The American political system has recently weathered yet another storm. Since the 2022 midterm elections gave Republicans only a narrow majority in the House of Representatives, infighting within the Grand Old Party has attained national importance.
Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy has finally been elected Speaker of the House, following fifteen rounds of voting and days of painstaking negotiations, in the most protracted battle for the position since 1859. McCarthy is feigning optimism about his tenure—insisting that “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish”—but the fact that so many of his fellow Republicans steadfastly rejected his candidature is an indication of profound changes that have already started to affect America’s institutional structure. McCarthy may have won—but at great cost to the speakership, the Congress and the entire country.
Americans are becoming increasingly dependent on the arbitrary decisions of fallible individuals, unconstrained by institutional checks and balances. The Framers did not want American politics to become a two-party system because of the dangers of factionalism: the fragmentation of society into competing interest or ideological groups, fearing that such battles might tear the nation apart, as they had England during its Civil War (1642–51). The Founding Fathers therefore introduced institutional mechanisms, such as regular elections and separation of powers, that prevented abuses of power. They relied on these institutional arrangements to ensure that legislators’ personal interests were aligned with the common good, thus connecting “the interests of the man” with “the constitutional rights of the place,” as Publius puts it in Federalist No. 51.
Yet this same adversarial bipartisan system that has characterised the political landscape since at least the end of the American Civil War (1861–65) has also facilitated the realization of the Framers’ vision, by preventing the tyranny of the majority and keeping government officials accountable to the people. The revolt of the Never Kevin Republicans has undermined that vision, although they themselves have argued that their goal is to amend the deficiencies of the current system in order to make it a true democracy. Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina has dubbed this spectacle “democracy in action,” while Rep. Chip Roy of Texas wants “this place to operate differently” and to “stop the train of the swamp.”
America’s first-past-the-post voting system dilutes the influence of factions, since small parties are unable to obtain a foothold in government. In multi-party proportional representation systems, backroom dealings between parties are common, since the major parties often need the cooperation of fringe political groups in order to govern and may have to sweeten the deal by offering the kingmakers cabinet positions. Such coalitions form in unpredictable ways and not always in accordance with the popular will. In the US, by contrast, the winning party can usually assume office without much difficulty. It is also easier to determine who is responsible for failed policies when a single party, rather than a coalition, is in power and this in turn makes it easier for the citizens to hold their government accountable at the ballot box.
Never Kevin Republicans—most of whom are members of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus—have demonstrated how a small group of determined lawmakers can unexpectedly seize the initiative and shape the legislative body. Despite representing only a small minority of Republicans, they have been able to exercise the kind of outsized power that third parties do in coalition governments: since the GOP holds barely half of the seats in the House of Representatives (222 out of 435), the election of a Republican speaker (who would be steadfastly opposed by the Democrats as a matter of course) could be obstructed by just five members of his or her own party.
So, a minority faction is now poised to wield disproportionate influence over the country’s legislative affairs—especially because Kevin McCarthy promised to grant them seats on the powerful House Rules committee if he became speaker, as part of the concessions he made to gain their support for his candidacy. The House Rules committee decides how bills are reviewed on the House floor and therefore effectively determines the rules of the game and thus the institutional structure of Congress. If representatives of the hard-right Freedom Caucus gain more seats, they could potentially join with the Democrats to obstruct the GOP agenda.
And yet, many of the reforms advocated by Never Kevins could drive much-needed institutional change: e.g., by giving House lawmakers 72 hours to review bills and propose amendments before they come to the floor and by instituting separate voting on appropriation bills. These reforms would restore the power of individual rank-and-file members of the House and reduce the number of backroom deals in which select members of the Congressional leadership, lobbyists and special interests shape legislation—a system antithetical to the spirit of American democracy, in which legislators are independent actors who represent their constituents and are not obliged to toe the party line.
Fundamentally, however, many of the Never Kevins (unlike, say, the members of the Tea Party movement) seem to be motivated not by ideological goals or by a specific policymaking agenda, but by a desire for publicity and political advancement and are willing to bow to the demands of hard-right activists—the “base commentariat”—in order to achieve them. The Never Kevins have not formulated a unified policy agenda: unlike the Tea Party movement, they are a fragmented group united only by their antipathy to Kevin McCarthy. Such lawmakers, former speaker of the House John Boehner has argued, are “really interested in … chaos … Every time they vote down a bill, they get another invitation to go on Fox News or talk radio.”
In the new “digital public square,” Philip Bumb has argued, determined minorities have disproportionate power over party agendas. The Founding Fathers’ idea of an “extended [federal] republic” was supposed to prevent political radicals—who generally constitute insignificant minorities in individual states—from organizing, due to geographical barriers, but there are no such limitations in the age of social media. The hardliners’ emotive messages are eagerly promoted by engagement-hungry social media algorithms, and, as more and more lawmakers bow to the collective pressure of their activist social media followers, they can no longer be considered a Jeffersonian “natural aristocracy among men,” insulated from factitious influences. Instead, they are increasingly turning into the servants of online mobs, even though such mobs constitute only a small proportion of voters. Nowadays, it is success on social media that leads to advancement in politics, and not vice versa. This effect has been intensified by the explosion in small donations from supporters across the country, many of whom may not even reside in the area the lawmaker represents, as in the case of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.
Until recently, the Democratic and Republican parties have managed to unite the multiple diverse groups that constitute American society into two coherent coalitions, thus introducing stability into a heterogeneous society, making differences manageable and governance possible. The American system is based on liberal institutionalism—it seeks to protect individual liberty via institutional mechanisms— with the republican prerequisite that elected officials must place the good of the country above their personal interests. These essential republican ideals of virtue and solidarity are lacking in contemporary America.
American lawmakers are far from being members of an independent-minded, virtuous epistocracy acting in the common good; they do not even reflect the popular will as faithful delegates of the people should, but have been captured by societal and party factions. As Leonard Sorenson argues, for James Madison, “the success of the Constitutional order depends equally upon the action or restraint-producing passion of ambition and upon the direction-giving sentiments of virtue.” The demands of McCarthy’s adversaries have provided the impetus for necessary changes in the operation of Congress—but such changes need to be motivated by the common good rather than by the narrow concerns of a faction of media-savvy lawmakers.
The Never Kevins are right that too few legislators wield too much agenda-setting power in Congress right now, but the sudden ascendance of this faction may simply replace one “tyranny of the minority” with another. Reforms need to be spearheaded by lawmakers who are virtuous in the classical republican sense of the word: putting the common good before self-interest, and embodying what Irving Kristol has referred to as “public spiritedness.” Virtuous government, however, cannot simply depend on institutional safeguards—especially since such institutions are now in a state of flux due to the subversion of the two-party system—but also relies on the people themselves electing virtuous officials to run the country. As Benjamin Franklin so aptly noted, America is “a republic—if you can keep it.