The 4 progressive House Democrats who have become known as ‘The Squad’ are proving themselves to be a thorn in the side of the Democratic party leadership. Omar and AOC are specifically problematic for Pelosi and the House leadership because they differ so drastically in their political styles and approaches. The combative nature of the Squad has proven to be both one of the greatest weapons in the Democratic arsenal as well as one their greatest liabilities. Democrats are notorious for factionalism and infighting, so having 4 aggressive congresswomen who don’t shy away from controversy or the national spotlight is bound to put strains on the already fragile party unity. But Pelosi’s method of papering over these cracks by passing resolutions is starting to come across as both condescending and weak.
The first such resolution was passed back in March after Omar made some remarks that were construed by many to be antisemitic due to her Palestinian heritage. This touched off a firestorm in the press and threatened to damage the US’s relationship with Isreal, perhaps not in a serious way, but enough that many officials felt the need to say something about it. Older liberal Democrats came down hard on Omar while progressives spoke out in support of her. The resulting battle between the liberal and progressive wings of the Democratic party engulfed the nation in a deep discussion about Israeli leadership and rising anti-Semitism in the West. Republicans and Trump had a field day with Omar’s and the Squad’s responses to the controversy and delighted in the obvious fault lines that Omar’s remarks exposed in the Democratic Party.
Pelosi responded in a way that seemed fairly reasonable at the time. She tried to get the party to pass a resolution condemning antisemitism. But as soon as the planned resolution came to the attention of other Democratic party leaders, they took umbrage with the fact that the resolution left out other marginalized groups and pushed for the resolution to expand to cover all hate speech. So the House passed a resolution condemning all “hateful expressions of intolerance.”
But by expanding the scope of the resolution to cover all types of hate speech, the specific fault line that Omar’s remarks had exposed became obscured. The real problem is that the Democrats are divided about how to respond to rising authoritarianism in Israel. Some feel that Israel should not be criticized because the US and Israel have such a unique relationship and history together. Others feel that all authoritarianism should be criticized no matter where it is, and Israel should not be given a pass just because it is a key ally in the Middle East. A resolution condemning hate speech has nothing to do with this fundamental divide within the party. Sure, the resolution did the trick of producing a public image of a united party and moving the national media news cycle past the controversy. But the resolution did nothing to address the underlying problem that the Squad has uncovered in the party’s base.
The most recent resolution again put the Squad at the center of the action within the party. This time, however, Pelosi herself sparked the controversy by making disparaging remarks about the Squad to the media. Following weeks of discussions about what to do regarding the crisis at the Southern border during which AOC labeled the detention centers for migrants “concentration camps,” the House passed a bill to send funding to the border in order to give the ICE officials more resources to draw on. The Squad did not like the bill because it did not include enough controls on how the funds would be spent. Pelosi expressed her frustration with the Squad to Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, saying, "All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn't have any following. They're four people and that's how many votes they got."
AOC immediately tweeted out a response to Pelosi defending her use of Twitter and making the point that any politician who does not use twitter is behind the times. Others jumped into the fray on both sides. With tensions rising and the divide between the progressives and party leaders again emerging into the top daily headlines, there seemed to be a clear opportunity for enemies of the Democrats to drive a wedge deeper into the party’s self-inflicted wound. Trump recognized this opening and dove in headfirst with a series of tweets that were meant to pit Pelosi and the Squad against each other. But it quickly became clear that Trump had overplayed his hand with one sentence in particular: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.”
In using the classic racist remark ‘go back’ against 4 women of color, Trump effectively shifted the focus away from the Democrats and onto himself and his own party. Trump has continued to double down on these remarks over the past week, giving the Democrats a villain to unite against. Trump clearly had not meant to give the Democrats a rallying point, but he did, and Pelosi saw her opportunity to spin the moment into a show of unity by passing another resolution condemning Trump’s tweets. This time, the resolution was neither watered down nor insignificant. In fact, the measure was the first of its kind in more than 100 years. But just like the first resolution, this second resolution has failed to address the very real divisions with the Democratic party that started the whole kerfuffle. After all, a resolution condemning the President has nothing to do with funding ICE detention centers or the Southern border crisis.
With two instances of Pelosi using House resolutions to paper over Democratic party divisions, the move is threatening to become cliched. The rift between Pelosi and the Squad is indicative of deeper divides within the party, and resolutions are not going to solve these problems, even if they provide the veneer of party unity that is needed to move the news cycle forward. Unfortunately, Pelosi’s resolutions already seem disingenuous and condescending to progressives and younger Democratic voters who support the more aggressive tactics of the Squad. Pelosi loves to refer to the Squad as her sisters, but by forcing them to sign resolutions to stay in the family, she comes across like a controlling mother trying to deal with rebellious daughters who are refusing to sign the family’s annual holiday cards. This is classic 2nd wave feminism bumping into 3rd wave feminism, and the result is as dysfunctional as one might expect.
Pelosi has now used the mechanism of the House resolution too many times and too frequently for any future resolutions to be effective. Instead, she must find a way to address the very real divisions within the party. If she does not do this and instead continues to use resolutions to put bandaids on deep party wounds, then eventually, at some point, the resolutions will stop working and the Squad will rebel more forcefully and with more serious consequences for the House.
The most obvious way to maintain party unity is to keep the Democrats focussed on Trump. This was likely what Pelosi had planned to do before it became clear the Trump and his administration would block every attempt of the House to hold hearings related to the Mueller investigation. With Trump and his associates repeatedly ignoring subpoenas and failing to appear for committee hearings, that strategy is all but dead. There is one final grand finale coming up soon, namely, the appearance of the man himself, Robert Mueller, before the House, but after that, if nothing that would completely sink the president’s administration comes to light, the House Democrats will need another strategy for keeping the focus on Trump moving forward.
Another way to manage the divide is for other voices to clarify the conflicts and unify the party. Toward this end, the Democrats are heading into primary season, and the primary candidates have so far shown a strong willingness to attack Trump at every opportunity. As the primary season ramps up, the candidates will be able to play some role in aiding Pelosi’s attempts to maintain Democratic party unity by keeping the focus of Democratic ire on Trump. But adding voices to the divisions in the House will only work to a limited degree, especially when these voices serve to bring attention back around to Trump. After all, Trump himself relishes in any opportunity to bring attention to the Squad. Moreover, while the primary candidates like to go after Trump, they can also take sides in the divide between the House leadership and the Squad to further their own electoral goals. With all of this triangulation, party unity will be hard to come by going into the 2020 general election.
At the end of the day, the obstacle in this grand saga might simply be Pelosi herself. She tends to favor the traditional ideology of consensus over the less confrontational strategies of compromise and coalition building. This explains her opinions regarding the downsides of pursuing impeachment, such as when she said, “I do believe that impeachment is one of the most divisive forces, paths that we could go down in our country. But, if the path of fact-finding takes us there, then we have no choice. But we are not there yet.” Pelosi is looking for a way forward that does not involve a clash of ideals and moral values within the party. Pelosi is fundamentally averse to conflict. The problem for the Squad is that, while they do not want confrontation, they recognize that the Democratic party is already in conflict, and they recognize that the Democrats must either fight like they are in a battle or lose.