Nancy Pelosi can’t swat away the revolution

Clockwise from left: Omar, Pressley, Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez.
Clockwise from left: Omar, Pressley, Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez.Photo illustration by Globe staff

Back in the day, the “Squad” would be the “Gnats” — four easily swatted away newcomers to Congress, learning the ropes of power and seniority in humbling obscurity.

Instead, powered by social media and large-scale rebellion on the left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, are not so easily dismissed. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is trying: “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. “They didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”


Technically, that’s correct. The four women known as the “Squad” were the only Democrats to vote “no” against a bill to send more funding to the border, because they believe it doesn’t provide enough protections for migrant children. But thanks to “their public whatever and their Twitter world,” they do have the power to challenge Pelosi. And they’re using it as brashly and brilliantly as Megan Rapinoe.

To their not insignificant fan base, these four women of Congress are boldly kicking their way to change, while Pelosi moves the ball more cautiously down the field. The speaker has a simple, pragmatic goal: to hold onto a majority in the House and win the White House. The Squad, meanwhile, aims to advance a sweeping, left-leaning agenda for the entire country on health care, immigration, and other matters of economic and social equity. Whether that agenda helps reelect Trump underscores the debate now splitting the Democratic party.

The battle for a party’s soul happens cyclically and not just to Democrats. Not long ago, John Boehner, a former Republican congressman and speaker of the House, tried to ignore a revolution on the right. His conservatism wasn’t conservative enough for a new generation of Republicans, who blamed him for not pushing hard enough against President Obama. When he lost the fight, he also blamed social media. Today, Pelosi’s liberalism isn’t liberal enough for some Democrats, who blame her for not pushing hard enough against Trump.


I think Pelosi’s on the right track. But the generational clamor for revolution shouldn’t be marginalized. As Pelosi is learning, at age 79, one day you’re leading the charge for change. Then — on what seems to you to be the next day — you are what people want to change. “If the left doesn’t think I’m left enough, so be it,” she told Dowd. “As I say to these people, come to my basement. I have these signs about single payer from 30 years ago. I understand what they’re saying. But we have a responsibility to get something done, which is different from advocacy. We have to have a solution not just a Twitter fight.”

To her party’s most liberal activists, those 30-year-old signs prove their point. The power brokers of the past didn’t get the job done then, and can’t get it done now. And their brokered solutions aren’t what the new kids in Washington want, anyway. Joe Biden is under fire for past compromises he signed onto. Pelosi, meanwhile, is coming under fire for compromises made in real time.

The Squad pushed back quickly against Pelosi’s criticism of their “no” votes. “I don’t believe it was a good idea for Dems to blindly trust the Trump admin when so many kids have died in their custody. It’s a huge mistake,” tweeted Ocasio-Cortez. “You know they’re just salty about WHO is wielding the power to shift ‘public sentiment’ these days, sis. Sorry not sorry,” tweeted Omar.


In a blog post, Pressley wrote, “I voted no because I believe we have to reject the status quo and work towards a clear vision of a human immigration system, a just immigration system.”

For better or worse, these rebellious newcomers control their own message. The days of swatting them away are long over.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.