American politics have become highly polarised and divisive both within each of the two main political parties and also between them.
Centrists who have previously dominated American politics are being outflanked by radicals on both sides of the political spectrum. In the Republican Party, the establishment elite is being increasingly marginalised by a radicalised, nationalist, populist counter-elite led by former president Donald Trump and his allies. And in the Democratic Party, centrists are being challenged by a youthful cohort of social democrats who are challenging the cautious, status-quo oriented, and incrementalistic approach of the party leadership.
Four women have come to represent each of the four main currents of American politics today, and their biographies highlight the emerging schisms that are likely to define American politics in the coming decades. They are Nancy Pelosi and Liz Cheney, who represent the centre-left and the centre-right wings of their respective parties, and Marjorie Taylor Greene and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who represent the rising threat to the centre coming from the more radical extremes.
Four female faces of American politics
Nancy Pelosi, now 80 years old, has served as a US representative from California since 1987 and as speaker of the US House of Representatives from 2007 to 2011 and from 2019 to the present.
Pelosi is the only woman in US history to have served as speaker of the House, and she is the second-highest-ranking female elected official after Vice-President Kamala Harris. She is second in the presidential line of succession after Harris.
Initially, Pelosi was considered to be to the left of centre of the Democratic Party. She is a strong advocate of LGBT and abortion rights and of gun-control measures, and she opposed many of the policies endorsed by Democrats in the past, such as the war on Iraq and allowing China into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.
However, as Pelosi’s stature and power in the Democratic Party increased, and as the party’s younger cohort became more left-leaning, she became an emblem of centrism within the party. Her emphasis on compromise, gradualism and incrementalism, which have made her one of the most effective legislators in the American Congress, is now being challenged by a new cohort of Democrats who demand a bolder and more radical agenda for change.
Liz Cheney, 55 years old, is the daughter of Dick Cheney, the former vice-president in the administration of George W Bush. Cheney has been serving as the US representative for Wyoming’s at-large congressional district since 2017. She is the House Republican Conference chair, the third highest position in the House Republican leadership. During the Bush administration, she held several positions in the State Department as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and coordinator of the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiatives.
Cheney is an emblem of the neo-conservative movement within the Republican Party, which during a previous era constituted the right-wing of the party but has now come to represent the centre. She is known for her focus on national security, support for the US military, pro-business stance and hawkish and neoconservative foreign policy views, and for being fiscally and socially conservative.
Cheney was one of the most vocal critics of the Trump administration within the Republican Party, and she supported the second impeachment of former president Trump. In February 2021, an attempt by pro-Trump Freedom Caucus members to remove her from her leadership position failed by a vote of 145 to 61.
Both Pelosi and Cheney are considered establishment royalty. Both come from powerful political families, both have extensive connections with influential donors and interest groups, and both are very wealthy. This has made them targets of the growing anti-establishment sentiment on the rise within the base of both the Republican and Democratic Parties.
ATTACK FROM THE FLANKS
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, 31 years old, popularly known as “AOC,” is the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress.
In 2018, at the age of 29 she was able to replace Democratic Caucus leader Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent, as the representative of New York’s 14th congressional district. Her success in ousting a high-ranking Democratic incumbent with access to vast support and resources constituted a big shake up to the Democratic establishment, highlighting an emerging shift within the base of the Democratic Party towards the left. As a young, non-white, Hispanic, female, AOC represents some of the main constituents of the Democratic Party, and her rapid ascent is seen by some to represent the future of the party.
AOC is among the first female members of the Democratic Socialists of America elected to serve in Congress. A long-standing supporter of Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders, she advocates for a progressive platform that includes public Medicare health insurance for all, tuition-free public college, a federal jobs guarantee, a Green New Deal and abolishing the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
AOC, along with a number of other young congresswomen including Ilhan Omar, Rashid Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley, have formed “the squad,” a group of radical lawmakers seeking to challenge the status quo within the Democratic Party.
Marjorie Taylor Greene, 46 years old, was elected to Congress in November 2020 to represent Georgia’s 14th congressional district. Greene represents the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party. She has won national notoriety for being a QAnon conspiracy theorist, for supporting violent threats against Democratic lawmakers and the FBI, for participating in protests organised by radical militias and for promoting Trump’s “Big Steal” elections narrative, and for refusing to endorse last year’s presidential elections results.
While her views and rhetoric have been condemned by some centrists within the Republican Party, the party has nonetheless failed to take any actions against her. Greene is part of a growing group of Republican lawmakers who embrace Trump’s nationalist-populist, conspiracy-laden, anti-immigrant, anti-establishment discourse. It is expected that this group will continue to grow in size and in power within the Republican Party in the coming years.
CAN THE CENTRE HOLD?
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016 was seen as marking the end of centrist politics within the Republican Party.
Four years later, the loss of the presidency and the Senate majority does not seem to have shaken the grip of Trump and the radical right on the party. Moreover, concerted attacks by Trump loyalists against centrist Republicans who took a stand against Trump and his supporters threaten to reduce their clout and numbers in the coming congressional elections.
On the other hand, the victory of Joe Biden over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party primaries and subsequently over Trump in the presidential elections represented a triumph for the centrist wing within the Democratic Party over its challengers on the right and on the left. However, some would argue that this triumph is only temporary and that as older voters become outnumbered by millennials, and as whites lose their majority status and women become more politically active, the Democratic Party will continue to shift to the left, and politicians such as AOC will become more representative of the party.
What would the decline of centrism on the left and the right mean for American democracy? Would it usher in greater polarisation and social strife? Would it increase the chances of an authoritarian takeover and the suspension of the democratic process as the two sides become increasingly unwilling to compromise and meet halfway and as constitutional consensus breaks down?
While this is a scenario that many fear could materialise in the years to come, it is also possible to argue that populists on the right and socialists on the left share more in common than meets the eye. Supporters of both camps share a disenchantment with the established elite who have championed the values of liberal internationalism by pushing for globalisation and neo-liberalism at home and abroad. Growing inequality and concentration of wealth and reduced public investment and public spending are widely seen as being the result of these policies.
However, whereas populists have directed their anger towards the political elite, minorities, foreigners and immigrants and have proposed economic protectionism and anti-immigration measures as a solution, socialists are calling for greater restrictions on capitalism in the form of higher taxes, more labour rights, universal healthcare, free education and environmental regulations and innovation.
It is possible that a new consensus could emerge between radicals on the left and on the right around an economic agenda that champions protectionism and deglobalisation and favours greater investment and spending at home. Moreover, if in the next few years Democrats succeed in making a rapid push towards re-industrialisation and a new green economy driven by clean energy and technological innovation and investment in education and research, perhaps that will reduce the discontent driving the rise of the radical right and reduce the clout of the fossil-fuel capitalism sustaining it with generous funding and support.
*The writer is a senior researcher and editor of Al-Malaf Al-Masry, Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly