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Voting to oust McCarthy as president is a warning sign for democracy, researchers say


When the House of Representatives voted to oust Kevin McCarthy as president on Tuesday was the first such impeachment in American history, a sharp reprimand of his leadership and an escalation of civil war within the Republican Party.

But historians and political scientists say it is something more: a wake-up call for the health of American democracy.

“If you want to know what it looks like when democracy is in trouble, this is what it looks like,” said Daniel Ziblatt, a professor of government at Harvard University. “That should raise alarm bells that something is wrong.”

The vote reflects the enormous power that a small group of representatives on the ideological fringe of their party can wield over an entire institution, said Ziblatt, co-author of the book “Tyranny of the Minority.” It also showed how difficult it will be for anyone to bring the House together in a functional way, with important decisions on Ukraine’s budget and financing.

Congress got to this point for myriad reasons, all of which build on each other, researchers say: Social media and cable news urged politicians to perform on camera, not for their constituents. Aggressive Gerrymandering created deeply partisan districts where representation is decided in primaries, not general elections. Weakened political parties have become captive to their most vocal and extremist members.

Taken together, these factors have given a small number of lawmakers the power to throw one of the three branches of government into disarray and, for the time being, paralysis.

The group of eight far-right House Freedom Caucus members who rejected McCarthy were opposed by 216 of their fellow GOP representatives, all of whom voted to keep the president in office.

The rebels collectively represent only 1.8 percent of the country, all located in safe Republican districts. But with Democrats voting as a bloc against a speaker they said had repeatedly betrayed their trust, it was enough to ensure McCarthy’s defeat in a closely divided House.

Led by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, McCarthy’s opponents said they were voting to end runaway federal spending and protest government dysfunction.

“Washington must change,” Gaetz insisted from the House floor.

The researchers said that Actions of Gaetz and his allies have only worsened the dysfunction, leaving the House rudderless and without a clear path to effective leadership. After narrowly avoiding a government shutdown this weekend, another looms next month. Future aid to Ukraine in repelling a Russian invasion is also at stake.

“We see a very small number of members of the House Republican conference playing an outsized role in promoting a lot of congressional dysfunction and budgetary dysfunction,” said Laura Blessing, a senior fellow at the Institute of Government Affairs from Georgetown University. “This is a measure to encourage volatility and not to pass legislation. »

The lawmakers who voted against McCarthy constitute an extreme minority, not only in the House as a whole but within their own party, she added.

“They don’t have the votes (for their own policy proposals) and they know it,” she said.

McCarthy did not endorse a candidate successor, leaving Republicans scrambling to find a viable candidate. Barring an unlikely and unprecedented consensus speaker who receives bipartisan support, challengers will have to win the favor of almost the entire Republican caucus, which ranges from the relatively moderates representing districts won by President Biden to the far-right faction that just flipped one of its own.

Gaetz triggered Tuesday’s vote by moving on Monday to leave McCarthy’s presidency. The fourth-term Floridian said he was acting in response to McCarthy’s decision over the weekend to turn to House Democrats for help in passing a spending bill provisional 45 days which avoid, for now, a government shutdown. McCarthy repeatedly failed to win enough votes in his own party, with far-right members — including the eight who voted against him on Tuesday — blocking his efforts.

Tuesday’s debate — and the conversations that preceded it — were unusual given the willingness of McCarthy allies to openly rebuke their own Republican counterparts for their behavior. worsening the dysfunction of the House.

Many leveled allegations of the sort normally reserved for members of the opposing party, accusing McCarthy’s opponents of seeking attention in an effort to increase their fundraising and generally wreak havoc.

“My colleagues here today have a choice: Be an agent of chaos or go back to work,” Rep. Ashley Hinson of Iowa, a McCarthy ally, said before the vote.

After his dismissal, McCarthy himself expressed fears about how to legislate in an environment where the leader is captive to the most intransigent faction in his own camp.

“My fear is that the institution has collapsed today because you can’t do the job if… you have 94 or 96 percent of your entire conference, but eight people can join in ‘together on the other side,’ he said Tuesday evening. “How to govern? »

This is a question that researchers also ask themselves, in search of explanations and historical antecedents.

“If American democracy is already suffering and weakening from various illnesses, this unruly crisis in the House will only push it further in that direction,” said Alex Keyssar, professor of history and social policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. “You take a set of institutions and you weaken them, and then you highlight their weakness. »

The eight Republicans revolted against McCarthy represent districts that don’t look like the rest of the country, according to a Washington Post analysis. They are on average 71 percent white, compared to 59 percent of the U.S. population; and 8 percent black, compared to America’s 14 percent. Their districts are also deeply red: They averaged a score of +12 Republican on the Cook Partisan Voting Index, a measure of a district’s partisanship.

As unprecedented as Tuesday’s vote was, the moment continues a trend in American political culture, said Joseph Postell, a political scientist at Hillsdale College. He pointed to the difficult tenures of previous Republican House speakers, such as John A. Boehner and Paul D. Ryan, both of whom faced strong resistance from their right flank.

“What McCarthy faces today is another of the many dominoes that have fallen over the last decade,” Postell said.

House Republicans who opposed the budget and McCarthy’s presidency may have had legitimate concerns about spending and deficits, Postell said. But “from now on, they no longer have any incentive to negotiate with each other,” he said. “They are incentivized to stay in conflict. »

He attributed those incentives in part to televised committee hearings that make lawmakers emerging social media stars. Congressional committees “are no longer places where Congress can engage with administrative agencies. They are there to get viral memes,” he said.

McCarthy told reporters Tuesday night that he believed Gaetz’s motive was “to get (media) attention.” The speaker’s allies had previously chastised Gaetz for fundraising for his effort to oust McCarthy, even as the speaker’s fate was still being decided.

For some conservative thinkers, the failed vote on a spending bill that immediately preceded McCarthy’s ouster reflects a government that has grown so big that it imperils the health of the country. The budget “is just too big for a democracy,” said David Ditch, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

“America is much larger in population and geography than England, Japan or Germany, and we have greater ideological and cultural diversity, which makes it more difficult for us to reach consensus to agree on policy prescriptions,” he said.

Political backlash against the rise of multicultural democracy has stoked the country’s divisions, academics agree. So is the tendency for people to divide between urban and rural areas, as well as the way congressional districts are organized by partisan state legislatures — many of which are controlled by Republicans.

But this does not mean that the parties ultimately decide.

“The big thing that everyone tends to get wrong is that most people look at parties and think they’re very strong and polarized,” said Ian Shapiro, a political science professor at the university. from Yale. But the parties themselves have become weaker, he argues, because they are controlled by those on the margins.

The risk of primary challenges has been around for a long time, but what’s new is the steady increase in the number of congressional districts that are reliably Republican or Democratic. These districts choose their representatives in primary elections, with the general election being little more than an afterthought.

“The activists on the fringes of the parties are the ones who participate in the primaries, so they are the ones who decide these districts,” said Shapiro, the author of “Responsible parties: saving democracy from itself.”

Other democracy advocates say the loss of trust in government itself has created a vicious cycle, in which some elected officials seem determined to prove that government isn’t working by actively undermining it.

“We can and should have vigorous debates about spending priorities and the national debt,” said Mark Medish, co-founder of Keep Our Republic, a nonpartisan civic education organization. “But if we are inclined to repeatedly question the functioning of the state, we are on the verge of falling apart as a republic.”

As disconcerting as the events of the past few weeks have been, what could come next is even more worrying. History has shown that government dysfunction can be the prelude to the total erasure of democracy, replaced by authoritarianism, Harvard’s Ziblatt said.

“What precedes a democratic breakdown is political gridlock and extreme dysfunction where there is a sense that nothing can be done,” Ziblatt said. “When governments cannot respond to real crises, it has a delegitimizing effect and reinforces the feeling among citizens that we must resort to other means.”

Clara Ence Morse contributed to this report.


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