deny Pelosi the speakership. If Pelosi legitimately thought Justice Representatives might stand together and vote against her, it’s hard to imagine that social justice advocates and the working-class people they are fighting for would not have secured more significant victories.
Pelosi seemed to know the Justice Representatives were going to vote for her. As Politico described when Rice got the Energy and Commerce Committee seat over Ocasio-Cortez, Rice was “seen as a crucial vote for the speaker.” Ocasio-Cortez was not.
In fact, Ocasio-Cortez signaled during her interview with Scahill that, even though she agreed Pelosi needed to be replaced, she did not see an alternative to voting for Pelosi. If progressives were to oust Pelosi, Ocasio-Cortez said, “there are so many nefarious forces at play [that Pelosi could be replaced with someone] even worse.” Ocasio-Cortez later justified her vote as a way to show unity “in a time when the Republican Party is attempting an electoral coup and trying to overturn the results of our election,” suggesting that she believed that opposition to Pelosi would at best result in an even more corporate Democrat as Speaker and at worst result in emboldening Republicans. That might explain why Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues did not seem to mount a challenge to Pelosi being nominated as party leader in mid-November.
If this explanation is correct, it is problematic. As Justice Democrats co-founder Kyle Kulinski noted after the vote, “there’s no excuse for the left not to have organized in the last few years to mount a challenge to Pelosi. You know she’s hostile to you and your goals and she has a 28% approval rating.” Justice Representatives already tried voting for Pelosi in 2018 and it didn’t work; they and other like-minded members of Congress should easily have been able to identify someone better from among their ranks to run against Pelosi in 2020. And while letting Kevin McCarthy win the speakership vote would have legitimately worrisome downsides, Justice Representatives could have blocked Pelosi without putting a McCarthy win on the table by voting for alternative candidates. There’s no reason to believe that strategy would have any bearing on the Republican Party’s anti-democratic behavior.
Furthermore, a potential McCarthy win due to progressive abstentions would actually have been the single greatest point of leverage over Pelosi that Justice Representatives had. Pelosi banked on fear of that outcome to ensure Justice Representatives fell into line, but Justice Representatives could have flipped this script and used fear of their abstentions to force Pelosi and the Democratic caucus to accede to more progressive demands.
This situation was a microcosm of one social justice advocates face all the time. We are presented with two bad choices – Nancy Pelosi or Kevin McCarthy, Joe Biden or Donald Trump, corporate giveaways coupled with meager relief or no help at all for people in need during a pandemic. We are reminded that one of those choices – McCarthy, Trump, no legislative help at all for people in need – is worse than the other option, and told we must therefore accept the classic “lesser of two evils.” Once we signal that we accept this constrained set of choices and will select the less-bad choice – Pelosi as Speaker, Joe Biden as President, a bad last-minute coronavirus relief bill – the corporate Democrats who manufactured this false dichotomy know they can once again grant just enough concessions to give us the feeling that we won something while rejecting the vast majority of our demands.
In each isolated instance, social justice advocates who take the “lesser of two evils” approach can rationalize it; their choice was better than the alternative on the table, after all. Something is better than nothing and less near-term harm is better than more near-term harm. But in the long run, repeated acceptance of two bad choices will continue to enable our enemies to block the real change people need.
The good news is that Justice Representatives can chart a different path during the next two years. In the 116th Congress, they weren’t organized enough. Different Justice Representatives took different stands at different times while others capitulated on issues ranging from coronavirus relief bills to immigration to the PATRIOT Act. They will have much more power in the 117th Congress, which features a slimmer Democratic majority, if they stick together and identify key points of leverage at which to credibly withhold their support in exchange for major concessions. Justice Representatives, in other words, must function more like labor unions dealing with intransigent employers, which leverage the threat to strike to force their bosses to take them seriously. As Jackson reminded Ocasio-Cortez with Frederick Douglass’s timeless words, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
While the speakership fight is over, opportunities to win important battles are most definitely not. The question is whether Justice Representatives will take advantage of them.