On October 3rd, 2023, an unprecedented political event occurred when the house voted 216-210 to remove California Republican Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House. With the House entering its second week without a Speaker as of October 16th, the US government has been navigating the uncharted territory of a speaker being removed in the middle of a congressional session.
On the surface of this historic decision, McCarthy’s removal as Speaker seems to be just another chapter in the constant and complicated push and pull for political power within the United States government. However, it may be that Kevin McCarthy’s removal speaks to deeper underlying issues of the United States’ democracy. It begs the question, was this critical decision by the House merely an indication of internal party dynamics within the GOP, or does it highlight just the tip of deeper concerns regarding the current state of US democracy? To determine this, it is imperative to first, understand why Matt Gaetz called for McCarthy’s removal, and what that means on a deeper level for democracy in the US.
McCarthy’s dismissal, at its core, is a product of the GOP spiraling into a party with increasingly fractured ideological lines, perpetually driving the GOP farther right in its core beliefs and policies. The vote to oust McCarthy, cast by Republican representative Matt Gaetz, a highly right-wing politician, stemmed largely, according to Gaetz and his fellow Republicans that voted to remove McCarthy, from McCarthy’s negotiation with Biden and the Democrats on a funding extension to avoid a government shutdown, highlighting the growing lack of ability to compromise due to high polarization of the country’s dominant two parties.
McCarthy brought in a clean continuing resolution that would essentially maintain the government’s funding at its current level, which was as expected met with wide Democratic support. McCarthy’s lack of ability to balance broader electoral interests versus narrower party interests in this situation of government funding is what most oppositions of McCarthy might state as why he was removed as Speaker.
So was McCarthy wrong to negotiate terms with Biden to prevent a government shutdown, which would have led to numerous implications for the government and its citizens? Whether or not removing McCarthy was the right decision, Gaetz’s response to McCarthy’s policies alludes to issues stemming from the country’s drastically increasing polarization issues between the two parties.
Going all the way back to the idea of democracy, Robert Dahl defined democracy as “the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens” (Dahl 1). In short, the government should act in accordance with what would be best for its citizens. Tying this into McCarthy’s situation, let’s look at what the implications would have been should McCarthy not cooperated with Biden and instead allowed a government shutdown to happen.
A list of potential implications due to a government shutdown include: furloughing of federal employees, with potential temporary layoffs and lack of pay, potential negative impact on the economy, disruption of public services, more theoretically, erosion of public trust in government, which would be a huge contributing factor to potential democratic backsliding. Preventing government shutdown for most would be something necessary to serve the preferences of its citizens, as Dahl states. However, in doing so, McCarthy subsequently was removed from the speakership.
McCarthy’s removal not only accentuates the growing polarization in America, but also the consequences to democracy that this may afflict. McCarthy, in rising to power, was a part of the problem of the GOP’s radicalization and push towards farther right ideals, from paying obligatory homage to Trump and his highly radical beliefs to more recently ordering an impeachment inquiry on Biden. Unfortunately for McCarthy, his decision to follow through with his funding policy, rather than appeasing far-right Republicans with a massive funding overhaul policy.
McCarthy’s rift with members of the GOP depict how increased polarization in the US government has created a political discourse that makes negotiation and compromise nearly impossible, with the extremists of both parties almost completely unwilling to compromise their extreme policy goals with the other side. This historic decision is a result of the underlying issue that is polarization in American politics.
As Linz and Stepan emphasized in their paper, The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, when a two-party system is “subject to maximal ideological distance and centrifugal competition” (Linz 24), it usually results in confrontation and/or democratic failure. Liberman in his paper, Trumpism and American Democracy: History, Comparison, and the Predicament of Liberal Democracy in the United States, identifies the two-party polarization as one of the factors leading to Trump’s election in 2016 (Liberman 3).
Throughout these two papers, they both emphasize the role of a set of norms that govern democratic behavior in a democracy, two important ones being mutual toleration and forbearance. Mutual tolerance, as being defined as the two parties acknowledging one another as legitimate rivals, ensures that even through ideological disagreement, competing parties respect the democratic processes in place. In highly polarized environments, this norm may be eroded through challenges to electoral legitimacy, as we saw in the 2020 election, and an undermining of respect and compromise. Gaetz’s quick willingness to use his ability to call for a vote of no confidence not only showed reluctance to compromise with the Democrats, but also displayed a lack of restraint in using their institutional prerogatives, otherwise known as forbearance. By challenging the norm of forbearance, Gaetz essentially undermined the existing checks and balances that maintain democratic integrity, opening up American democracy to populist ideas.
McCarthy’s dismissal not only challenges these two norms, but also shows how polarization in America has been leading to a steady erosion of these norms, as well as others, subsequently increasing power within the executive branch and diminishing the democratic institutions in place. This period of uncertainty within the House demonstrates how America’s intense polarization has challenged and potentially begun to erode the democratic norms, institutions, and policies that democracy was built upon.
The removal of Kevin McCarthy as Speaker is more than just a redistribution of political power; it stands as an indication to the deeply rooted divisions that define the current political landscape of the United States. Democratic institutions are only as strong as the norms that support them, and as history has shown, democracies are not only susceptible to external threats, but most importantly to internal ones.
Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.
Linz, Juan J. & Stepan, Alfred. 1978. The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. Chapter 2.
Lieberman, Robert C., Suzanne Mettler, Thomas B. Pepinsky, Kenneth M. Roberts, & Richard Valelly. “Trumpism and American Democracy: History, Comparison, and the Predicament of Liberal Democracy in the United States.” Working paper.