In the midst of even crazier than usual ravings from President Donald Trump and a two-week long government shutdown that is wreaking economic and bureaucratic havoc across the United States, Washington DC’s gloom lifted yesterday as a festive gathering assembled on Capitol Hill to swear in the 116th Congress. For the first time in two years, a spirit of joy enveloped the city as throngs of people descended on the Capitol Building to watch the ceremony. Representative Nancy Pelosi (Democrat of California) took back the gavel, becoming Speaker of the House for a second time, and a new generation of congresspersons took the oath of office, most notably 102 women who have changed the face of the legislative branch overnight. A trending tweet on Twitter and Facebook yesterday was #TweetYourThobe, in honor of the first Muslim Palestinian woman to enter Congress, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who wore a bright Palestinian thobe for her swearing-in ceremony. Dozens of women attending the ceremony also wore colorful thobes to celebrate the historic moment.
Congress also welcomed the first Somali-American woman yesterday, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who wore her hijab as she took the oath of office. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland, of Kansas and New Mexico respectively, became the first native American women sworn in to Congress. Davids is openly lesbian, and Haaland wore the traditional garb of the Laguna Pueblo people. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York wore an even bigger and brighter smile than usual. Meanwhile, new senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who is openly bi-sexual, declined to take the oath on a Bible, opting to use copy of the U.S. Constitution instead. Rashida Tlaib took her oath of office using President Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Quran. Photographs of the event revealed the stark contrast between the Democrats and Republicans in sharp visual form: one side of the aisle was dominated primarily by wealthy white men in their 60s and 70s, wearing dark suits and sitting stiffly. The other side of the aisle was a colorful collection of women and men of all ages and ethnicities, smiling with enthusiasm. In sum: it was a good day for American diversity, and a bad day for Donald Trump’s nativism.
The new Democratic-dominated House of Representatives has already put the president on notice that they are going to use their subpoena powers to investigate him and his cabinet members, ask for his income tax records, fight against his ridiculous border wall, and move to end the government shutdown. A wind of change has clearly swept through Capitol Hill, but no one should discount the undercurrents of dissent and disagreement in the Democratic Party. These undercurrents were not visible during the celebration on Capitol Hill yesterday, but were very much evident in reactions to the first Democrat to enter the 2020 presidential race: Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. No sooner had she announced she was seeking the nomination than pundits and commentators began to question her likability (which reminded many of the ways the press treated Hilary Clinton). From the Left, Warren’s detractors disparaged her for not being progressive enough and for being too pro-Israel. Meanwhile, another potential presidential contender, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, faced a barrage of accusations yesterday that men running his 2016 campaign had harassed women and paid them less than the men working on the campaign. Sanders has been on the defensive in media interviews today, saying he did not know any of this was happening because he was “busy running a national campaign.”
Across the country, Democrats and Independents eager to see the last of Donald Trump and the removal of the GOP from the White House are worried that the Democratic vote could be split and fragmented again in November 2020. Despite yesterday’s celebration of unity and solidarity on Capitol Hill, the Democratic party is deeply, and possibly fatally, divided at its very base. Reminders of this division emerged even yesterday, after the joyful swearing in ceremony, as Reps. Ocasio Cortez of New York and Khanna of California expressed disagreement with the Democratic leadership’s proposed rules package, nicknamed PAYGO (“pay as you go”), which would continue requiring mandatory spending cuts and/or tax increases for any provisions that increase entitlement spending. Here we see the fault line between the old and new Democratic party: economic inequalities and unjust disparities rooted in decades of neo-liberal policies supported by both parties have harmed millions of Americans, and the “jobless recovery” following the 2008 market collapse that benefitted the Wall Street titans who damaged the economy accounted for both Bernie Sanders’ and Donald Trump’s electoral support in 2016.
In the aftermath of November’s elections, Pelosi’s bid to return to the Speakership revealed internal disagreements between older and younger Democrats, but surprisingly, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the icon of the new Democratic party, did not oppose her. It turns out Ocasio Cortez was playing chess, not checkers, and that she will not be deferring to the Democratic leadership now that she has been sworn in, but rather, taking on the mantle of the opposition, not unlike her mentor in the Senate, fellow Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders. As we enter a new era in American politics, it’s clear that the ghosts of the 2016 Sanders versus Clinton battle are very much alive and will haunt the Democrats as they enter the 2020 presidential primary elections season.