Brett Graham: Latent sexism in the Democratic Party

Tuesday, February 13, 2018 - 5:04pm

 Last week, Nancy Pelosi set a record. Speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives, she stretched her so-called “magic minute” privilege as Minority Leader into an eight-hour defense of the DREAMers. This came in response to Senate Democrats agreeing to a budget deal that would have left millions of undocumented immigrants without protection. She shattered a record that was set in 1909, DREAMer's their stories and taking a stand for one of the causes that progressives have consistently rallied around in the Trump era. What’s more, she did this in four-inch heels. So where is Nancy Pelosi’s “yass queen” moment?

On paper, she should be the toast of progressives and liberal Democrats everywhere. Pelosi was the first and only woman to serve as Speaker of the House, helped found the Congressional Progressive Caucus, opposed the Iraq War, has been a strong ally to the LGBT community since the 90’s, and holds a strong pro-choice record. She pushed through, against all odds, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Obamacare. As Speaker, she once removed a statue of Robert E. Lee from the Capitol and replaced it with Rosa Parks. In 2017, she raised $50 million for Democratic candidates to take back the House next November.

So why is she so unpopular, even among Democrats? Candidates routinely dodge questions about whether or not they would vote for her to remain as leader. Several younger Democrats blamed her for her role in Jon Ossoff’s loss in the Georgia 6th special election last year. She has shockingly low approval ratings (only 29 percent view her favorably, while a whopping 50 percent disapprove) and is the subject of substantial derision in her own party.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) made waves last summer when she repeated the phrase “reclaiming my time” over and over again during a hearing for now Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. The Internet celebrated her and she was dubbed by many “Auntie Maxine.” Where is this treatment for Pelosi? Granted, she did receive some applause from her fellow House Democrats when her speech concluded and a positive write-up in The Washington Post, but whatever good will Pelosi earned from this will be temporary at best.

There are, of course, probably dozens of explanations for this inconsistency. There is always inherent hostility towards members of party leadership and authority figures — especially those who have held their posts for as long as Pelosi has. She gave a tone-deaf answer last November, calling for due process for John Conyers after sexual harassment charges were leveled against him (though she quickly turned around and called for his resignation).  She is one of the wealthiest members of Congress. She was a driving force behind Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Her unpopularity, though, may be attributed to, more than anything else, a streak of latent, subtle sexism that is festering in the Democratic Party in 2018.

Think about some of the most popular figures right now in the party. Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama and Joe Biden—all men. Nancy Pelosi is viewed to be out of touch and shrill. No one can seem to stop taking hits at Hillary Clinton, despite the fact that it has been a full 15 months since the election. People knock Elizabeth Warren for her claims of Native American ancestry and Kamala Harris for her inexperience.

These attacks are usually carried out under the guise of some sort of woke, progressive purity. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders is still way out of step with the average Democrat on gun control. Barack Obama expanded the U.S. drone program beyond what any liberal would have thought appropriate. Joe Biden plagiarized speeches. Men, it seems, are afforded mistakes and forgiven. Once again, women are being held to an unrealistic standard, just a few ticks above their male counterparts. In this instance, though, it is being done by the party that claims to advocate for and empower women.

Given the current state of the GOP as a party that is inherently hostile towards women, Democrats should be celebrating its female leadership, rather than subjecting it to the same nonsense that they experience on the other side of the aisle. One recent ranking of the top fifteen potential democratic andidates for 2020 included only four women total, with just one of those in the top five contenders (in fourth). The relatively unknown Sen. Chris Murphy (CT) was ranked higher than Elizabeth Warren and California Governor Jerry Brown (who would be 82 on Election Day) was listed above two qualified, popular, sitting senators in Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Of course, it is possible that these preferences are entirely incidental; that, somehow, the women in leadership roles in the Democratic Party are out of touch and inexperienced compared to their male counterparts. Nancy Pelosi may be a beltway insider who no longer has a place in the party. Male candidates may simply be better suited to lead the party against Trump in 2020.

To accept all of these possibilities, though, takes quite a bit of mental gymnastics and ignores the much more likely common denominator. In fact, speaking as a progressive, I accept exactly zero of those explanations.

Democrats need to very seriously reflect on how they respond to women who take on leadership roles within the party. Is it possible that sexism is still alive and well, perhaps even on the rise? If not, great—but there is still a lot to explain to Nancy Pelosi and the host of qualified Democratic women with their eye on 2020.


Brett Graham can be reached at