Congressman Steve King had a long history of racially inflammatory remarks before he finally gave away the game in an interview with the New York Times. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization,” King said, “how did that language become offensive?” King was asking for an education, and he got one. A universe of opprobrium came down around the Iowa congressman’s head. He lost his assignments on the influential House judiciary and agriculture committees, and the House all but unanimously passed a resolution explicitly “rejecting white nationalism and white supremacy” while condemning King by name.
And yet, for many of the GOP’s most committed critics, this reproach just wasn’t good enough. How had Republicans tolerated King’s penchant for naked racial hostility for so long, they asked? What good is condemning one congressman if the Republican Party remains reticent about similarly denouncing Donald Trump, others wondered? After all, the resolution was so weak that even King felt comfortable voting in favor of his own condemnation. And what good is any of this if King’s voters still support him?
Were these piercing critiques of the GOP’s tacit tolerance for racism and ignorance within its ranks offered in good faith? If they were, it is incumbent upon those who made them to direct those same critiques toward their allies with equal vigor. Today, as House Democrats agonize over how forcefully to condemn repeated anti-Semitic remarks from their members, the double standard has become intolerable.
Democrats are currently asking one of their own, Rep. Ilhan Omar, to apologize for a third time in as many months for making anti-Semitic comments. “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” the congresswoman said before a friendly audience at a progressive town hall in Washington D.C.
Omar has made a habit of appealing to an ancient slur that Jews are beholden to foreign elements, but that’s not the only anti-Semitic trope she deploys with lamentable regularity. Omar was perplexed when her comment about Israelis’ having “hypnotized the world” was called anti-Semitic, and she apologized after engaging in a dialogue with well-meaning observers who explained to her the nature of the offense. Omar’s enlightenment was short-lived. A few weeks later, Omar was compelled to “unequivocally” apologize again for contending that America’s allegiance to Israel is born not of their shared geostrategic goals or mutually compatible political cultures but of the pernicious effect of the Jewish money that floods into pro-Israel lobbying groups.
Omar is not apologizing anymore. Left with no other recourse, her colleagues have taken the next step: a resolution, not unlike the one that targeted king, condemning anti-Semitism.
Quite unlike the GOP’s experience, though, Democrats have encountered fierce resistance to this assault on the bigotry that lingers within their ranks. House Democrats were forced to delay a Wednesday vote on a resolution that did not even specifically name Omar or call for her removal from her committee posts amid opposition from the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Democrats caved. Leadership announced on Tuesday a plan to put a new resolution to the House floor as soon as Thursday, but one that would no longer condemn anti-Semitism alone. The new measure will condemn anti-Muslim biases, too. A watered-down resolution condemning anti-Jewish prejudice within the Congress was apparently the only thing that could still pass the House with united Democratic support.
But even this failed to satisfy Omar’s progressive allies. Following what was described as a bitter internal debate, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer revealed that the resolution had been put on hold indefinitely. After all, it might not even be necessary. “I don’t think she’s anti-Semitic,” Hoyer said.
It would have been bad enough if Democrats had tried to ignore these repeated anti-Semitic comments altogether. The fact that a critical number of Democrats so objected to the idea that these remarks should even be subject to modest rebuke that the effort imploded is undoubtedly worse.
Liberal partisans know exactly what Democrats are doing here. Indeed, they explained why generic condemnations of hatred in the face of discrete episodes of bigotry entirely missed the point amid the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. “All lives matter,” was the response from those who were discomfited by the movement’s focus on excessive uses of force by police against African-Americans. Of course, all lives do matter, those on the left observed, but to insist upon such language in the face of specific episodes of bias targeting distinct demographics is obtuse. The effort isn’t to restore common bonds, but to diminish the validity of the Black Lives Matter movement’s grievance.
Today, as Democratic House leadership calculates precisely how forcefully to condemn anti-Semitic sentiments within its ranks without alienating anti-Semites, a full-scale rebellion is brewing. Rep. Rashida Tlaib called the effort to condemn anti-Semitism “unprecedented” and questioned Pelosi’s judgment. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez insisted that Pelosi’s resolution was “hurtful” and that there should be similar votes condemning all manner of bigotries ranging from xenophobia, to homophobia, to “anti-blackness.” Pelosi is a “typical white feminist upholding the patriarchy doing the dirty work of powerful white men,” wrote Women’s March co-chair Linda Sarsour. These are not nobodies. These are core figures in the Democratic coalition, individuals who are now or were only recently some of the party’s most visible new faces.
It isn’t just the activist wing that has effectively sided with Omar in this fight. The New York Times claimed that Omar’s attack on the Israeli lobbying group AIPAC raised important questions about the influence Zionists and Jews wield. The Washington Post suggested that Pelosi would invite a prolonged internecine debate over America’s policy toward Israel by unequivocally condemning anti-Jewish bigotry. These are not fringe institutions expressing the concerns of a marginal constituency.
It was only one month ago that the Democratic Party was united in disgust after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam admitted to appearing in photographs as a younger man in blackface. Democrats, Nancy Pelosi among them, insisted that no apology would suffice. Northam had to go. Virginia’s governor did not consent to his own exile, but Democrats nonetheless established a standard. “It is essentially this,” I wrote at the time. “Any act of naked bigotry, even the bourgeois sort that stems from ignorance or social desirability biases, is unacceptable and unforgivable.” Confronted today with a kind of prejudice to which not all its members are entirely hostile, Democrats have revealed how hollow those condemnations really were. The battle for the future of the Democratic Party isn’t over yet, but, for now, Ilhan Omar is winning.