The Conversation AOC and Pelosi Aren’t Having

The Democratic Party needs both Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez because they bring different things to the table. We really need a synthesis of the two of them but they unfortunately do not appear to be synthesizing.

On most issues, not all, I trust AOC more for What, and in most respects, not all, I trust Pelosi more for How. In order to stop Trump and his enablers, and in this case stopping the Republicans is more critical than plausibly at any other time in American history, we need a pro. They not only have to be stopped in elections, they have to be stopped in Congress. That’s not AOC. Yet, but yet is what counts at the moment because we need this Now. We need someone who knows the institutions involved, knows the procedures, knows the strategems, knows what can be done and what can’t. That’s Pelosi. She grew up the daughter of a mayor of Baltimore. This is in her blood and she was raised being trained to think like this.

But Pelosi, like HIllary, like Biden, like a lot of older Democrats, has a problem, or rather a related pair of problems. The first is an old problem, old enough to be written about by Henry Adams in the nineteenth century. It can be very hard to strike a balance between what you want to accomplish ideologically and what it takes to stay in office, in part to protect one’s constituents from the far worse ravages of the competition. Relying too hard on the rationale of keeping the competition out of office can lead straight to justifying corruption on that basis. Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. However, in this particular instance, the disease is exceptionally virulent, possibly fatal, and so staying in office or gaining office becomes more critical than usual and I’m afraid some measures may be more justifiable than usual.

The second problem is that I don’t think they’re keeping up sufficiently with how bad the economic divide is in the United States and so how they define the worse ravages of the competition is mostly in social terms rather than economic terms. We can’t afford to downplay the economic aspects any more. We’re in too much trouble and a lot of commonly used metrics don’t reveal the extent of that trouble.

These older Democrats, those who may be fairly or unfairly characterized as centrists, would probably answer that what they really want to accomplish isn’t all that far from what AOC wants to accomplish; it’s just that they’re doing what they can to maximize gains in that direction and some gains aren’t easy or are pretty much unfeasible at the moment. Socially, they can make that case. Economically, if that’s what they mean they have to do a way better job of showing it. My own guess is that they mean some of it economically but not enough of it.

Earlier I said that in most respects, not all, I trust Pelosi more for How. Now I’ll explain what “not all” means. There are two respects in which I think AOC is ahead of Pelosi. One is grass roots organizing with very little money. The older conventional thinking is that it takes a fortune to get elected, leading inevitably to relying disproportionately on major donors, leading straight to unbalanced power going straight to the wealthy. If it takes a fortune and that’s the only way to raise it, how powerful the wealthy are can’t change, and a lot of these Democrats and the guys who have run the DNC for a very long time accept this as reality and so downplay economic reform in order to deliver on social reform. In 2016, Bernie proved that this does not have to be reality, even on a national level. It may be his most significant contribution to American politics.

The second respect is that I think AOC has a better handle on the electoral impact of the economic divide than Pelosi And Company do. She’s closer to the anger and desperation than they are. She knows what people care about, not from survey research but from personal experience, recent personal experience, and “recent” is critical here because the divide has gotten way worse in recent years.

To understand the importance of this we have to look at the 2016 election. Yes, we can look at the Electoral College, and that is important, but the simple fact is that Trump didn’t get more votes than Romney did in 2012 but Hillary got fewer votes than Obama did in 2012. We knew Trump was going to be awful by November of 2016. Maybe not quite this awful but pretty damned awful, and yet that didn’t mobilize Democrats in sufficient numbers to keep Trump out. We know for a fact that screaming about how awful Trump was, and scream we did, wasn’t enough to get the vote out. We shouldn’t assume it will be enough in 2020. It might be, but I wouldn’t want to depend on it.

If we want to turn out numbers, we need to excite our base, and our base has economic concerns on their minds. And we know that addressing economic concerns can make a difference.

How do we know it?

AOC got elected.

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