A far-right flank in the House of Representatives has disabled Congress far more effectively than the rioters who stormed the Capitol two years ago today.
January 6th, 2021 marked the beginning of what we might call the post-democratic era of the Republican Party: the moment when right-wing assailants sought to abet the unprecedented seizure of power in the executive branch by attacking the congressional branch. While many Republican members of Congress saw the Capitol riots as an assault on American democracy that day (and indeed many feared for their own lives), 147 of them voted against Electoral College certification. The GOP was thus forced into an awkward pose, with elected officials denouncing the January 6th assault while promoting or at least conceding the Big Lie that produced it.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in particular embodies the contradictions of that day. On the phone with Trump as insurgents pounded hard on the entrance to his office, he sought to shore up an institutional authority that was cracking like the glass panes in its doors: “Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to,” he yelled at the President. Soon after, McCarthy stated that Trump bore some responsibility for the events that day. Yet within weeks he traveled to Mar-a-Lago to demonstrate fealty to his party leader. In a similar display of convoluted opportunism, McCarthy himself voted against certification on the night of January 6th, but then told reporters a few days later that it was not, in fact, a vote to deny the Electoral College victory of Joe Biden.
But what else was McCarthy to do? He of course understood that in the American political system parties must endure losses as well as wins, something especially true for a Republican officeholder in the Democratic-ruled state of California. Yet the House Minority leader was also faced with the more immediate fact that seventy million members of his party believed the election was stolen from Trump. If he wanted a political future, there could be no choice but to return to his loyal role as “My Kevin” to the president-in-exile. It seems that Trump knew exactly who the fuck he was talking to.
It was following Biden’s certified victory that a significant portion of the GOP at both the state and national level committed itself to openly to minoritarian rule. To be clear, these were longstanding impulses in a party that had been seeking to gain and hold power through various strategies to undermine democratic representation.
But after the 2020 election, the party openly pursued voter suppression and partisan control over election administration. By 2022 many GOP candidates refused to say that they would honor election results in races they did not win. Meanwhile most sitting GOP officials refused to denounce political violence like the hammer assault on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul at his by a man driven by right-wing conspiracy theories, including Trump’s claims of a stolen election.
Although spurred by Trump’s 2016 candidacy, this moment of radical transformation was long in coming. We can date it to the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. We can date it to the Court’s abolition of campaign finance laws in 2010. We can date it to unprecedented ruling dictating that candidate GOP George W. Bush be installed as President. But this deep antipathy to democracy is imbedded in the identity of a party itself - one that emerged in modern form in the mid-Twentieth Century as a coalition of economic conservatives and southern segregationists.
This openly post-democratic orientation of the GOP presents a fundamental dilemma for a party that has until now functioned at the local, state, and national level within the institutional constraints of a market-oriented liberal democracy.
The inability of the House GOP to choose the Speaker demonstrates the post-democratic dilemma. The party's right is no longer concerned with institutional order, nor for that matter with liberal democratic governance at all. The 20 House members who have repeatedly blocked the election of Kevin McCarthy represent, in essence, an authoritarian regime struggling to be born. It contends with an establishment right that also has no interest in democracy, but one that still operates by the institutional rules that have long rewarded it.
The immediate crisis in House leadership
will pass. But the far-right rump will have exacted a high price and greatly enhanced its own power. As McCarthy yelled when insurgents were attempting to break through the windows of his office two years ago today, “They’re trying to fucking kill me!”