On Tuesday, the Democrats lost a seat in a Georgia special election they were desperate to win. Following Democrat Jon Ossoff’s defeat ― and Democratic losses in four other special elections since Donald Trump became president ― calls are ramping up for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to step aside.
Ossoff’s loss was bad. He didn’t just lose, he lost by a bigger margin than Hillary Clinton did in that same district in 2016. Most of the messaging by the Republicans was organized around Ossoff being a sure vote for Nancy Pelosi. The minority leader routinely ranks among the least popular politicians in the country.
Popularity isn’t everything, but in this case, the American people are right. It is time for Pelosi to go. Passing the torch would be the right thing to do, and not just because of horserace politics. Pelosi is an excellent vote-wrangler and fundraiser, and she has a long and honorable record of defending a certain type of Democratic politics. But at this moment in history, her political frame is a barrier to the much-needed renewal of the Democratic Party.
In the face of significant national problems, from opioids to corporate concentration to foreign policy challenges, Pelosi simply has nothing to say. And this is inherent to her worldview. Pelosi is a good soul. She sees suffering and injustice and wants to alleviate it. This is laudable. It is the impulse behind charity and volunteerism. Pelosi acts on it. She understands her role in passing the Affordable Care Act, among other priorities, as bettering the lives of the poor and disadvantaged.
Her political frame is a barrier to the much-needed renewal of the Democratic Party.
Basing your politics on pity, however, is condescending. Charity is important. But charity in place of politics is not democracy. It is aristocracy. And too many Democrats operate, unknowingly, in this frame of mind.
Democrats should see their role as enabling freedom for all, not alleviating suffering for the disadvantaged. When Pelosi sees poverty or discrimination, she sees the people being affected as unfortunate victims who need and deserve a helping hand. Poverty and discrimination are unfortunate. But more fundamentally, they represent a lack of freedom ― freedom that someone, or some system, has taken from you. You are not free if you can’t afford to see a doctor. You are not free if you cannot access a good education because of your race or income. You are not free if your landlord can cheat you because you’re poor. You are not free if you are a family farmer being driven under by meatpacking monopolists.
Poverty as a lack of freedom connects with a larger problem: More and more of us are having our liberties stolen. Entrepreneurs are savaged by private equity firms and monopolies, young lawyers are burdened by student debt, and we are all being subjected to a health care system full of egregiously large and mismanaged hospital systems, pharmaceutical companies and drug stores. Poverty is a concentrated form of the problems all Americans are increasingly facing.
Too many Democrats have never thought about their politics in this way, or considered the notion that there might be an alternative frame through which to pursue a progressive agenda.
This issue, as venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, put it, is deep. “Pelosi, and the rest of the party learned everything they know about economics from Trickledown’ers,” he said on Twitter. “Thus, they think there is a trade-off between growth and fairness and cannot articulate an economic story distinct from Republicans, except with pity.”
The Democratic Party was founded on the premise that citizens can self-govern, that the rich or educated aren’t better or more virtuous. The point of politics is for ordinary citizens to protect and preserve their political liberties. As William Findley, a Revolutionary-era Congressman, put it, “Wealth in many hands is many checks.” Most Democrats do not take this seriously; they certainly do not act on it. They think the agenda is to tax the wealthy and redistribute their wealth through social programs, or compel corporations to pay workers more, rather than taking on the historic concentrations of corporate power already corrupting our democracy at the root.
Acknowledging Democrats have been working from a pity-based value system ― and then pulling it out root and branch ― is essential. Democrats should reclaim the mantle of liberty again, and place freedom at the center of their agenda.
As President Woodrow Wilson said, “Politics differs from philanthropy in this: that in philanthropy we sometimes do things through pity merely, while in politics we act always, if we are righteous men, on grounds of justice and large expediency for men in the mass ... to equalize conditions, to make the path of right the path of safety and advantage, to see that every man has a fair chance to live and to serve himself, to see that injustice and wrong are not wrought upon any.”
Democrats must first recognize this distinction. Then, they must act to expand freedom for all, not compel charity from the unwilling rich to the unfortunate poor.