This term, the Oxford Union has planned to host two former United States Speakers of the House, Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy. In an already star-studded term card, the Union is bringing not just trailblazing Pelosi, but at the time it was released, they were to host the current (now former) Speaker of the House for the United States. In the post-Trump era it is truly significant for the Union to provide an opportunity for members to hear from former office holders of America’s third most powerful political position. You might line up for hours to attend the event. So, as an American in Oxford, I hope to share the importance of Speaker Pelosi and Speaker McCarthy coming to the Union. Especially in this time of continuous political turmoil across the pond.
Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a Democratic Congresswoman who has represented San Francisco in California’s 11th District for nearly forty years. Her political career has been host to many milestones and in 2007 she made history by becoming the first woman to become Speaker of the House. She got her start as a bit of a political nepo-baby, as her father was a Representative for Maryland, and eventually the Mayor of Baltimore. Upon moving to the West Coast, she became active in the Democratic Party in San Francisco, becoming head of the California Democratic Party in 1981. After the death of a friend holding California’s Fifth District, Pelosi ran in a special election to fill the seat, becoming a Congresswoman in 1987, at a time when only a handful of women held seats in the house.
A strong supporter of LGBTQ and immigration rights, Pelosi had stood behind issues like the legalization of same-sex marriage, and publically disagreed with Republican immigration policy leading to the separation of families on the Southern Border. The Affordable Care Act of the Obama administration was practically made possible thanks to her consistent push for healthcare reform, and ability to gather the 219 votes needed for the bill to pass.
This achievement was one of the most significant outcomes of the Obama Administration and was part of an effort to give all Americans the healthcare they deserved, not just the wealthy, emphasising Speaker Pelosi’s fight for progress throughout her tenure as she consistently looked out for the interests of all. She also notably participated in the passage of the post-economic collapse Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act and the Recovery Act of 2009, plus the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, showing just a glimpse of the magnitude of her tenure and its impact on America as a whole.
In terms of breaking glass ceilings, Nancy Pelosi has shattered them. She joins the likes of Vice President Kamala Harris and Former SCOTUS Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in being the first woman to hold her position, something to celebrate in a country which has yet to have a woman president. Her commitment to her career and steadfast support of what the Democratic Party stands for has gained her acclaim and awards worldwide. To have her speak at the Union is an honour for us to witness, and a priceless chance to hear from one of the greatest political figures of our time, and a woman who rose to the top of the inherently patriarchal system that is government.
Some may feel I am waxing poetic, but the role Speaker Pelosi has played in expanding women’s and girls’ idea of what is possible in my country is paramount to her political career. She paved the way for progressive women in Congress, leading America to accept female leadership in positions of power, bringing us to the 118th Congress of today which boasts the largest number of women in Congressional history. This is her legacy, not only her policy, but what she has represented for millions of Americans as an impactful leader, and an inspiration for many young girls to grow up and study politics because she showed them they could. Nancy Pelosi can be heard at the annual Benazir Bhutto Memorial Lecture on the ninth of November.
A fellow Californian, Kevin McCarthy is the Republican Congressman for California’s 20th district, in the Central Valley region. He climbed the political ladder, being elected to the California State Assembly in 2002, and becoming a US Representative in 2006. His time as House Speaker was a matter of mere months thanks to the ongoing polarisation in American Politics. He is a long serving Member of Congress and has served as both House Majority Leader from 2014-2019, and Minority Leader from 2019-2023. In his time as Minority Leader, McCarthy remained a staunch Trump supporter, particularly in the face of his impeachment and loss of the 2020 election.
He was one of many Republicans who signed an amicus brief supporting Texas v. Pennsylvania, a lawsuit filed at the Supreme Court which contested the results of the election, a choice which is judged by anyone with the sense to recognize a fair election or mature enough to be a good loser. His work while he was speaker focused on the controversy surrounding the 2020 election and attacks of January Sixth, as well as navigating the debt ceiling crisis of this past May.
On the international scale, McCarthy touched on a few foreign affairs issues, holding a CCP-condemned meeting with the President of Taiwan, and working to represent the interests of Congress about the war in Ukraine. His tenure was short-lived, ranking near the bottom of the list of time served by House Speakers, so one must rely on speculation alone to imagine what else he may have achieved in the office of Speaker. He was seen on the 28th of October speaking for the opposition alongside Frank Luntz during the special event, “This House Believes US Interventionism Has Done More Harm than Good”.
McCarthy’s departure from his former role as Speaker of the House has made headlines around the world, as Congress descended into an unprecedented level of chaos. By doing what one would expect of a politician and cooperating on a bipartisan plan to prevent a government shutdown, McCarthy lost the support of some of his most conservative party members. With a motion from Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida demanding his removal, McCarthy’s role as speaker was in the hands of his colleagues.
On the third of October, the House voted to oust Congressman McCarthy from his role of Speaker, in an incredibly close 216-210 vote influenced by several far-right conservatives, who joined the Democratic Congress Members. It may have taken fifteen rounds of voting for the former Speaker to gain his status, but only one vote led to his removal. Now these two Califonians both have a historic first, as this is the only time in American History where the House removed its leader. As Americans watched their government implode, we were all left thinking, “Who will be next?”
The House ran without a leader for several weeks, with Patrick McHenry taking the wheel as Speaker pro tempore until congress members could decide how to sort out the mess they had made. Several prospective candidates later, McCarthy has since been replaced with Louisiana Congressman Mike Johnson, whose beliefs can best be summed up as representing the Christian Right. While former Speaker McCarthy has now been nationally disgraced and has often been criticised for holding some extreme views, he was a more familiar face to the American people than his successor, a relative unknown in the political world, who will certainly keep us on our toes as we wonder what lies ahead for the 118th congress.
To hear from former Speakers Pelosi and McCarthy provides a rare chance to hear from some of the United States’ most powerful people during the politically turbulent years of the Trump and Biden Administrations and to hear the perspective of both parties from their former leaders. While Speaker Pelosi’s career accomplishments certainly outshine those of McCarthy, his appearance at the Union is no less impressive as the most recent person to hold the position of Speaker, and an influential Republican through the last decade, providing listeners with a better perspective of what the Trumpian party actually believes from one of its own, especially through the intense factionalism within the party itself.
While discussing politics of the recent years here, it seems that the subtleties of the Republican Party have been hidden behind the sensationalist voices of the far right, and to hear a Republican debate in the United Kingdom may reveal a bit more about the party than the extremist representation it has overseas.
In the wake of his fallout with the Republican party, it was especially interesting to hear Congressman McCarthy debate at the Union, only weeks out from a pivotal moment in his career. To hear him argue in favour of historical American interventions while seeking to limit US funding of Ukraine and stating he did not want to send “blank checks” to the country in the face of war with Russia, was something to behold.
The chance to witness Pelosi give the Memorial Lecture will be a testament to her life’s work, and an honour well deserved for her commitment to progressive causes and equal rights. Most likely more muted on the political front than McCarthy’s debate, her lecture, I expect, will focus on hope for worldwide progress.
The American political arena has been perilously divided in the past few years. My country is easily victim to appearing foolish on international news outlets all while its policies tear apart families who can no longer share dinner at the same table – nor even in the same country. To have both a high-ranking Democrat and Republican come to Oxford is a small step towards recovering from this division. I hope that hearing Pelosi and McCarthy at the Union will show that, once again, America is more than its current political struggles.
As an American who has answered questions about abortion, guns, the election of President Trump time and time again, and faced general ridicule for the political system in which I vote, I hope these talks will offer the opportunity to recover what American politics really beholds.
The political world is a confusing game, but thanks to the talks at the Oxford Union, a closer look at some of the players might bring the political clarity we need, and the cross-spectrum connection we seek.
While the American political system is as flawed as any other, this does not always reflect those who serve and represent its citizens. When you have heard the Speakers at their respective events, This ought to be an opportunity to see the impact of their leadership (particularly of longer-standing Speaker Pelosi) and to alter your understanding of American politics with a glimpse of its innards.