On October 3rd, 2023, Kevin McCarthy was removed as Speaker of the House of Representatives in a 216-210 vote, becoming the first person in American history to ever be removed from the position.
The domino effect that led to the removal started much earlier in January, as McCarthy failed to gather enough support after 14 rounds of votes to confirm the Speaker. While he finally received a majority on the 15th ballot, he had to make some concessions to get the votes of a right-wing faction of the Republican Party known as the Freedom Caucus. One of these concessions was changing the rules to allow a single House Representative to bring forward a vote to remove the Speaker, a move he would soon come to regret.
McCarthy’s shaky support within his own party quickly became evident, as he struggled to get enough votes to pass a debt limit bill back in May. Just days before the country faced a debt default, McCarthy resorted to something that would inevitably be the first strike against him: bipartisan collaboration.
The Freedom Caucus was outraged.
In response, they refused to vote for a spending bill to keep the government funded past September 30th, a move that many media outlets referred to as a “mutiny” within the majority. They demanded severe budget cuts, stronger border controls, and restrictions on the prosecution of Donald Trump – policies that McCarthy knew had no chance of making it past the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Kevin McCarthy had two choices – allow the ultraconservative minority to dictate the policies put forward by the Republican majority, or make concessions to Democrats to gather enough support to pass a spending bill. Just hours before the federal government plunged into a shutdown, McCarthy turned to the Democrats to keep the government funded.
That was McCarthy’s final strike. Two days later, far-right Florida Representative Matt Gaetz filed the motion to vacate the Speaker of the House. Rep. McCarthy’s ouster sets a dangerous precedent for partisan politics in the U.S., where 15 out of the last 22 Congresses have been in a divided government. Although divided governments can lead to frequent stalemates and frustration, they also provide a breeding ground for bipartisan collaboration. The GOP and the DNC each represent a massive number of constituents, and neither party can truly deny that the other represents the will of the people – even if it is only one-half of the people. Only by recognizing the opponent’s legitimacy to rule and by embracing bipartisan collaboration can a pluralistic democracy truly deliver on its promises of representative governance.
In their 2017 article “Trumpism and American Democracy”, Lieberman et al. argue that “the resurgence of intense, almost tribal, partisanship has hollowed out the middle ground that for a long time exerted a gravitational, centripetal force on politics and policy and kept outcomes, and rhetoric, away from the fringes.” Extremist politicians like Rep. Gaetz promote a false dichotomy where the only way to govern effectively is to refuse to work with the opposition. As extremist politicians begin boosting the idea that gathering support from both sides of the political aisle is a treacherous act, they also undermine the pluralistic principles of democracy.
This polarization of American politics is not new, but it has evolved into a crisis of democracy since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. With a blatant disregard for political norms, Trump’s presidency empowered fringe politicians to disrupt legal and political institutions as a means to retain a disproportionately high level of power. According to Lieberman et al., “It is norms about presidential behavior that President Trump has so violated, and it is the very precedent of their violation which calls into question other established practices of American democracy”. When the institutions that are put in place to sustain the democratic process are under constant attack, it undermines the ability of the democratic system to maintain stability and governance.
Trump’s presidency also exposed how long-standing political norms can be bent or even ignored to achieve partisan goals, and these disruptive tactics have become key markers of Trump populism. “It is here where the combination of Trumpism’s populist-authoritarian tendencies with partisan and ideological polarization is a distinct challenge to the resiliency of the American regime’s institutional checks and balances” (Lieberman et al., 2017).
The populist nature of extremist pro-Trump factions of the Republican Party has created a crisis for the GOP, as the risk of losing support has pushed the party’s ideology to align with those of the former President. When Trump denied the results of the 2020 election, many Republican politicians quickly fell in line, and many have done so again by supporting Trump’s recent attacks on the integrity of the Justice Department’s investigation into his campaign and handling of the election.
Political scientists have theorized on what can be done to protect Democracies from populist movements like Trumpism. In their book “How Democracies Die,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt suggest that the best way to curb these populist demagogues is for mainstream parties to refuse to align themselves with their ideology, and to be willing to collaborate with political rivals to reject such extremism.
In her 2017 article “Populism Is a Problem, Elitist Technocrats Aren’t the Solution”, Columbia Professor Sherri Berman warns against simply ignoring these politicians, which may increase people’s disillusionment with existing party elites. Instead, Sherman suggests that the way to protect democracy from populist leaders is to address ongoing systemic failures. She states that “Fighting democracy’s contemporary problems thus requires finding ways to make traditional political institutions more responsive to a broader range of citizens, rather than merely a subset of them.”
By engaging in more bipartisan collaboration, Congress may find itself engaging in policies that are favored by much larger proportions of the polity. If Berman’s argument holds true, the more people feel their ideology is being represented by the democratic government, the more support for extremist populist politicians will weaken.
As the internal governance of the Republican Party appears to descend into chaos due to the influence of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus, the GOP has the opportunity to look in the other direction for moderate supporters. A shift in Congress’ approach towards bipartisan government might be just what American democracy needs to safeguard against these repeated attacks upon its long-standing institutions.