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At Berkeley, House Speaker Pelosi warns of urgent threats to U.S. democracy

In unusually sharp language, one of the most influential women in U.S. political history describes threats posed by an increasingly extreme Republican Party

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wearing a bright blue suit, has a serious expression and gestures as she speaks at the 2022 Sen. Barbara Boxer Lecture
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned of the "urgency of the assault on our democracy now" during the 2022 Senator Barbara Boxer Lecture at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wearing a bright blue suit, has a serious expression and gestures as she speaks at the 2022 Sen. Barbara Boxer Lecture

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned of the “urgency of the assault on our democracy now” during the 2022 Senator Barbara Boxer Lecture at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered an urgent warning Monday about threats to democracy posed by leaders of the Republican Party, and urged moderate Republicans to retake the party and return to an earlier era of bipartisan governing.

In the annual Senator Barbara Boxer Lecture at UC Berkeley, Pelosi scarcely mentioned former U.S. President Donald Trump by name, but she was fiercely critical of the Republican leader and others in the ascendant right-wing movement. They have eroded voting rights and undermined the nation’s shared democratic values, Pelosi said, with politics that she described as authoritarian and autocratic.

“I hope there are some Republicans here, so I can say to you: Take back your party. 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 ensure that people who run 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 of Governmental Studies and the Bancroft Library.

Pelosi linked the efforts to defend U.S. democracy to increasing challenges faced by democratic countries worldwide, including Ukraine as it defends itself against an unprovoked Russian assault.

The people in Ukraine are fighting a fight for their democracy,” she said, “but in their fight they’re fighting for everybody’s democracy. It’s a fight against autocracy, and we all owe them a great deal. While they’re fighting that war, we have to fight it here — and of course elections are a way to do that.”

The Boxer Lecture, first held in 2017, focuses on women in leadership. The annual event is  sponsored by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and the Bancroft Library.

Boxer served 10 years in the U.S. 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 U.S. political history. In nearly 35 years of representing San Francisco in the U.S. House of Representatives, she has been the Democratic Party leader in the House for 19 years, serving as speaker from 2007 to 2011 and again since 2019, while serving as minority leader in the intervening years when Democrats were in the minority. She was the first woman in history to hold those leadership positions.

In introducing the speakers, Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ detailed their historic accomplishments across a span of decades. “There are no better exemplars of the transformative power of women in leadership than Speaker Pelosi and the Honorable Senator Barbara Boxer,” Christ said. An admiring audience of about 500 at Hertz Hall included U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) and University of California Regent John Pérez.

Poised on the edge of her chair, animated and often gesturing forcefully, Pelosi described her childhood, her close relationship with Boxer, her past positive working relationships with Republican lawmakers and the recent erosion of American democracy. She was by turns passionate, blunt and humorous.

An assault on democracy, instigated by the former president

She offered a detailed description of how a right-wing mob assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, attempted to block the peaceful transfer of power from Trump to Democratic rival Joe Biden.

Former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, wearing a brown and black suit, gestures as she makes comments during the 2022 Boxer Lecture.

Former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer said her longtime Democratic colleague Nancy Pelosi may have saved American democracy by pressing for the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory immediately after a violent right-wing mob tried to block the transfer of power on Jan. 6, 2021. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

“I’m telling you,” Pelosi said, “this had every bad thing about it: It had racism, it had sexism, it had anti-Semitism…. The things they were saying, the things they were doing — again, the assault was on our democracy — instigated by the president of the United States.”

Once members of Congress had been taken to a secure location, they worked to determine next steps. Despite some suggestion that Congress postpone 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 enough people think about,” Boxer said. “A miracle happened, because you made sure the certification of the presidential election continued. … It’s my theory that if you hadn’t done that, I don’t know where we’d be today.

“This saved the democracy.”

Pelosi credited other members of Congress for being “very courageous” in the decision to complete the certification after the insurrection was quelled. But even then, she noted, a substantial bloc of Republicans — eight senators and 139 representatives — voted to reject the results of the election.

“That was heartbreaking,” she said. “It’s one thing for gangs of whatever you want to call them to come in there, instigated by the president of the United States. It’s another thing for members of Congress to vote against the peaceful transfer of power.”

Making the political process ‘more wholesome for our country’

During the 50-minute interview, Pelosi ranged across other issues:

The role of the news media in a democracy. “One of the things the previous, occasional occupant of the White House would do is to undermine freedom of the press. In my view freedom of the press is the guardian of our democracy,” Pelosi said, but Trump and others worked “to undermine the credibility of the press and undermine the credibility of institutions of government.

“It just really was very clever — it was very authoritarian, autocratic. But it was a plan and they went down that path and they have had some level of success in undermining the collective conscience of our country, that we all agree that certain things are right.”

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (left) and former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer sit before a blue and gold UC Berkeley backdrop at the 2022 Boxer Lecture

Former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (right) interviewed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for 50 minutes, spanning issues ranging from voting rights and press freedom to the essential role of women in American politics. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Voting rights legislation pending in Congress. A landmark measure to protect and extend voting rights has enough votes to pass the House, but it doesn’t have the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. Pelosi suggested it is essential.

“It is a protector of our democracy,” she said. “It’s about stopping the suppression of the vote and the nullification of elections.” Further, she explained, it would end the partisan process of drawing congressional districts. “That may or may not help us win more Democratic seats,” she said, “but it will make the process more wholesome 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 to rise to national leadership. “And then the opportunity came along,” she said. “So I say to the women here: You never know when the opportunity might come along. Be ready — be ready, take stock of yourself … be confident in who you are.”

Pelosi conceded 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 GOP candidates in primary elections, and that the Democrats will have to prevail so that extremism is defeated and Republican moderates can return to power.

“We don’t place ourselves in the category of people like our founders, or Lincoln, but we do recognize the urgency of the assault on 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.”