Since the election of “the Squad” — a group of first-term Democrats including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar — the media, especially the right-wing media, has spent a lot of time obsessing over them. Everything about their political personas, the unapologetic way they talk about race and imperialism, and even the way they dress seems to spark headlines.
More recently, Nancy Pelosi appeared to jump on the bash-the-Squad bandwagon. In the aftermath of a vote over border funding in June, Ocasio-Cortez criticized Pelosi’s role in approving the bill. “We didn’t even bother to negotiate,” Ocasio-Cortez told CNN at the time, calling the bill “completely irresponsible to the American people and to those kids on the border.”
Pelosi retorted with now headline-making, dismissive comments about the Squad. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” she told the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd earlier this month. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.” Ocasio-Cortez then pointed out a pattern of Pelosi’s “explicit singling out of newly elected women of color,” even as they’re already targets of death threats and right-wing ire.
Yet it was Ocasio-Cortez’s clapback that caused something of a firestorm. Folks from the liberal to the conservative side of the mainstream media defended Pelosi. And of course Trump jumped in to add his usual racist commentary — tweeting this past Sunday that the representatives should “go back” to their countries while calling Ocasio-Cortez’s comments about Pelosi racist, and later adding that they “hate our Country.” At a rally on Wednesday, he attacked Omar (who is black and Muslim) in particular, as the crowd chanted “send her back!”
In some ways, the wider optics of this moment have been central to modern politics since the Clinton era. In the ’90s, black women thrust onto the central political stage — from Sister Souljah to Joycelyn Elders to Anita Hill — were turned into controversial symbols by both right-wing and mainstream media and were then thrown under the bus by Democratic Party leadership. In the case of Sister Souljah, it was Bill Clinton himself who brought her onto the political stage. (Certainly there have been women of color in the House and Senate who have been embraced by leadership, but they haven’t been thrust into the spotlight in the way that Hill and the Squad have been.) Not only were party leaders unable, or unwilling, to advocate for these women turned symbols, it seemed that they also distanced themselves as a way of broadcasting their centrism to the “mainstream” electorate, often projected as white, suburban swing voters.
But the Squad (in Twitter parlance) is clapping back, calling out the terms of the debate and refusing to kowtow to party leadership — just as Pelosi now seems to be joining them — in a sign that those terms might be changing.
The particular scenario of using women of color designated as radical by the mainstream media to define the terms of the Democratic Party’s centrism has a problematic history, one that has arguably been central to its modern wins. It began, in a very different way, with the now-infamous “Sister Souljah” moment during Bill Clinton’s campaign for president in 1992.
Clinton won the presidency because, as Clarence Page later wrote in the Chicago Tribune, he became “the first presidential candidate since Robert F. Kennedy, before his assassination in 1968, to bring Southern whites, Northern blue-collar ethnics and inner-city blacks and Hispanics together under the same political banner in great numbers.” But, as Page noted, in order to make that coalition work, he had to signal that he believed in “diversity,” but not in a way that would offend white people.
He found the perfect vehicle to do that in Sister Souljah, the 27-year-old rapper Lisa Williamson. During a Washington Post interview, she was asked about the 1992 Los Angeles riots and whether they were the result of “wise, reasoned action.” In her reply, Williamson pointed out — in purposely polemical fashion — that the public and media had ignored riots and gang violence when the only people dying were black, and following that logic, directing the violence toward white people made some sense.
Sensing a political opportunity to appear “multicultural” but safe from radical views, Clinton appeared in front of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition to chastise Williamson. He zeroed in on a decontextualized quote that terrified white voters: “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black,’ and you reversed them,” the then governor told the crowd, “you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”
This moment became central to his winning strategy. The Sister Souljah debacle became, preposterously, understood as a moment of speaking truth to power; even as recently as 2016, Politico (in an opinion piece demanding more “Sister Souljah” moments from Republicans) described it as “synonymous in campaign lore with a candidate showing political courage and independence.” In fact, it was about a white politician using a (comparatively powerless) black woman artist to signal to anxious white suburbanites and the now-mythical Reagan Democrats that Clinton wasn’t “that” kind of radical, nor was he a liberal vulnerable to racialized “special interests.” As Page noted in his essay about the moment, “Clinton may never be able to thank her enough.”
This strategy of throwing “controversial” women of color — especially black women — under the bus wasn’t just an electoral one. It set the terms of the debates around the Clinton era policy agenda as well. Joycelyn Elders, the first black surgeon general, was forced to resign for her “radical” comments about masturbation. (Rush Limbaugh nicknamed her the “Condom Queen.”) Lani Guinier, the first woman of color nominated to be assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, became dubbed one of Clinton’s “quota queens” by the Wall Street Journal. (These “queen” labels evoked the racist trope of the Reaganite “welfare queen.”) She was portrayed as radical because she wrote academic law articles about the dangers of majoritarian electoral systems, and was asked to remove her nomination to the post.
It was later revealed that the attack on her was part of a conservative reaction to the doomed Robert Bork nomination, and it’s a reminder that in the ’90s, conservatives understood that the terms of the debate around race had shifted and they could only attack “diversity” through their own versions of diversity. In some ways, Anita Hill was another black woman that the Democratic Party threw under the bus, because the nervous white party leadership was unprepared to counter the way diversity-savvy conservatives helped Clarence Thomas turn an intra-racial accusation of sexual harassment into a black-versus-white “high-tech lynching.”
None of these women were able to clap back through the party machinery, which abandoned them. Instead, they later wrote books about their experiences — but that was long after they had already been framed as dangerous radicals by the right-wing and mainstream media. Joe Biden’s nonapology to Hill in April is a reminder that the party has never quite grappled with this toxic “legacy” and what it owes these women.
Since the women of the Squad arrived in Congress — both through their elections and in their actions in chambers — they have helped shift the national conversation about race, in large part by taking it directly to the public via Twitter. Instead of having white-dominated media play referee between party leaders and white suburban voters, they’ve shifted the political conversation into something far more complicated. This includes calling out the spectrum of the way race influences politics: from the banality of everyday racism to the structures of white supremacy, both in policy and in narratives.
Last month, for instance, Ocasio-Cortez made headlines for calling the so-called immigrant detention centers concentration camps. (She also highlighted the intersections of the class and racial disparity in cannabis production.) This attention to race is also part of the way the Squad breaks down political strategy. During the Michael Cohen hearings, Cohen’s opinion that Trump was a racist became the subject of debate. Anticipating the issue, Republican Rep. Mark Meadows introduced Lynne Patton, a Housing and Urban Development appointee who is African American, “to make the case that President Trump isn’t racist,” as the Times reported. Rep. Tlaib openly called out the tactic as “insensitive” and said it was racist “to use a black woman as a prop.”
“As a person of color in this committee, that is how I felt at that moment and I wanted to express that,” she told the House Oversight and Reform Committee. “I’m saying that in itself it is a racist act.” (The committee then went back and forth about whether she was allowed to say that, and Meadows invoked family members of color to “defend” himself.)
These callouts have not endeared “the Squad” to the right-wing media, and as women of color who have refused to speak in the usual language of American exceptionalism, they are particularly subject to conservative confusion and anger. They have been turned into potent political symbols. Though Pelosi posed on the cover of Rolling Stone with Ocasio-Cortez and Omar in February, selling the shiny new faces of the Democratic new wave, their political potency is also part of why Pelosi has sought to distance Democratic leadership from them.
Pelosi’s New York Times interview was not the first time she framed “the Squad” as a marginal, outsider force in the party. In an interview with Lesley Stahl in April, when Stahl asked her about managing the “wings” of the party, including “[Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and her group,” Pelosi interrupted her. “That’s like five people.” “By and large, whatever orientation they came to Congress with,” she told Stahl, “they know that we have to hold the center, that we have to go down the mainstream.” (Pelosi also rebuked black lawmaker Maxine Waters, right around the time she was becoming a potent symbol of Trump opposition.)
To some degree, Pelosi was obviously just drawing a distinction between the ability to get congressional votes and to resonate with the wider public. She also has to hold on to all the seats they won last year in the suburbs and has chosen to or been backed into drawing a distinction between Ocasio-Cortez and everyone else. “I would understand why you’d want to put an arm’s distance between more progressive members of the caucus and more moderate members of the caucus — I think that’s fine — but it’s explicitly the four of us,” Ocasio-Cortez noted. This is also part of a larger history of the party “managing” women of color who have been deemed controversial in this way, and also part of a broader battle over language and strategy, or language as strategy.
Not incidentally, Pelosi has a history of timidity about finding the right way to frame messages for voters in a way that will shift media narratives. The renowned linguist George Lakoff, who has long worked with the Democratic Party, told Salon in 2017 about an anecdote that illuminated Pelosi’s inability to strategize messaging during the Iraq War era, and it speaks to her current difficulties. Lakoff suggested to House members then that the party frame its message about the war in terms of George W. Bush “betraying the public’s trust.” As he recalled, “It turned out that the Southerners in the caucus agreed strongly, and they wanted to have me work with them on talking about Bush betraying trust. But Nancy said, ‘Well, we should check with the polls first,’ and she checked with one of the major pollsters who said, ‘Oh no, my polls show that people trust Bush, therefore we can’t use it.’”
It’s not an accident that Pelosi mentioned Twitter in her comments about the Squad, because the platform has helped these lawmakers sidestep the usual media channels and change the terms of the conversation around racism, and the media is now trying to catch up. “We are more than four people,” Pressley said in the press conference, pointing to her constituents and the potential universal audience of “the Squad.”
They called and staged the press conference almost as a teaching moment to explain the way Trump’s tweets asking the Democrats to go back to their countries is a troubling part of white supremacist strategies — initially without Pelosi. That Pelosi now put the party machinery behind them by officially condemning Trump’s tweets marks one of the first times since the Clinton era that the party leadership has — symbolically — had women of color’s backs. As we head into the 2020 election, the party faces a moment of truth, one that these women have been instrumental in bringing to the fore.
Still, Trump seems to think that pushing Pelosi to embrace the women is going to hurt the Democrats in the short term and has focused in on them, singling out Omar at last night’s rally in North Carolina. So far, Omar herself replied to Trump’s renewed attacks, tweeting a Maya Angelou poem. Ocasio-Cortez called the administration fascist. Part of what remains provocative about the women of the new left is that they don’t obsess over Trump. Instead, they talk about US interventionism in Venezuela, about detention camps, and about ICE as an agency, which, as Ocasio-Cortez has pointed out, was created in the Bush years and kept by Barack Obama. They don’t see Trump as some exceptional force in history, and their critique of the history of the Democratic Party predates — and moves beyond — Trump. Whether they continue to lead the conversation past him into a new Trump-less future, or find themselves censured by poll- and media approval–dependent Democrats, will no doubt play out in a very public way. ●