house arrest

This Is Not What Democracy Looks Like

Photo: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The United States does not currently have a House of Representatives. Six days into the New Year, not a single person who won election to Congress’s lower chamber has been sworn into office. As a result, Americans’ putative congressional representatives cannot access intelligence briefings, perform oversight of the federal government, or assist their constituents with basic services.

The House’s lapse into nonexistence comes courtesy of 20 far-right Republicans, who are refusing to support their party’s consensus candidate for House Speaker. According to both law and precedent, the election of a Speaker is a precondition for swearing in a new Congress. Between 1924 and 2022, the House never failed to elect a Speaker on its first ballot. The new GOP majority has been unable to do so through 11 ballots. As of this writing, Republicans are cautiously optimistic that the 12th time will be the charm, but this remains far from certain.

Most observers regard this phenomenon as detrimental to responsive government. Seventeen House Republicans condemned their party’s far-right rebels in an evening news conference Wednesday. Democrats, meanwhile, have been alternately relishing the GOP’s days-long infomercial for its own inability to govern and fretting about the substantive implications of Red America becoming a failed state.

But not everyone takes a dim view of the present chaos. According to some prominent pundits, the GOP’s civil war is less indicative of dysfunction than democratic vitality. In their account, it is authoritarian to expect a party’s rank and file to defer to its leadership. Tyrants like Nancy Pelosi might be able to make the House’s committee meetings run on time. But a messy democracy is preferable to an orderly dictatorship. The House Freedom Caucus’s refusal to dutifully do the Republican Establishment’s bidding is therefore not a symptom of our Republic’s pathologies but a testament to its resurgent health.

Here’s how Tucker Carlson put the point on Fox News Tuesday night:

Now, the fact that this race has not been settled by now is being described, especially online by many, as embarrassing — and it is embarrassing if you prefer the Soviet-style consensus of the Democratic Party’s internal elections, where votes are merely a formality and all the really big decisions, the meaningful ones, are made years in advance by donors. Oh, of course, everyone’s onboard. That’s what they do.

But if you prefer democracy to oligarchy, if you prefer real debates about issues that actually matter, it’s pretty refreshing to see it. Yes, it’s a little chaotic, but this is what it’s supposed to be. 

National Review’s Michael Brandon Dougherty echoed this perspective on Twitter:

Such sentiments were not exclusive to self-professed conservatives. Various “post-left” pundits — which is to say, ostensibly left-wing commentators who believe (or claim to believe) that “populist” Republicans are more promising coalition partners for genuine leftists than the Democratic Establishment — also found much to applaud in the House’s paralysis. Responding to criticism of the rebels’ conduct, the YouTuber Tim Pool tweeted, “is the idea that the system normally should march in lockstep with corporate uniparty candidates? i dont see disfunction the debate is how its supposed to be.”

Former Obama administration staffer and current freelance journalist Shant Mesrobian, meanwhile, wrote, “It’s rather pathetic to watch Democrats and leftists gloating about the fact that the Republican Party seems to still allow for a tiny amount of dissent and debate while their own party is an absolute authoritarian borg that demands lockstep allegiance from its members. ‘Ha ha their party has a populist faction that is effective at challenging establishment leadership and extracting concessions. What losers! Pass the popcorn amirite?’”

The problem with this narrative is that none of its premises are true. The Democratic Party is not, in fact, an “authoritarian” or “Soviet style” Borg that demands “lockstep allegiance from its members.” Party discipline is not antithetical to democratic rule. Kevin McCarthy is not a “corporate uniparty candidate.” And the House Freedom Caucus does not represent a “populist” alternative to big business’s social dominance.

If the Democratic Establishment aspires to Stalinist rule, they’re not very good at it.

It is true that House Democrats did not have much difficulty electing Nancy Pelosi as their Speaker last Congress. But then, before this year, no congressional majority had encountered such difficulty since the Harding administration. Meanwhile, the idea that the Democratic Party tolerates no dissent from its members and lets its donors dictate all of its meaningful decisions years in advance does not survive a moment’s critical thought or year’s worth of historical memory.

Was Joe Manchin demonstrating “lockstep allegiance” to his party when he vetoed President Biden’s signature domestic legislation last year? Was Kyrsten Sinema doing so when she gutted the president’s tax plan, refused to commit to supporting the Democratic nominee in 2024, then declared herself an independent? In truth, Manchin and Sinema have repeatedly defied their party’s leadership in consequential, high-profile, and sometimes humiliating ways. Nevertheless, both have managed to retain their coveted committee chairs and the Democratic Party’s financial support.

The Democratic Party has shown significant tolerance for dissent on its left flank as well. Twice, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders challenged the party leadership’s preferred presidential nominees, mounting insurgent campaigns centered on sharp critiques of the Democratic Establishment. In response, the party did not attempt to marginalize Sanders but rather elevated him to a leadership position and, in 2020, solicited his supporters’ input on the party’s platform (this despite the fact that Sanders ultimately lost to Joe Biden by a landslide margin). Similarly, Elizabeth Warren’s decision to campaign against her party’s corporate wing in 2020 did not cost her influence with its leadership; rather, Biden ended up staffing much of his administration with Warren acolytes.

Representative Ilhan Omar repeatedly defied her party’s leadership during her first two years in Congress, not least by assailing the outsize influence of pro-Israel donors, one of the Democrats’ most powerful and well-heeled constituencies. With such dissent, Omar did attract a competitive primary challenger last year. But she ultimately survived that challenge, partly thanks to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who endorsed the embattled incumbent.

Fractious parties are not necessarily good for democracy.

It is certainly true that Democratic congressional leaders have managed to command greater party discipline than their Republican counterparts in recent years. But the notion that there is an inherent conflict between partisan unity and democratic governance doesn’t make much sense.

Judging by the rhetoric of Pool and Mesrobian, the measure of a democracy’s health would seem to be the personal autonomy of its legislators: The less willing lawmakers are to prioritize the pursuit of consensus over their own ideological principles, the more democratic our government will be. Yet, in the Biden era, the practical consequence of every Democratic lawmaker refusing to subordinate their personal convictions to party consensus would have been legislative paralysis.

There was simply no way for the Democratic Party to extend COVID-relief programs, increase public investment in green energy, raise taxes on the rich, reduce drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries, or do most anything else without its lawmakers recognizing the necessity of intraparty compromise. House progressives attempted to play hardball with the Senate’s pivotal moderates by holding up the passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill. But this effort failed, largely because Manchin and Sinema preferred to let that legislation die than allow progressives to dictate ideological terms to them on a more expansive climate and social-welfare package. Progressives ultimately reconciled themselves to a compromise facilitated by the party’s leadership.

Thus, absent party discipline, Biden would have implemented virtually none of his campaign promises, and taxes on the rich and spending on green energy would both be lower than they are today. If we posit that a healthy democratic government is one that is responsive to popular opinion and/or, electoral mandates, then a modicum of party discipline is conducive to such government, not antithetical to it.

Kevin McCarthy is not a tool of the “corporate uniparty.”

Like most of what I’ve written here, this should probably go without saying, but the Republican and Democratic parties are actually quite ideologically distinct and Kevin McCarthy is a conservative Republican.

Post-left types usually acknowledge that the major parties are polarized on social issues but insist that their positions on questions of corporate power are virtually indistinguishable. Which is silly.

Although the Democratic Party’s consensus agenda is grossly inadequate for redressing the economic insecurities of working people or mitigating the inequities of the contemporary economy, it is nevertheless far better than the GOP’s on both those scores. At the federal level, recent Democratic trifectas have raised taxes on corporations and the wealthy while increasing social-welfare benefits for the poor and middle class. Recent Republican governments, by contrast, have slashed taxes on corporations and the wealthy while trying to throw millions off public health insurance. Further, when Democratic appointees helm the regulatory state, the National Labor Relations Board becomes far more favorable to unionization efforts, while the Federal Trade Commission becomes more adversarial to big business. Just this week, Biden’s FTC moved to bar noncompete clauses from corporate contracts, a tool that companies have used to make workers more dependent on their employers and thus more tolerant of low wages.

At the state level, places that are perennially governed by the Democratic Party tend to have stronger collective bargaining rights, higher minimum wages, and more steeply progressive tax codes than places where Republicans consistently govern.

So although there certainly are myriad areas of bipartisan consensus, there is no “corporate uniparty.” And if there was, Kevin McCarthy would scarcely belong to it. The would-be House Speaker has a very conservative voting record in the House and has promised to promote sweeping cuts to federal spending if elected as Speaker. To the extent that Tim Pool’s “uniparty” has any earthly referent, it is the reality that Congress routinely passes bipartisan spending bills. Indeed, among the GOP rebels’ chief complaints is that their party has been complicit in the passage of such legislation. Yet in a context of divided government, the alternative to such “uniparty” actions is total government dysfunction.

There is nothing healthy about the “debate” that’s dividing the Republican Party.

Finally, and most important, the anti-McCarthyists do not represent a populist challenge to America’s corporate Establishment — or even an ideologically coherent alternative to Republican orthodoxy. To the extent Matt Gaetz & Co. have a substantive demand, it is that the GOP leadership must be willing to engineer a global financial crisis if Joe Biden refuses to slash social-welfare benefits for the working class and taxes on the rich.

Specifically, the GOP rebels want to balance the budget by cutting non-military spending, an objective that can only be realized through draconian cuts to Social Security and Medicare (which most of the conservative lawmakers have explicitly endorsed at one point or another). And they also wish to replace the federal income tax with a national sales tax. Such a policy would effectively increase the proportion of federal taxes paid by middle-class Americans while vastly reducing that paid by the rich.

This agenda is not “populist” in the sense of being popular; there is no mass constituency for cutting Social Security and corporate taxes. Nor is it “populist” in the sense of favoring the ordinary people’s interests over those of elites.

It also isn’t terribly distinct from Kevin McCarthy’s own agenda. Indeed, McCarthy not only supports slashing social-welfare spending and top tax rates but has also endorsed the idea of coercing the Democratic Senate and White House into passing such policies by refusing to raise the debt limit. The difference between McCarthy’s stance and Gaetz’s, to the extent that one exists, is that most observers deem McCarthy too sane to actually mean it.

Raising the debt limit does not actually increase federal spending. Doing so merely authorizes the Treasury Department to borrow the funds necessary for financing the spending that Congress has already ordered. It is essentially a redundant formality. Failing to honor that formality, however, could have devastating consequences. Doing so would effectively force the U.S. government to default on its debt. And since U.S. Treasury bonds are the foundation of the entire global financial system, such a default would destabilize markets the world over. According to a 2021 estimate from Moody’s Analytics, a prolonged stalemate over the debt ceiling would kill 6 million U.S. jobs, nearly double the nation’s unemployment rate, and erase $15 trillion from American household wealth.

When conservatives and post-leftists celebrate the spirited “debate” in the House this week, they are celebrating the GOP’s failure to reach consensus on the following ideas: “Since the American people voted to put Democrats in charge of the Senate and White House, we have neither the power nor the electoral mandate to enact policies that directly contradict the Democratic Party’s core commitments. And, in any case, it would be unethical to try to force Democrats to abandon those commitments by threatening to deliberately increase unemployment and make Americans $15 trillion poorer.”

Today, the U.S. is operating without a House of Representatives because 20 Republican lawmakers would rather paralyze Congress than back a leader who might secretly agree with those sentiments.

You can call this a sign of our democracy’s health. But if you’re going to do so, you’ll probably want to keep your argument substanceless and vague. Best to champion “debate” (without ever specifying its terms), equate party-line votes for House leadership positions with Stalinist purges, and conceal the actual policy views of the GOP rebels beneath a sea of abstractions like “populist” and “corporate uniparty.” Otherwise, people might realize that what you are saying is insane.

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This Is Not What Democracy Looks Like