Massachusetts congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who endorsed Elizabeth Warren for president earlier this week, has always been honest about her beliefs and background. When she challenged incumbent Democrat Mike Capuano last year, she didn’t shy from the “Kennedy Democrat” label. She told Politico that although she was only 44, “if politics is like dog years, you know, I’m probably 80 right now.”
Pressley wasn’t an insurgent plucked from obscurity, after all. In her early 20s, she was an intern and later staffer to Congressman Joseph Kennedy II. After that she became a senior aide to John Kerry and served for nearly a decade on Boston’s city council. During that time she charted a careful course, building up support among her party’s mainstream by campaigning for figures like former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and not rocking the boat.
Not all of this is necessarily a bad thing: we might admonish the behavior of our political establishment, but experience is a useful thing if you’re administering a state. And John F Kennedy? Not a favorite of this socialist, but pretty popular among Americans at large.
Yet after beating Capuano – a longtime Congressional Progressive Caucus member, Iraq war opponent, and Medicare for All advocate – Pressley was lumped in by the media with leftwing congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar. Together they were labeled “the Squad.” Their (relative) youthfulness, their non-white ethnicities, and the fact that they all received backing from the Justice Democrats were obvious factors. So was the fact that the four had all been subject to racist attacks from President Trump.
But despite friendship and a shared opposition to the ugly forces of right-populism, Pressley stood out from the rest of the group. She was the only one of the four, for example, to vote for a congressional resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement this summer. At the time, she said: “I am pro-Palestinian and I am pro-Israeli. I am really sick and tired of our buying into this idea that we have to make these binary choices.” It was a statement of centrist equivocation – between oppressed and oppressor – that could have been uttered by Nancy Pelosi.
Though Pressley stood firm on other important issues, such as opposing June’s border funding bill, one need only look at her views during the 2016 Democratic primary to see her careful political instincts at work: she endorsed Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders back then, not even picking the path of neutrality embraced by Elizabeth Warren.
At the time, she even said that Clinton, unlike Sanders, “knows plans without price tags are simply pandering.” This was the kind of anti-populist messaging that, echoed by her fellow Clinton surrogates, helped spell doom in the 2016 general election.
With rhetoric like that, perhaps the story that the media should be telling this week isn’t about Pressley breaking with the rest of the Squad to endorse Warren over Bernie, but her evolving to the point that she would risk endorsing Warren over frontrunner Joe Biden.
But the real reason I’m interested in Pressley is that she’s a perfect illustration of what happens when we project radical ideas on to people just because of who their enemies happen to be or because of what they look like. Ayanna Pressley is a Democrat who, like many others, is slowly inching leftward. Yet when she says, referring to the Squad, that “we are not a monolith. We don’t land in the same place on every vote,” she seems to be completely ignored.
Let’s stop doing that, and accept that people who are trailblazers might not all be blazing the same path, and that we don’t have to necessarily support them.
I knew, for example, that my project was a very different one than Pressley’s when I read an interview where she said her goal was to avoid a “narrative of binary choices. Are you insider or outsider? Are you privileged or poor?”
That’s the opposite of what the emerging New Left is and ought to be doing – naming enemies, politicizing issues, creating polarizations, all to push the kind of change that can improve millions of lives.
Pressley will be an ally in many of these struggles, but out of respect for her own beliefs and tactics, let’s stop conflating her vision with ours.