In the months leading up to the 2017 New Zealand general election, Labour Party members were nervous. Their leader, Andrew Little, consistently polled poorly. He’d risen to leadership less than three years earlier, but intra-party pressure was already building for his resignation. Only 55 days before the general election, Little was forced to resign due to his growing unpopularity and Jacinda Ardern was unanimously elected leader by Labour Members of Parliament. Ardern was Labour’s Deputy Leader who outpolled her former boss and, through a campaign highlighting economic inequality, lifted the party from the doldrums to overtake the leading right-wing National Party in the polls. That year, she led Labour to win net seats for the first time in 15 years, and later became a global figure for her compassionate response to a 2019 Islamophobic white nationalist terror attack, built a historic Labour-majority government in 2020 and received international acclaim for her response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the United States, meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi has led the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives since 2003. She has presided over numerous electoral catastrophes. Her opinion polls are almost as bad as Andrew Little’s ever were. And in early November, her House Democrats actually lost seats in an election predicted to be a blowout, but which instead became a multi-day nail-biter.
Pelosi has now overseen multiple Democratic losses in the House in 2004, 2010, 2016 and 2020. She has deeply underperformed electorally despite demographic trends supposedly favorable to Democrats since she failed to stop the Tea Party “shellacking” ten years ago.
In the Senate, Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has never served as Majority Leader, has barely been able to usher marginal gains in the Senate and, depending on what happens in Georgia’s two runoff races, may have failed again to win control of the chamber this cycle.
Both of these Democratic leaders have displayed their inability to substantively stand up to President Trump. Amy Coney Barrett easily won confirmation to the Supreme Court, and she in fact gained popularity in the process after Schumer declined to pursue any tactics laid out in a Capitol Hill memo detailing “various ways that Democratic lawmakers can try to block a nomination.” Trump’s tax returns were only made partially public through the New York Times’ journalism, despite Pelosi controlling a chamber with subpoena power for two years. According to the Revolving Door Project, Pelosi displayed a “lack of seriousness” on executive oversight for two years, allowing the Trump administration to run amok in the meantime. Regardless, Pelosi and Schumer are set to control the 2021 Democratic legislative agenda and direct vast flows of party money.
Pelosi has failed at the most fundamental task of House party leadership: winning House elections. And yet calls for her ousting, and of ousting failed Democratic leadership in general, are often considered by centrist, corporate Democrats as dangerous to “party unity.” This would puzzle denizens of other liberal democracies, where party leaders are routinely sacked when election results aren’t up to snuff.
In Europe, only political winners are typically allowed to stick around. Think of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has kept her Christian Democrats in power for the last 15 years. In the UK, the average opposition leader stands for just a single general election before they are either replaced or assume power.
American party politics, especially Democratic Party politics, suffers from a predilection for losers that would confuse any backbench MP in the UK. Nonetheless, domination by longtime party leaders who oversee and contribute to embarrassing electoral defeats in America continues. This raises the question: How long can a party continue to hemorrhage its base constituencies and fumble eminently winnable elections before leadership is tossed?
Pelosi and Schumer simply cannot claim they’re not responsible for Congressional losses. Pelosi has been the avatar of House Democrats for nearly two decades, much to the chagrin of Democratic candidates trying to distance themselves from Republican messaging linking them to her “toxic” reputation. This year, the House of Representatives has effectively been a one-woman legislature as Pelosi monopolized authority over stimulus talks and legislation, leaving other representatives — especially progressives — out in the cold. As such, Pelosi is responsible for how the party is viewed by the public, as reflected in the recent disappointing election results.
For his part, Schumer personally selected battleground Senate candidates who roundly failed to win this cycle. Their failures at the national level led to Republicans winning a projected 78 state legislature seats in the crucial year congressional districts will be redrawn. As leaders of the party, Pelosi and Schumer must shoulder the blame for the Democrats’ lackluster performance.
Moreover, as personal figureheads, Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer are remarkably unpopular. RealClearPolitics finds that Pelosi and Schumer have average favorability ratings of 36 percent and 31 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, a leader like Bernie Sanders stands as the most popular active Democratic politician in the country (though he identifies as an independent), approved of by 51 percent of Americans.
If Democrats want to win, common sense dictates that they should install broadly popular figures in leadership positions. Ardern, who reversed Labour’s decline in New Zealand, became leader because she consistently polled higher than her boss did. If the equivalent principle was applied in American politics, and Democrats followed the data, they would nominate someone like Bernie Sanders whose policy platform is as remarkably popular as he is.
The issues run deeper than rank popularity, however. The Democrats’ lack of results proves that whatever roadmap they have to political victory is wrong.
Ahead of the 2016 election, Schumer infamously declared, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” This was, to put it mildly, not what happened in 2016. And this year, though Biden eked out the slimmest possible victory margins in states like Georgia and Pennsylvania — powered partially by a suburban shift — the same cannot be said for Schumer’s hand-picked candidates who ran behind Biden.
Schumer-recruited Senate candidate Sara Gideon blew a big lead in Maine despite his personal support. While Biden easily carried the state, Gideon lost by 8 points after following Schumer’s centrist strategy of “backing the public option over Medicare for All and outlining climate goals that fall short of the Green New Deal” according to Bangor Daily News. Jaime Harrison underperformed Biden in South Carolina despite his massive war chest and support from party leadership after he “declined to back some of the more progressive proposals from members of his own party” as the Post and Courier put it.
Some of the only candidates who rejected this failed strategy faced direct opposition from Pelosi and Schumer. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which Democrats are required to fund if they want to keep their committee appointments, announced that political consultants or experts who dared to work for progressive primary challengers would be “blacklisted,” scaring political veterans away from many fresh-faced candidates. Pelosi personally fundraised for Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar when progressive Jessica Cisneros challenged him in this year’s primary, despite his anti-choice record on abortion and an outpouring of Koch cash supporting him.
In a remarkable display of poor political instincts, Schumer personally recruited Kentucky Senate candidate Amy McGrath and aided her primary campaign against progressive challenger Charles Booker. Her straight-down-the-middle politics led McGrath to light almost $100 million dollars on fire when she lost to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by 20 points, but not before cutting a pro-Trump ad in her failed bid to appeal to moderates.
The Democrats again failed to flip majority-minority Republican seats like Texas’s District 23 despite national party endorsements, culminating in an overall loss among nearly every demographic except white men. National leadership pressed their thumb on the scale for centrists, even as the Pelosi-appointed CARES Act Oversight Chairwoman, Donna Shalala, lost her Miami-Dade county seat in part for failing to provide any substantive oversight to the largest corporate bailout package in American history, while voters in her state passed a $15 minimum wage ballot initiative by huge margins.
Pelosi and Schumer dam political movements that threaten the hegemony of corporate Democrats and their personal control over the party, all the while alienating the very constituencies of color their fellow Democratic leaders have long claimed will, someday, propel the party to victory.
Their inability to reverse course in the face of so many losses suggests that they would rather go down with the ship than give the wheel over to the activist base of the party. As longtime political writer Jon Schwartz says of the iron law of institutions, “people who control institutions…would rather the institution ‘fail’ while they remain in power” than give it up and win.
The Democratic leadership’s long grip over the party would shock any other liberal democracy. Rank-and-file Democratic members of Congress should demand political accountability, just like any other party around the world would. Their leaders’ electoral strategy has failed on its own terms, unable to make gains in red-states and largely incapable of stopping the bleeding in purple states like Ohio and Florida.
It’s past time to replace failed leaders with popular ones willing to take the chance of actually following the party base’s progressive values — because the “safe” centrist strategy has proven entirely too dangerous.
In light of the recent election results, some House Democrats are reportedly considering throwing their support behind a challenger to Speaker Pelosi. They should choose a leader who knows better than to dismiss popular policy like the Green New Deal, or as Pelosi dubbed it, the “green dream or whatever they call it.” As Ardern’s success in New Zealand shows, it’s a good strategy to nominate well-liked figures who support majoritarian policies that materially benefit the many, not the few. It’s also smart politics.