Akaash Tumuluri: Fighting for the future of the Democratic Party

Wednesday, July 17, 2019 - 6:55pm

Forget about reaching across the aisle. House Democrats are having trouble reaching across their own pews.

Pews that need to be unified now, more than ever. It’s pre-election fever, the same as we’ve seen before — a tide that in 2016 crested on the political fringes and brought us candidates like Trump and Bernie — making moderates wary with the specter of 2020 looming on the not-so-distant horizon. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi seems to be attempting her best Moses impersonation, trying to single-handedly quell the progressive wave of far-leftists while claiming moral high ground based on her fight for unification that supposedly prioritizes the party, not necessarily progressivism. 

Supporters of “The Squad,” as Democratic Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts are known, will find this a hard pill to swallow. Especially after the House’s support of a $4.6 billion border funding bill lacking many conditions of improvement for migrant families and children — sparking loud dissent from progressives that aim to “disrupt” Congress like a Silicon Valley startup. 

The headliners of this fight are, of course, AOC and Pelosi. They’ve traded jabs left and right, “trapped in a generational and ideological tangle” that threatens the strength of the Democratic party as a whole, according to Maureen Dowd of the New York Times. It’s gotten to the point where Ocasio-Cortez, whose statements I would have stood by about a month ago, has accused Pelosi of “targeting women of color.” Pelosi, among many other things, helped our first African American president not only reach the highest office, but enact his agenda against an opposition hell-bent on seeing his name go down as a footnote in history. I’m sorry, AOC, I just can’t see it. I laud your attempt to try and shake up Congress, I do. It needs one, badly, but this doesn’t seem like the way to do it.

Especially because this is the first time in a while that the Democrats have completely taken control of the news cycle — but for all the wrong reasons.

The House Democrats’ Twitter account feuding with Ocasio-Cortez’s Chief of Staff, Saikat Chakrabarti. Mr. Chakrabarti comparing moderate Democrats to Southern Democrats in the 50’s. Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin calling the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus the “Child Abuse Caucus.” And again, the example of AOC and Pelosi’s very public admonitions of each other fits this bill. All these stories serve as nothing more than fuel for a Republican Party that seems content sitting back and watching the Democrats set fire to themselves right before the primaries roll around. 

But even framing it like that makes me uneasy. The Democrats have made strides. They took back the House in 2018 — a win led by Pelosi, who focused on flipping red seats blue by placing emphasis on a moderate agenda. In her current role as speaker, she seemed adept at navigating the most discombobulated White House in history, able to simultaneously admonish the President for his numerous mistakes and secure his ear whenever necessary to reach across the aisle. “The Squad” and their allies, on the other hand, have ignited a liberal, progressive coalition that demands to be heard by the Democratic elite — believed to be helmed by Pelosi.

That’s where we find the fork in the road. It’s all about belief  — and the lack thereof. Progressive Democrats don’t believe House leadership is doing enough to push back against conservative, Senate-led policy. Pelosi and other moderates believe the youthful far-left isn’t being pragmatic and will lead the party down a frustrating road of government shutdowns and political stalemates. And, the worst part is, they’re both right. The new wave of freshmen representatives simply don’t yet have the political capital to whip votes necessary to enact their agenda. And the moderates that control the House fail at igniting the youth they so desperately need to take back the highest office. 

Despite all this, the speaker seems to be playing her cards close to her chest, and for what? AOC is a star, the darling-child with a 4.8-million-and-growing online following, the new face of a movement, undoubtedly an asset for a Democratic party lacking in emotionally-charged constituency. They should be working together — the two women leading the Democratic Party into a unified, progressive future. The problem? Neither can see past each other’s differences to the wealth of similarity they share, because they both have precedent to stand by their beliefs. Bernie’s meteoric rise in the 2016 primaries validates AOC and her allies’ call for a more progressive agenda, and the 2018 midterms validates Pelosi’s slow-and-steady MO for change. 

So here we are again, stuck in a battle for the future of a party that seems to be returning to the same road, again and again, hoping for it to lead somewhere new each time. And it’s hard for me to blame anyone for it. 

So I’m sorry. I’m tired of seeing the same progressive versus moderate battle with sudden-death brutality; I’m tired of watching those I believe in become caught up in arbitrary and misguided climbs to the highest plane of morality; I’m tired of seeing the Democrats, again, focus on sweet nothings that are beside the point. Because the point is Trump will be reelected if the Democrats can’t find a way to stop bickering. If that happens, it would be as close to the death of the Democratic Party as we will have ever seen. You get the sense that the collective Democratic ego that made it a foregone conclusion Hillary would win in 2016 is rearing its ugly head once again. The irony of course being the lack of hindsight in 2020. But numbingly, all I can say is this: Once again, we can’t do more than wait, see and hope. Mostly just hope.

Akaash Tumuluri can be reached at tumula@umich.edu.