Domestic Affairs

Democratic Divisions Within the New Congress

Despite Republicans’ best efforts, Democrats offered a strong performance in the 2018 midterm elections in the House of Representatives and gained well over 30 seats. After two years of Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress, House Democrats will now have a far greater influence on proposed legislation in a system of divided government. It is certain that they will attempt to make big changes now that their voices can be heard again.

However, tension is already brewing within the Democratic Party itself over its leadership. Many Democrats believe that Nancy Pelosi, a veteran in the House of Representatives, should remain the leader of the Party and assume the role of Speaker of the House. However, other Democrats feel emboldened by the wave of younger, more diverse representatives that have been elected to the 116th Congress and believe that now is the time for a push against the Democratic establishment with a new face as the Speaker of the House.

Nancy Pelosi has represented the 12th District in California for over 30 years and has been involved in Democratic leadership for the past 16 years. The last time Democrats had a majority in the House, from 2007-2011, she served as the Speaker of the House, being the first woman to do so in American history. During her time in office, she has been responsible for notable efforts in environmental regulation, healthcare reform, and helping combat the Great Recession through bailouts and stimulation. These policies, as well as her prominence and longevity of her career in politics, have made her a prime and easy target among Republicans.

Among Republican voters, Pelosi’s sustained and visible political influence in the Democratic agenda has created a “huge visceral reaction” against her. Republican candidates and officeholders have learned to play off these biases. Even in April of 2018, seven months before the midterms, 34 percent of all GOP attack ads mentioned Pelosi in some way. It appears the association of her name can significantly harm the popularity of a policy or candidate among the general public because of this stigma that has developed over the years.

A significant portion of Democrats voiced doubts about Pelosi resuming her role as Speaker of the House, not because she lacks the qualifications, but rather because she can provoke this significant division among the population.

After the midterm elections, sixteen House Democrats signed a letter saying that they would oppose her bid to become the next Speaker, eleven of whom are sitting House members. Pelosi and her staffers, in the weeks after the election, strove to mollify those within her party who expressed concern at her resuming her former position as Speaker. Meeting with caucuses and representatives, Pelosi was able to secure votes in exchange for greater attention on issues important to these members.


In the last week of November, House Democrats held a closed-door meeting in which Pelosi was selected to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for Speaker in a 203-32 vote. During the floor vote on January 3rd with the entire House of Representatives present, Pelosi was elected Speaker of the House, receiving 220 votes.

While Pelosi may have successfully garnered enough support to achieve this important position, the resistance to her ascension to Speaker within her own party should be a point of focus for Democrats in the near future. Some argue that having Pelosi as the face of the Democrats in the House could unify Republican opposition against the Democrats, hurting their popularity and chances in the 2020 elections. Pelosi is also 78 years old, so some Democrats desired a leader with more youth and charisma to fill the position instead, which potentially could bring renewed vigor and relatability to the Democratic Party.

Many of the new Democratic members of the 116th Congress have already begun to turn heads because of controversy surrounding their youth and progressive policies, provoking arguments regarding their seriousness and legitimacy as lawmakers. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in particular, drew media attention for a video that was released in which she recreated a dance from The Breakfast Club. However, despite this added attention, these new members appear to take their new jobs seriously, continuing to push strongly for issues they promised to constituents within their campaigns and potentially pushing the Democratic Party further to the left.

These younger members seem far more adept at interacting and relating with the public, especially younger voters. In the beginning of 2019, Ocasio-Cortez surpassed Pelosi in followers on Twitter. Instances like the dancing video appear to have made her more relatable to a younger generation, one that is particularly frustrated with a political system run by older citizens with limited knowledge of what it is like to grow up in modern day America. However, there is also opposition to this youthful movement within the Democratic Party, with people like Aaron Sorkin arguing that these new members should “stop acting like young people.”

While Nancy Pelosi seems to have been a safe choice as Speaker of the House at the present moment, the Democratic Party must decide how they wish to define themselves with future leadership. If they wish to fully endorse the energy and more progressive talking points of their youngest members, more moderate Democrats may begin to feel ostracized by a radical rejuvenated party. In the months prior to the Democratic primaries in 2018, older Democratic leaders even ran attack ads against the more progressive members of their own party to avoid a more socialist-leaning platform. However, resisting this youthful push altogether could reduce participation and voter turnout from younger generations, critical to the future of the party.

Democratic leadership could undoubtedly learn some lessons about enthusiasm and vitality from these younger members. There does need to be a balance, though, between energy and experience. Democrats must find some sort of consensus concerning their image if they wish to remain united in their opposition to President Trump and the Republicans. The cohesion of these two distinct groups, young and old, within the Democratic Party will truly be put to the test in how Democrats approach debate over another possible government shutdown in the coming weeks.

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