House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued an urgent warning on Monday about the threats to democracy posed by GOP leaders and urged moderate Republicans to retake the party and return to an earlier era of bipartisan rule.
In Senator Barbara Boxer’s annual lecture at UC Berkeley, Pelosi barely mentioned former US President Donald Trump by name, but fiercely criticized the Republican leader and others in the rising right-wing movement. They eroded voting rights and undermined the nation’s shared democratic values, Pelosi said, with politics she described as authoritarian and autocratic.
“I hope there are some Republicans here, so I can say to you: get your party back. The country needs a strong Republican Party, not one that has been hijacked as a cult,” she told the audience. “It’s not about partisanship,” she added, “…it’s about patriotism for our country, to make sure the people running for office are there to protect our democracy.”
The annual Boxer Lecture was first held in 2017 and focuses on women in leadership. It is sponsored by the UC Berkeley Institute for Government Studies and the Bancroft Library.
Pelosi linked efforts to defend US democracy to the growing challenges faced by democratic countries around the world, including Ukraine, which is defending itself against an unprovoked Russian attack.
“The people in Ukraine are fighting for their democracy,” she said, “but in their fight they are fighting for everyone’s democracy. It’s a fight against autocracy, and we all owe them a lot. While they fight this war, we have to fight here – and of course elections are a way to do that.”
The Boxer Lecture, held for the first time in 2017, focuses on women in leadership. The annual event is sponsored by the UC Berkeley Institute for Government Studies and the Bancroft Library.
Boxer served 10 years in the US House and 24 years in the Senate before retiring in 2017, building a strong record as an advocate for children, families, voting rights and the environment.
Pelosi is one of the most powerful and influential women – if not the most powerful – in US political history. In nearly 35 years representing San Francisco in the U.S. House of Representatives, she has been the House Democratic Party leader for 19 years, serving as speaker from 2007 to 2011 and again since 2019, while serving as minority leader in subsequent years. when Democrats were a minority. She was the first woman in history to hold these leadership positions.
In introducing the speakers, Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ detailed their historic accomplishments over the decades. “There are no better examples of the transformative power of women in leadership than President Pelosi and the Honorable Senator Barbara Boxer,” said Christ. An admiring audience of about 500 at Hertz Hall included US Representative Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) and University of California Regent John Pérez.
Sitting on the edge of her chair, animated and often gesticulating forcefully, Pelosi described her childhood, her close relationship with Boxer, her earlier positive working relationships with Republican lawmakers, and the recent erosion of American democracy. She was alternately passionate, blunt and good-natured.
An attack on democracy, instigated by the former president
She offered a detailed description of how a right-wing mob attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, attempted to block Trump’s peaceful transfer of power to Democratic rival Joe Biden.
“I’m telling you,” Pelosi said, “this was all bad: there was racism, there was sexism, there was anti-Semitism…. The things they were saying, the things they were doing – again, the attack was on our democracy – instigated by the President of the United States.”
Once members of Congress were taken to a safe location, they worked to determine next steps. Despite some suggestions that Congress delay final certification of the election, Pelosi and others pressed to complete the process without delay.
“Here’s the question I have that I think not many people think about,” Boxer said. “A miracle happened, because you ensured that the presidential election certification continued. … It’s my theory that if you hadn’t done that, I don’t know where we would be today.
“It saved democracy.”
Pelosi credited other members of Congress for being “very brave” in the decision to complete certification after the insurgency was quelled. But even so, she noted, a substantial bloc of Republicans — eight senators and 139 representatives — voted to reject the election results.
“That was heartbreaking,” she said. “It’s one thing for gangs of whatever you want to call them to get in there, instigated by the President of the United States. Another thing is for members of Congress to vote against the peaceful transfer of power.”
Making the political process ‘healthier for our country’
During the 50-minute interview, Pelosi varied among other questions:
The role of the media in a democracy. “One of the things that the previous and occasional occupant of the White House would do is undermine freedom of the press. In my opinion, freedom of the press is the guardian of our democracy,” Pelosi said, but Trump and others have worked “to undermine the credibility of the press and to undermine the credibility of government institutions.
“It was really very smart – it was very authoritarian, autocratic. But it was a plan and they followed that path and had some level of success in undermining the collective conscience of our country that we all agree that certain things are right.”
Voting rights legislation pending in Congress. A historic measure to protect and expand voting rights has enough votes to pass the House, but not the 60 votes needed to overcome an obstruction in the Senate. Pelosi suggested that it is essential.
“It’s a protector of our democracy,” she said. “It is about stopping the suppression of the vote and the annulment of elections.” In addition, she explained, it would end the partisan lottery process for congressional districts. “It may or may not help us win more Democratic seats,” she said, “but it will make the process healthier for our country.”
Opportunities for women in politics. Pelosi described her early work as a grassroots political organizer, never expecting to run for office or rise to national leadership. “And then the opportunity came,” she said. “So I say to the women here: you never know when the opportunity might present itself. Be ready – be ready, take stock of yourself… have confidence in who you are.”
Pelosi admitted that she had limited hope that today’s Republican Party could reverse course and return to a more conventional bipartisan role in American political life. Some moderate Republicans have told her that they cannot defeat more extreme Republican candidates in the primary, and that Democrats will have to prevail if extremism is to be defeated and moderate Republicans can return to power.
“We don’t put ourselves in the category of people like our founders, or Lincoln, but we recognize the urgency of attacking our democracy now,” Pelosi said. Still, she offered a note of optimism: Change is possible, she said, “because I believe in the American people and their goodness… and the beauty of the diversity of the American people.”