Pelosi Challenger Shahid Buttar Discusses the Danger of Centrism and Calls for Unapologetic Progressivism


We spoke with Shahid Buttar, the activist, attorney, and democratic socialist who last year challenged Nancy Pelosi’s congressional seat in California’s 12th district, a position she’s held since 1987.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

MFU: As Pelosi’s strongest Democratic opponent in the last congressional primary in California, what are your thoughts on her representation of the 12th district since winning reelection?

SB: On the one hand, I’m very happy to see speaker Pelosi mount at least a credible rhetorical resistance to this administration. I am however disappointed in a range of ways in which she has effectively undermined a progressive agenda. Her response to the president’s speech about the border wall was at least thoughtful, though also weak. It didn’t forcefully respond to the underlying corruption apparent in his speech. It didn’t respond to the demagoguery of immigrants. I thought it was a little too ultimately accommodating of a kleptocratic tyrant who I think we all want to see opposed with greater vigor from our congressional representatives. Setting aside her response to the speech and what I appreciate in terms of her thoughtful denial of congressional resources to fund the construction of the wall, there are a range of ways in which she has undermined a progressive agenda straight out of the gate; the PAYGO rules in the House rules package in particular constrained the progressive agenda by forcing any spending to be met with corresponding tax increases or spending cuts. And it’s particularly striking because when the Republicans take an axe to the federal budget or decide to give tax cuts to billionaires, there’s no such offset. It is the effective equivalent of unilaterally disarming the Democratic side of the House and that is basically like ducking into a right-wing punch, which unfortunately the Speaker has done time and time again over the course of her career. I could go on for days about examples of where she has unfortunately created opportunities for conservatives by failing to promote meaningful progressive alternatives.

Another example of this is the approach to the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which basically diminishes its influence by denying that committee the subpoena power that it needs in order to conduct meaningful investigations, and by requiring any recommendations from that committee to move through other committees of jurisdiction in order to find their way into policy. Most committees of congress don’t operate under those restrictions; they have much greater flexibility to pursue their agendas, both to conduct investigations, and to propose legislation. The select committee on the climate crisis should have those very same powers.

I do hope that the Speaker proves more bold in resisting this administration going forward and a point I would make here, that’s somewhat far afield from her particular role, is that if we pretend that a moderate centrism is the best way to resist fascism, we will find ourselves hurtling faster and faster into an authoritarian abyss precisely because the center has delegitimated itself and the strongest way to counter the erosion of our most fundamental norms is to proudly champion those norms, which is to say adopt progressive legislation that recognizes the human right to access to healthcare, the human right to access to education, the human right to sustainability for future generations. These are plain to any casual observer of the political system. They’re plain to American voters. They’re plain to the international audience. And yet our congressional representation in Washington, even of America’s most progressive city, remains beholden to a stale anachronistic paradigm that has failed already, and the more we try to cling to yesterday’s vision of a center, the more we will find it slipping out of our grasp.

At the end of the day we need representatives who will proudly champion unapologetically the progressive policies we need to unwind the systematic injustices of the criminal justice system (which Pelosi has not been assertive on), to address the climate crisis and ensure the future sustainability of our country and civilization (which the Speaker has been reticent to do), to restore checks and balances and civil liberties (which the Speaker has been very reticent to do), to restore the federal budget for affordable housing (which she has failed to do), to bring the troops home (which she has actively impeded), and I could just go on for days. But I would just say that I’m glad that she has decided to at least array herself in opposition to the president. I think that opposition needs to be much bolder in order to be effective.

Kelly Wilkins