The deal announced this week between Nancy Pelosi and several holdout Democrats ensures Pelosi's return to the speakership after an eight-year hiatus, in exchange for her pledge to serve no more than two additional terms in the position. Pelosi was already the endorsed choice of the incoming House Democrats to be the next speaker; 203 of 235 caucus members had supported her to continue as party leader in secret balloting conducted in late November. But the unique constitutional requirement that the speaker be selected by a majority vote of the entire House gives even small dissenting factions within the ruling party potential leverage over the speakership, as John Boehner discovered when a few dissatisfied members of the House Freedom Caucus successfully forced him from the position three years ago.
Behind-the-scenes accounts of the internal challenge to Pelosi emphasize the problems that the Democratic rebels faced in uniting behind a common set of objectives, coordinating their tactics with each other, and finding an alternative candidate willing to stand for speaker. With the anti-Pelosi effort soon stalling in the face of these obstacles, a few announced opponents flipped back onto Pelosi's side in exchange for minor concessions, signaling to the rest of the party that this wasn't a bandwagon worth jumping on. It's trendy at the moment to credit Pelosi as an all-time master legislative tactician and vote counter, but in this particular case her powers don't seem to have been put to an especially strong test.
While the renegade faction committed its share of mistakes—the (undoubtedly Pelosi-allied) sources behind the press reports seem especially intent on portraying Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, one of the ringleaders, as an arrogant bumbler—their cause was also hurt by two major changes in the larger political environment during the two years since 63 House Democrats voted against Pelosi for leader in November 2016. The first is a sudden explosion of political engagement among Democratic activists, especially online. The second is a concurrent spike in the salience of gender issues and the descriptive representation of women in Democratic politics.
Both of these trends are best understood as responses to the ascendance of Donald Trump to the presidency rather than to any developments in Congress. But Pelosi became their beneficiary nonetheless. Over the past two years, millions of Democratic citizens have started to pay close attention to the daily news from Washington—even following events in real time on Twitter and Facebook—and demanding a greater voice for liberal women in American government and society. All of a sudden, it's a good time to be a woman seeking power in the Democratic Party. Pelosi has been the leader of the House Democrats for 15 years, but only in the last few weeks has she become a liberal icon such that her confrontation with Trump at the White House over the border wall inspired online memes and the coat she was wearing sold out of stock overnight—prompting a reissue by the manufacturer.
As Jonathan Bernstein observes, "the rebels seriously misunderstood the political situation . . . it sure seemed like there was real grassroots support for Pelosi, possibly organized by the same people who have energized the resistance and who drummed up turnout in the midterms." Pelosi supporters on social media began to use the hashtag #FiveWhiteGuys to refer to her challengers within the party, even though Kathleen Rice of New York was one of Pelosi's leading opponents and Marcia Fudge of Ohio came the closest to running against Pelosi for speaker (in today's liberal online rhetoric, the label "white guy" carries with it an implicit self-explanatory dismissiveness). But defense of the Democratic leader spread from the virtual realm into the real world as well; Moulton was confronted at a public event in his district over his role in the anti-Pelosi maneuverings, and a female state legislator began to talk about running against him for renomination in 2020.
The 62 members of the incoming Democratic freshman class also provide a clue about the prevailing sentiments among the party at the grassroots level, to which they are presumably attuned. A number of these newly-elected members distanced themselves from Pelosi during the campaign for electoral reasons, even pledging in some cases not to support her for speaker. But few of them wanted to have anything to do with the organized dump-Pelosi movement, preferring to keep any opposition as quiet as possible once the 2018 election was over; only five signed the public letter opposing Pelosi spearheaded by Moulton.
The unprecedented interest of Democratic activists in what some observers might have assumed to be an inside-Washington debate over congressional leadership succession raises the question of whether social media users and other politically passionate citizens will continue to be closely attentive to congressional affairs once Pelosi claims the speaker's gavel on January 3, and whether such attention will affect the behavior of Democratic members of Congress in consequential ways. In the past, conservative media sources like talk radio have often been credited with provoking tidal waves of phone calls or letters to Capitol Hill offices that have been successful at times in influencing the votes of their recipients. It's increasingly possible that the viral post or hashtag will become the modern liberal equivalent, threatening Democratic officeholders with the outrage of the logged-in activist community if they don't support one or another favored party leader, legislative item, or presidential impeachment article.
And, if the voluble and assertive Twitter feed of soon-to-be Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is any indication, in the next session of Congress more and more debate between members themselves will move from C-SPAN to cyberspace. After all, that's where the audience is.