Calling for Dianne Feinstein’s Retirement Is Stating the Obvious, Not Ageism or Sexism

The California senator Dianne Feinstein is losing her capacity to engage in basic Senate business, yet she refuses to step down. It’s a disgraceful finale to Feinstein’s career, which has been spent faithfully serving the rich.

California senator Dianne Feinstein walks through the Senate subway on her way to a procedural vote at the US Capitol on November 28, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

You’ve probably heard that California senator Dianne Feinstein, eighty-nine, has been too ill to show up to the Senate yet hasn’t resigned. As a result of her absence, the Senate on Thursday voted to overturn a critical Biden administration effort to control truck emissions. Feinstein has been in the hospital with shingles, has missed 75 percent of the Senate votes this session, and has not indicated when (if ever) she plans to return.

Shingles aside, there are serious questions about whether she is up for this job, cognitively and physically. The vote on truck emissions was fifty to forty-nine, with Joe Manchin, coal baron and ally of the death-drive faction of US politics, joining the Republicans, who said the Biden regulations were too “burdensome” on the trucking industry.

People will die because of this vote — a disgraceful yet fitting finale to Feinstein’s career, which has been spent faithfully serving capital.

With the Democrats’ Senate majority so thin and some of the conservative Democrats at constant risk of voting with Republicans, it’s a disaster having a Senator who can’t or won’t show up. Allowing the trucking rule to die is bad enough, but Feinstein’s absence is also hindering the Senate from confirming Biden’s judicial nominees (previously a relatively effective dimension of his presidency).

Predictably, Feinstein has her defenders, all accusing the critics of various “isms.” Nancy Pelosi suggested that the calls for Feinstein to step down were sexist. New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand agreed, as did California representative Norma Torres, Michigan senator Debbie Stabenow, and even some Republican women, like Senators Marsha Blackburn and Joni Ernst of Tennessee and Iowa, respectively. Others have cried “ableism” and “ageism,” real problems but not applicable to a situation in which one person not showing up to work has such a devastating impact on the larger society.

Some of these callouts were directed at California representative Ro Khanna, who rightly blamed Feinstein for the horrible truck vote and has been insisting that it’s time for Feinstein to resign since she is “not showing up.” Said Khanna on Fox News Sunday: “Only in Washington would you get criticized for saying something so obvious.” Democratic socialist congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has also called for Feinstein to step down.

Thursday’s trucking vote has dire implications. Biden’s rule would have greatly eased pollution from heavy-duty trucks, especially nitrous oxides, which contribute to acid rain. It also would have reduced carbon emissions, necessary to avoid the worst effects of global warming. As well, asthma from air pollution caused by cars and trucks is a serious public health problem, especially in poor and working-class communities, which are much more likely to be exposed to heavy traffic. Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the rule would have, by 2045, saved 2,900 people from early death and prevented eighteen thousand children from developing asthma.

Who benefits from Feinstein’s absence from the Senate? The rich. Of course, corporate interests did not want the trucking rule. The Republicans had their backs, but the Democrats complied by not forcing Feinstein to show up or quit. Capital would also prefer that Biden never got to appoint any judges, since a Republican president would shape the judiciary with an even more reactionary vision.

This whole saga seems like a logical coda for a person who has been loyally serving the plutocracy for half a century. The first woman to be mayor of San Francisco, she came into office in 1978, a distressing time when the city was still reeling from the assassination of its previous mayor, George Moscone, and Supervisor Harvey Milk, by fellow supervisor Dan White. (Feinstein had been president of the city’s board of supervisors.) Her mayoralty was characterized by intensely developer-friendly policies.

Longtime Bay Area journalist Larry Bensky, writing in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in 1994, described her time as mayor this way:

Her contributions were led by a wealthy father, an even wealthier husband and a constellation of powerful business leaders who — correctly — assumed she would be a safe vote for their interests. . . . she was an unabashed cheerleader for the easy-money game of downtown office construction. 30 million soulless square feet were added during her administration.

Bensky contrasted Feinstein’s attentiveness to the real estate titans with her neglect of the city’s working class.

As Senator, she continued this pattern of serving the rich at the expense of the rest. Feinstein opposed single-payer health care, even as it became a mainstream political priority during Bernie Sanders’s last two presidential campaigns. She has been a hawk on deficits and on defense. She was rightly criticized for praising — and (yuck) hugging — Lindsey Graham during the disgraceful Amy Coney Barrett hearings, in which California representative Katie Porter, NARAL, and other liberals pointed out that Barrett was in no way forced to explain or elaborate on her deeply reactionary antiabortion and anti-worker politics.

Feinstein was often criticized for pursuing policies that could benefit her investor husband, Richard Blum, a billionaire who died last year. The private-equity tycoon had major holdings in firms that have benefitted from hundreds of millions of defense contracting dollars; some on both the Left and Right have been vulgar enough to point out that Feinstein was, during that time, a fan of robust defense spending.

In sum, the criticisms of Dianne Feinstein are not sexist or ageist. Rather, they are long overdue. Not only is she not showing up for work — this billionaire has been serving the billionaire class for far too long. It’s past time for her to retire.