On January 7th 2023, Representative Kevin McCarthy was elected as the new Speaker of the House of Representatives after a record-breaking 15 rounds of voting. To achieve this, McCarthy had to make numerous concessions to a small faction of far-right Republicans, including Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, so that he could get the number of votes necessary in the narrowly-Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The most important concession was that only five members of the House majority would now be required to force a vote of no confidence to remove the sitting speaker. Once elected, it was evident that his job as Speaker of the House of Representatives would be anything but easy.
McCarthy’s victory and tenure as Speaker was short-lived as he was ousted after only ten months when the very same Republican hardliners, whom he made concessions to, voted to remove him from his position in the first week of October. Specifically, Gaetz stated that the House of Representatives needed “to rip off the Band-Aid… [and] move on with new leadership that can be trustworthy“. After McCarthy was ousted, the House of Representatives remained frozen, unable to function, and without a speaker for approximately three weeks.
Some may consider this to be ‘par for the course’ in American politics or even an instance in which American democracy proved to remain strong and healthy: Representatives elected by the people of the United States had their constituents’ best interest in mind in acting in this way. However, that does not appear to be the case as this particular incident is an indication of the erosion of American democracy due to a diminished capability and effort among politicians to abide by the norms of forbearance and mutual toleration.
Scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt posit that informal norms such as forbearance and mutual toleration are vital for a democracy’s success as they function as guardrails, “preventing day-to-day political competition from developing into a no-holds-barred conflict” (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 2018). According to political science scholars Levitsky and Ziblatt, forbearance is one’s ability refrain from acting in a way that violates the spirit of laws despite remaining within the boundaries of the text. Regarding the concept of mutual toleration, Levitsky and Ziblatt posit that it is our acknowledgement and acceptance that members of opposing political parties are legitimate political rivals. In other words, mutual toleration is “politicians’ collective willingness to agree to disagree” (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 2018).
The ousting of McCarthy is an instance in which both of these informal norms were broken. Scholars posit that this historic removal of the Speaker of the House of Representatives is evidence of what it looks like when democracy is in trouble. Amongst scholars, one of the symptoms of democratic erosion is the deterioration of informal norms such as forbearance and mutual toleration. When this happens, scholars argue that democracy not only begins to weaken, but becomes even harder to uphold (Levistky & Ziblatt, 2018).
Gaetz exhibited a clear lack of restraint in using his authority to call for this vote of no confidence, thereby eroding the informal norm of forbearance. Gaetz’s decision was motivated by then-Speaker McCarthy’s decision to rely on House Democrats to pass a 45-day spending bill in order to avoid a government shutdown. This inability to “agree to disagree” exemplifies the lack of mutual toleration amongst the political parties in the United States. In Gaetz’s eyes, McCarthy had conspired with Democrats which was unacceptable and meant that McCarthy along with the Democrats could not be trusted. Furthermore, Gaetz referred to himself and the other Representatives that voted to oust McCarthy as Speaker as the true “patriotic members of the House”. This conflict in the House of Representatives exemplifies recently collected data that approximately 57% of Republicans consider Democrats to be enemies rather than legitimate political rivals.
President Biden has also openly spoken out about the apparent lack of mutual toleration within the House of Representatives when he stated that “We need to stop seeing each other as enemies”. With this assertion, President Biden was referring to the Representatives’ inability to work together to avoid a government shutdown in the month of October, further emphasizing the importance of cooperation amongst politicians in the United States.
Even more concerning is that the democratic erosion resulting from a lack of mutual toleration will likely be exacerbated with the election of Representative Mike Johnson as the new Speaker of the House of Representatives. Speaker Johnson has previously been referred to as the “congressional architect of the effort to overturn the 2020 election”. As the lead election denialist and second in line to the presidency, Speaker Johnson now has the ability to use “power accumulated to do good”, bestowed upon him by House of Representatives, to “subsequently… do ill” (Zakaria, 1997).
At the root of this erosion of the norms of forbearance and mutual toleration in the United States is the concept of polarization. It is important to acknowledge that some scholars believe that some degree of polarization is both good and necessary for a healthy democracy (Levistky & Ziblatt, 2018). For example, polarization can mobilize voters to participate in elections or strengthen political parties (McCoy, et. al., 2018). However, the way in which some scholars define polarization presents a more dangerous problem. Scholars such as Jennifer McCoy argue that polarization is a process in which there is a direct split between two opposing sides of a spectrum, forcing people to view each other through an “us” versus “them” lens (McCoy, et. al., 2018). With this definition in mind, one may come to more clearly see that polarization in the United States has risen to such a high level that it has contributed to the erosion of mutual toleration and democracy. Once polarization exceeds the ideal point in which it has positive effects, it can cause deep divisions within and among political parties and its members, ultimately giving rise to the belief that the other party and its members are the enemies as is happening now in the United States.
Given the current political climate in the United States and conflict in the House of Representatives, one can more clearly see that the informal norms of forbearance and mutual toleration are the linchpin for the effective and continuous functioning of American democracy. It is imperative that Republican and Democratic members of the House of Representatives begin viewing each other as legitimate political opponents rather than existential threats. In doing so, politicians would be more likely to be forbearing as they would not be so inclined to act in a way that violates the spirit of laws and deepens polarization. Without these informal norms, the United States will continue to witness and undergo a gradual weakening and potentially an eventual breakdown of its political institutions which are crucial for the continued strength of American democracy.
Beauchamp, Z. (2021, March 1). The Republican revolt against democracy, explained in 13 charts. Vox. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/22274429/republicans-anti-democracy-13-charts
Davis, S. (2023, October 1). How the far right could remove McCarthy and why his fate could be in Democrats’ hands. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2023/09/30/1202713718/kevin-mccarthy-motion-to-vacate-gaetz-house-speaker
Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How democracies die. The Crown Publishing Group.
McCoy, J., Rahman, T., & Somer, M. (2018). Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics, and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities. The American Behavioral Scientist (Beverly Hills), 62(1), 16–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764218759576
Waldman, M. (2023, October 24). Mike Johnson is now the most powerful election denier in Washington. Brennan Center for Justice. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/mike-johnson-now-most-powerful-election-denier-washington
Zakaria, F. (1997). The Rise of Illiberal Democracy. Foreign Affairs, 76(6), 22–43. https://doi.org/10.2307/20048274