However much of a relief Donald Trump’s imminent departure from the White House may be, we shouldn’t harbor any illusions about a Biden presidency: not only do we have every reason to believe he meant it when he touted bipartisanship, courted wealthy Republican voters, and distanced himself from Bernie Sanders and Medicare for All, it also seems likely that the results of two Georgia runoff elections will keep the Senate under Republican control — significantly reducing the scope of political possibilities in the coming years, at least through institutional channels.
Nonetheless, there are ample opportunities for leftists and progressives in Congress to wield their power to reorient party priorities — starting with opposing Nancy Pelosi’s reelection as House speaker.
Pelosi has already signaled her intent to run again for the position. But at a moment when Democrats lack legislative majorities, Pelosi is particularly ill-suited for the role. Pelosi’s strengths, according to even her most enthusiastic supporters, lie in the “inside game” — relationship building, fundraising, and “vote-counting” (which makes her adept at gathering majorities and holding a caucus). The value of those skills is largely predicated on legislative majorities, when the biggest obstacle to victory is finding a common denominator within a party itself.
The task of an opposition leader is quite different. It demands a confrontational stance and a knack for finding levers of power outside of standard norms. That’s a poor fit for Pelosi, whose own admiring biographer concedes is not a strong political communicator. And even if she was, the message she’d be relaying would fall flat: as her rejection of universal programs and acceptance of austerity politics show, she’s unwilling to contest the bedrock assumptions undergirding right-wing politics. An effective speaker — and Democratic Party writ large — must reject reactionary frameworks, not squabble within them.
Meanwhile, the left flank of the House can parlay their small numbers into exerting an outsized influence. The incoming Congress includes four members of the Democratic Socialists of America (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, and Jamal Bowman), as well as several other progressives that have championed demands like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, including Pramila Jayapal, Ayanna Pressley, Ro Khanna, Mondaire Jones, and Marie Newman.
While this coalition’s power stems largely from its ability to marshal media attention and outside support, they’ll soon outnumber the margin of majority held by House Democrats, who lost several seats in an election seen as a shocking disappointment down ballot. In Pelosi’s formulation, this means leverage: any vote-counter can tell you the Left is a contingent you need for a majority.
As Ryan Grim recently reported at the Intercept, the Congressional Progressive Caucus is reportedly devising a strategy to capitalize on this dynamic that would involve voting as a bloc and drawing up ideological standards to shed members whose politics are too far right to merit the “progressive” label — a cohort that should include Pelosi herself.
Opposing Pelosi’s reelection as speaker would be an early opportunity to test the concept, apply pressure, and win concessions if they come up short — the same way a smaller and weaker group of progressive legislators did in 2018, brokering key committee assignments for their votes and turning congressional hearings into agitprop.
Transformative change won’t be won simply with a better speaker of the House. But leftists and progressives in the House can begin to erode institutional and political constraints that suppress the popular imagination about what is possible — and Nancy Pelosi is one of those constraints.