On the first day of the 116th Congress, Nancy Pelosi was doing what she does best–working in the shadows. Pelosi had just been re-elevated to the House Speakership after 8 grueling years in the minority, garnering the votes of 220 of her Democratic colleagues. Though she suffered defections by 18 of her subordinates–mostly moderates from swing districts who had promised their voters they wouldn’t vote for the liberal Pelosi–she nonetheless did better than her predecessor, and successor, John Boehner, who won 4 fewer votes with a larger House majority in 2015. Still, Pelosi had revenge on the mind.
In the weeks that followed, the 78-year-old San Francisco native set to work making an example of her detractors. In an act of swift vengeance, Pelosi denied arch-nemesis Kathleen Rice–a three termer from Long Island and one of the leaders of the dissident anti-Pelosi faction of the party–a coveted seat on the House Judiciary committee. But the new Speaker’s wrath wasn’t reserved solely for veteran lawmakers. Freshman Anthony Brindisi from upstate New York, who wrote in former Vice President Joe Biden as a protest vote against Pelosi, was denied his desired perch on the Armed Services committee. It was a clear shot across the bow by Pelosi. The message: “get out of my way or get crushed.”
Pelosi, the daughter of a legendary Maryland politician, is best known for her political pragmatism, ruthlessness and dealmaking prowess. Defying the stereotype of smoky back rooms as “boys clubs,” Pelosi thrives in the meetings where the most impactful decisions are made. Look no further than her walloping of Trump in the late January meeting to hash out the Government shutdown at the White House for a clear example of her negotiating skills. Or perhaps consider how she regained her speakership in the first place.
Shortly after the 2018 midterm elections–in which Democrats swept the GOP in a landslide victory in the House, regaining their majority–the big question being floated by the political media was “Will Pelosi be Speaker?” It was a fair question. The 16-term Congresswoman had not enjoyed much popularity in her decade and a half as Democratic leader, only four years of which had been spent in the Speaker’s chair. There was talk of opposition to her ascent from both the left and moderate wings of the party.
On the campaign trail, Pelosi was little more than flack for insurgents in swing districts and progressives in safe districts alike. In New York’s 19th district, for instance, every Democrat in the primary, from the most progressive to the least, either refused to commit to voting for Pelosi or downright said no. That sentiment was echoed by moderate candidates in swing districts across the country, who felt that their chances of winning over crucial independent voters would be buoyed by distancing themselves from or criticizing the toxic Democratic leader. Progressive lawmakers such as Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal were likewise unperturbed with the idea of criticizing Pelosi’s leadership.
This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Pelosi’s reputation. She’s long been the boogieman for GOP candidates looking to tie their Democratic opponent as a “liberal coastal elite”. Her approval ratings throughout the 2018 midterms languished in the high 20s to low 30s. She’s often used as a case study for how the electorate has a naturally more negative view of female politicians.
The post-election transition period saw a high-profile and energized movement among moderate Democrats–including the many freshman now occupying Republican-leaning seats–to oust Pelosi. A week after the election saw 16 Democrats commit to voting against Pelosi. More dissenters slowly began to trickle in. In mid-December, however, Pelosi held a meeting with some of her highest-profile critics, including Seth Moulton and Ed Perlmutter. She emerged victorious, sewing up enough votes to win the speakership with minimal concessions. Just like that, the rebellion was crushed with little to show for their efforts.
For Pelosi, behind-the-scenes strategic maneuvers like diffusing palace intrigue are business as usual–the kind of wheeling and dealing that keeps the lights on and the trains running on time. This, to her, is the game of government.
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez entered the Capitol Building on January 4–her first day in Congress–she was already more high-profile than almost any of her 535 colleagues. The 29-year-old former waitress from the Bronx had already embraced the limelight with glee. To her 1.7 million Twitter followers, that day, she tweeted about her Sotomayor-inspired fashion choices, announced a victory for House progressives and posted a video of her dancing outside her office to mock her conservative critics. The tweets collectively garnered nearly a million likes. Not too shabby for a freshman.
Ocasio-Cortez’s stardom is well deserved, the culmination of political and PR prowess in more ways than one. A Puerto Rican democratic socialist, she first rose to national prominence last June when she unseated 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley, the Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus who was widely viewed as Pelosi’s likely successor. Cortez’s bid was a seen as a longshot, having been outspent 3-to-1 by Crowley who, as the chair of the Queens Democratic party, held immense power in the district. Yet, even as progressive challengers to other Democratic incumbents in New York City failed, Cortez prevailed in a massive upset that rocked the political world and made her the face of left-wing, anti-establishment insurgency in the Democratic party.
Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign was bolstered in large part by its successful idiosyncrasy. Eschewing traditional methods of campaigning, Ocasio-Cortez adopted a strategy more befitting a millennial campaign: heavy utilization of social media. She grew followings on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that far outpaced Crowley’s, which not only helped her communicate with voters in her district, but helped her raise small dollar funds from like-minded donors across the country. In a rare move for a politician, she used apps like twitter not only to broadcast to voters, but to interact with them, often responding to tweets (including my own, which predicted her win). She even created her own apps!
This innovative strategy–along with some helpful demographic trends and a useful combination of hard work by Ocasio-Cortez and complacency by Crowley–culminated in an impressive 13 point win. Since her stunning victory, she has only become more active on the platforms that helped secure her victory.
Ocasio-Cortez’s social media activity is at the center of her public reputation. Since winning the primary, she has become widely known for “clapping back” at her Republican critics and the media–something that politicians, who typically prefer to stay above the fray in public settings, rarely do.
But she’s also garnered attention for her pioneering methods of communication with the public. Ocasio-Cortez often does Instagram live videos, in which she’ll perform mundane household tasks like cooking mac and cheese, doing laundry and even building furniture while talking policy with her supporters and constituents.
Whereas most politicians prefer to keep the public at arms length when it comes to the less attractive aspects of their personal lives, Cortez is more than willing to let her hair down, take her makeup off, pick up her phone and broadcast to her millions of followers. This kind of exposure, which gives audiences a rare glimpse into the personal life of one of their political leaders, cultivates an image of authenticity that has greatly bolstered Cortez’s support among her base and endeared her to much of the media.
In fact, Ocasio-Cortez’s social media savvy is so legendary and so superior to those of her peers, she taught a class for her Democratic colleagues on “the most effective ways to engage constituents on Twitter and the importance of digital storytelling.” Many of her millennial colleagues such as Ilhan Omar, Katie Hill and Dan Crenshaw have also adopted significant twitter presences. Politics, it seems, is rapidly moving online thanks in no small part to politicians like Ocasio-Cortez.
And that is where our stories merge.
Pelosi has made it clear about how she feels about the outsized impact of twitter savvy members of her caucus like Ocasio-Cortez. “While there are people who have a large number of Twitter followers,” she said in an interview with USA Today, “what’s important is that we have large numbers of votes on the floor of the House.” While the Speaker herself has about 2.75 million twitter followers between her two accounts, social media, and the public arena more broadly, is not where she’s in her element. The same holds true for her associates.
Pelosi’s number two, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, has been known to dabble in backroom dealing as well. In April 2018, then-Minority Whip Hoyer made headlines when he was caught on tape urging Levi Tillemann, a progressive candidate for Congress in Colorado, to drop out in favor of Jason Crow, a more moderate, establishment-backed Democrat. In the recording, Hoyer said “I’ve been at this a long time,” referring to his role as a behind-the-scenes decision maker. This is just one of the many examples of how veteran politicians in congress prefer to operate.
So when a hotshot like Ocasio-Cortez–who ignored Paul Ryan’s advice to “take it easy, just watch things for a while, don’t ruffle, you know, see how it works first”–comes in and starts playing by her own rules, it poses a threat to the status quo in the eyes of the old guard. This applies to the strategic maneuvering often employed by the leadership and, more broadly, to the way members interact not only with legislation and their constituents, but with each other as well. The social media-heavy modus operandi to which Ocasio-Cortez adheres, while allowing for far more transparency in government, has also had the impact of breaking down the informal structures which enabled compromise and, to some extent, good governance in the legislature.
The rise of technologies like social media has allowed voters and politicians to become more interconnected. It has also enabled an ideological base to transcend geographical boundaries by allowing members from across the country to communicate directly. Far from uniting the country, however, this interconnectedness has fractured the electorate along ideological lines. Studies have found that online political spaces have led to the very visible rise of ideological polarization and demonization and even dehumanization of partisan opponents.
For most of the existence of social media, politicians tended to avoid the raucous, often hostile and frequently low-grade and unnuanced political discourse found on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Since around 2008, they have mostly used these platforms to inform voters about votes on legislation, make broad policy pitches and share lighthearted anecdotal content. Ocasio-Cortez’s new use for social media–to debate with her critics and fire up her base in support of or in opposition to a policy–is a massive departure from that. And if other politicians follow suit, it may lead to a radical shift in the way Congress operates.
Pelosi, for all her ruthless tactics, has already presided over a remarkably productive congress which has, in just a few months, passed major legislation on healthcare, gun control and even reforming the foundational tenets of our democracy. Few stirs of rebellion have been heard from her erstwhile opponents as much of her caucus has fallen in line with her leadership. Her approval rating is higher than its been in years. It’s a rare and ever-fleeting example of effective leadership in Congress.
Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, has struggled to win support for her legislative proposals or win allies in Congress even as she has had several positive viral moments and generally sparkled in committee hearings. Her keystone Green New Deal went down in flames in the Senate when it was put to a vote by another ruthless, old-style politician: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. She has all but displaced Pelosi as the key target of Republicans in swing districts and the conservative media, which has led to approval ratings that are actually lower than those of Pelosi. All throughout, she has failed to work harmoniously with members of her own party, even recently misidentifying progressive Democrat John Yarmuth as a Republican and attacking him as creepy on Twitter.
As the old-style political generation of Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer ages out of their political offices, it seems likely they will be displaced by young successors who, like Ocasio-Cortez, will take to social media to decry policies, ideas and statements with which they disagree and to rally their bases. You can see it happening already with the likes of internet-savvy presidential candidates like Mike Gravel and Andrew Yang who, while not major factors in the race, are nonetheless indicative of the rise of Twitter politicians. Politicians like Gravel–and many others active on Twitter, such as Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz–have also soured on the idea of bipartisanship and compromise with the enemy, opting instead for ideological purity and interfaction conflict. This begs the question: is the era of compromise in politics over?
Perhaps Millennials and Gen Z-ers will grow out of political memes and political activity on social media altogether, and the question of how to compromise in politics while Twitter is such a heavy presence won’t be one we face. More likely, however, this is a dilemma the coming political generation will inevitably have to confront. Congress has already had its least productive decade in history–filled with partisan gridlock and hostile grandstanding between members–as social media has risen exponentially in prominence. If this trend continues, it’ll be the end of Pelosi politics.
Andrew Solender ’20 is the Editor-in-Chief of the VPR and a political science major and history correlate. He has worked as a political reporter for Chronogram Magazine, Inside Sources, and City & State NY.