In six rounds of carefully managed balloting, Republicans made their dividing line extremely clear. The 200-or-so members of the party who advocate conspiracy theories are on one side and the roughly two dozen members of the party who believe those conspiracy theories are on the other. They have to unite if they’re going to name a Speaker of the House. They have not yet done so.
Overseas, political theater like this is boring and routine. Belgium had its most recent parliamentary election in 2019; sixteen months later, the country had a government. There hasn’t been a government in Northern Ireland since a flurry of resignations over the way Boris Johnson’s government handled Brexit. Parliaments, often made up of a dozen or more parties representing extremely diverse viewpoints and factions, are difficult to manage. But the same has not been true of the American legislature, at least not since the modern two-party system began to take shape in the wake of the Civil War.
Though American politics are no less factional than politics beyond our borders, the United States distills a myriad of political movements into two parties. Today, these are the Democratic Party, which is crawling towards European-style social democracy; and the Republican Party, which is sprinting towards European-style populist authoritarianism. The alliances are uneasy. Democrats fought bitterly over the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, eventually settling – in both cases – on a more traditional, classic liberal candidate at the expense of the environmentalist, social democratic, and left-libertarian groupings.
Liberal Democrats make no pretense towards sharing power with the other flanks; perhaps a social democrat, like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, will be put in charge of a powerful Senate committee. You can only find out if you vote for the Democratic Party. This has fractured the party in places where it can be fractured: left-wing candidates have outmaneuvered the party in New York, Washington state, Vermont, and Minnesota. Some of these candidates run as Democrats, others as independents or in third parties. They mostly ally with traditional Democrats and though they have significant local presence, there are few in the halls of Washington, D.C.
In the Republican Party, the money and prestige is held by the business wing of the party while the authoritarian wing has the votes. This is the entirety of the alliance in the Republican Party. To secure the votes, the business wing must extend an olive branch to the social conservatives in the authoritarian wing. To secure the money, the authoritarian wing must agree to the business wing’s requests. As the authoritarian wing has sought to establish itself as a power center in its own right, it has challenged the party’s traditional financiers, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
But the authoritarians have won something crucial: seats. Enough to cause a ruckus for Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, who after six rounds of voting has failed to secure the Speakership and the rules he needs to take over the gavel and the chamber.
To focus on the infighting in the party is to miss the bigger picture, one we’ve made the case for before. There aren’t really two parties in Congress. There are many more.
If this was in Europe, we would run headlines like “the ultra-conservative party is demanding that the conservative party grant it concessions to form a coalition government.” But this is America and we pretend that’s not exactly what’s going on. It is. If you are a Republican, which Republican are you? There are clearly two parties at play here – just as there are when a progressive Democrat ousts a liberal Democrat. That’s at least four parties in Congress, double the number we usually admit to.
McCarthy’s Republican Party has been an alliance with people who do not think the work of government is important or worthwhile. McCarthy himself as been one of them. Now, Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) says he’ll only agree to vote for McCarthy if McCarthy agrees to force the government to default on its debts (Norman, in his comments, claims that the U.S. would only default if it doesn’t cut spending, though this is not entirely how the debt ceiling works). His only way out of that might be a deal with Democrats to ensure there’s basically no way for Republicans to stop from raising the debt limit this summer. If he takes the deal with the Democrats, the hard-liners in his party will turn on him immediately and make the next two years hell. If he takes the deal with the Republicans, he all but ensures the Democrats retake the House in 2024.
In a country where the lines are different, though, the results could be different. There are fifteen conservative Democrats in the House. What if they were their own party? They could ally with moderate and fiscally conservative Republicans. But they’re not their own party, and walking away from the Democratic Party’s money and resources is unthinkable. There are roughly two dozen pragmatist Republicans who could ally with the Democrats, too, making Hakeem Jeffries the next Speaker. But they can’t, because there’s no party structure to support them. In the two-party system, if you’re not a Republican, you’re a Democrat. That’s the whole story.
The two-party system is woefully ineffective and we’re watching its worst traits play out in a national farce as the cracks in the Republican Party expose the truth: there’s no single Republican Party, there’s no unity, there’s not even ideological consistency. The days of the two parties of convenience must end. The sooner, the better – for all of us, but especially for Kevin McCarthy.
Kevin McCarthy is the source of the photo used for this article. https://twitter.com/GOPLeader/status/1230298055263436800