Nancy Pelosi is the best legislative leader of her generation, at least. Yet she is widely seen as being at least as much of a burden to her party as she is an asset, even as her male counterparts lag behind her in accomplishments. Why is that? For the same damn reason Hillary Clinton was so widely and easily demonized by her political opponents: too many people can’t deal with ambitious, successful women, and the Republican Party is here with tens of millions of dollars to exploit that. Peter Beinart has the gory details:
Within days of Pelosi’s ascension to House minority leader, in 2003, back when nearly 60 percent of Americans still had no idea who she was, the Republican Party featured her visage—“garish and twisted,” in the words of a magazine article at the time—in an ad against a Democrat running for Congress in Louisiana. The GOP has been using her as a scarecrow ever since. Before the 2010 midterms, the National Republican Congressional Committee cited Pelosi in an astonishing 70 percent of its ads—far more than the percentage that cited Obama. And for good reason: Internal Republican polling showed that Pelosi was far less popular than the president. After Democrats lost their House majority that fall, Congressman Allen Boyd of Florida, whose reelection bid failed, called hers “the face that defeated us in this last election.”
In the run-up to the 2012 elections, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, Republicans invoked Pelosi in television ads seven times as often as they invoked the Senate’s Democratic leader, Harry Reid. Four years after that, in the run-up to 2016, they invoked her three times as often.
It can’t be stressed enough how much this is not an individual issue:
For a 2010 paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the Yale researchers Victoria Brescoll and Tyler Okimoto showed study participants the fictional biographies of two state senators, identical except that one was named John Burr and the other Ann Burr. (I referred to this study in an October 2016 article for this magazine called “Fear of a Female President.”) When quotations were added that described the state senators as “ambitious” and possessing “a strong will to power,” John Burr became more popular. But the changes provoked “moral outrage” toward Ann Burr, whom both men and women became less willing to support.
If you think Nancy Pelosi is just too divisive—while not really understanding what she does or what progressive policies she’s made possible and what Republican ones she’s blocked—ask yourself why that is. And if your answer is anything other than “because Republicans exploited sexism and misogyny to turn her into a divisive figure,” go back and try again.