On October 4, a small group of Republican Party rebels did what no one had done before and removed the speaker of the House from office in a mid-Congress floor vote.
These eight members, led by Representative Matt Gaetz, tossed Speaker Kevin McCarthy aside and left the House speakerless for two weeks and counting.
Subsequent efforts to find a replacement have failed. First, Majority Leader Steve Scalise won a closed-door party vote to be the party’s choice for speaker ahead of a floor vote. But he was immediately rejected by the same rebels who overthrew McCarthy, and he withdrew before he hit the floor.
Then came Representative Jim Jordan, a verbal-bomb-throwing, election-denying, hard-line Trumpist conservative who gained the backing of the rebels as well as McCarthy and Scalise. This time, a coalition of Appropriations Committee members, vulnerable New Yorkers and enigmatic lawmakers teamed up to reject him — three times now. It’s unclear what’s going to happen next.
All of this may leave one wondering what the hell is going on in the House, and more specifically, with the Republican Party. To answer this, I decided to ask Daniel Schlozman, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on political party history and behaviour.
Schlozman, along with his co-author, Colgate University political scientist Sam Rosenfeld, has written a series of papers explaining how the political parties have been hollowed out to the point where they lack the ability to impose order on their elected members and how the hollow shell of the Republican Party has been filled by a political movement — the New Right — that prioritises a “commitment to conflict and the ruthless instrumentalism toward institutions” above all else. This research is the subject of their forthcoming book, “The Hollow Parties: The Many Pasts and Disordered Present of American Party Politics.”
Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.
To start, what is your take on what is going on with Republicans in the House?
In a broad sense, there is a faction on the right, the Freedom Caucus, that is interested in performative antics — demonstrating their commitment to making trouble, worried about leaders who will sell them out — and not interested in the work of governing. They have been empowered by a very, very narrow majority, and their tendencies have infected the whole party. You combine the narrow majority and the tendencies, which long predated Trump, and you get to the present mess.
I think it’s worth going through the history. The Freedom Caucus emerged from the tea party, which rose as a right-wing faction in the late ’00s. At the time, the tea party was mischaracterized as small government zealots, but immigration was really more salient. And when Donald Trump takes office, he clashes with the Freedom Caucus over repealing Obamacare in 2017. But they then become his most ardent defenders.
Their consistent role has been being the big, nasty thing making trouble for Republican leaders. That then takes on a much more public-facing role, with people like Representative Matt Gaetz, the libertine, Fox-News-attention-seeking player, as their most visible voices.
What’s the route to power and success in the Republican Party today? This is where Fox News becomes so important as the vessel through which a lot of the wilder instincts are channeled, as the entertainment complex that is leading the policy story rather than just responding to it. The party press goes back to the 19th century, but that particular manifestation is new.
Through it, you get Matt Gaetz going from an entertaining and mockable figure to getting some influence by being on television a lot, to Matt Gaetz as the dry, institutional actor. It is more substantial than it seems.
Republican leaders getting deposed in the House because they are not doctrinaire enough is a very, very old story. Everybody does it. Bob Michel gives way to Newt Gingrich by saying he won’t run for reelection, but it’s very clear Gingrich would challenge him and win. Boehner. Ryan.
Doing it mid-Congress is really, really new. As is the fact that the world that has produced the rebels is not the right-wing policy world, but from the wild world of the right-wing media complex. That is what is distinctive about this.
When we talk about what’s new here, you’ve described the parties as being hollowed out and replaced by para-party blobs — an amorphous collection of nonprofits, think tanks, media companies and fundraising groups. Is this lack of structure fuelling what’s going on in the House? You mentioned Fox News — who do you see among these para-party groups as the primary actors?
Figures like Fox News have such a prominent role because the parties have ceded theirs. To answer the question is to imagine an alternative universe in which there is much more gatekeeping against this conservative media complex — in which Republicans see the route Gaetz took to success, as this entertaining buffoon, and say, “We will not allow that person in any way to dictate our strategy.”
And so, it is a story both of people like Gaetz and also the story of why there aren’t adults in the room. Why is it that the people who were supposed to come up with a responsible conservatism seem to have whiffed time and time again? They never really get it. They don’t organise. They play short-term deals. They talk about character and principles, and that’s nice to have individually, but you have to organise together.
“The world that has produced the rebels is not the right-wing policy world, but from the wild world of the right-wing media complex. That is what is distinctive about this.”
Look at the incentives of the McCarthy disruptors. You start by asking whether you are going to get the things you want in the House. And what you can get are, first, policy outcomes. Second, you can move up in the chamber. Just look at Marjorie Taylor Greene serving as Kevin McCarthy’s lieutenant and whip. This fitness instructor in her second term is doing what it takes folks decades to do. And, third, you can aim for long-term options, like becoming a figure of influence outside of the House. This is where you can see the rebels’ incentives, because a lot of their goals are, in a sense, to be on television and to be an influencer more than they are to exercise power in the old-fashioned way.
So the question is, why is gaining influence in the right-wing media and movement ecosystem the goal for the anti-McCarthy rebels? It’s because you’ve got this conservative movement that survives on antics. They’re not interested in governing; this is what they’re interested in. You start with insights like those, and the patterns we are seeing start to make more sense. They see chaos as a strategy. There’s some substance concerns about who gave away what, but mostly it is about, “Why are we not using our control over the House for more performance and drama and confrontation?” McCarthy had not done enough of it for those who were toppling him.
As for Jordan, he can’t make it because he’s just a very factional figure. Take a classic congressional analysis and look at the DW-Nominate scale; that gives you a sense of a member’s ideology within the chamber, and Jordan is in the 93rd percentile most conservative in the caucus. It’s just really hard to be that far out on an extreme. The Freedom Caucus types have the power to dominate the conversation and to dethrone, but at really just a basic level, if you’re going to govern, you need to do so with the broad authority of your members. It shows that while Republicans are not a “normal party” in any way, that some laws of standard-issue parliamentary politics hold.
It seems that there are two major explanations given by Matt Gaetz and the others who ousted McCarthy: One, he worked with Democrats to reach deals on government funding and the debt limit, and two, there is an opposition to the structure of the House under the strong speaker system. How much weight should we give to each of these rationales?
It’s the job of the researcher to understand the motivations of the survey respondents, not the job of the survey respondents to describe their own motivations. And the second thing you’re supposed to do is figure out what’s actually motivating them, no matter what they say.
Every set of dissidents has a mixture of different motives. Whenever you say the speaker is too strong, you can argue against the speaker’s power and get support from other members who are restive. And that’s real, but it’s not enough to explain why they are rebelling now. Junior members always want more influence and complain about the centralization of power under the speaker.
But you’ll notice that the rebels have not actually suggested a real alternative. The institutional alternative to speaker power is committee power. But they don’t trust the committees, which have staff they don’t trust. The committees are trying to do policy. The staff is deep in these policy communities. They may be beholden to interest groups.
What the rebels want to do is move power away from the speaker to themselves and their media friends and the movement. So, there’s not really an institutional solution here. There’s some hope that there’s some magic procedural trick that will give them more power than they’ve got. It’s chaos for its own sake.
And it is creating narratives of betrayal that can be used down the line. That we could have had this, but for their perfidy. Those narratives are not really about what we could have had, they are about the claim that others are insufficiently loyal to the cause. That is the central dynamic that is going on.
“You’ve got this conservative movement that survives on antics. They’re not interested in governing; this is what they’re interested in. You start with insights like those, and the patterns we are seeing start to make more sense. They see chaos as a strategy.”
As to the solutions, because we can see the solutions are not going to work for them, it’s not worth going too deep down that road. Instead, look at the narrative they’re reproducing: “McCarthy promised us in January he wouldn’t betray us, and then he betrayed us just like they’ve betrayed us before. We are anti-anti-their opponents, and we’ve been sold out.” This is basically the same thing since Joe McCarthy came up and said the State Department sold us out and “Who lost China?” That they are not thinking like typical Congresspeople is almost the point.
To say, “These guys are really powerful now and we’re going to take them seriously” does not mean we need to take them literally. We have to think through what their power means for Congress, the American political system, the Republican Party, but that doesn’t mean thinking through what their proposals are or that we need to write an explainer about them.
You were talking about narratives of betrayal, which have a very long history on the right and have become the underlying political mythology of the right under Trump. Do you think that the purpose of these rebellions within the right is the reproduction of this mythology, rather than achievement of other outcomes?
There is very much a myth that is being created. No matter how this drama ends, with who’s running the House for the next year-plus, it will end with a betrayal. And the idea [that] there were consequences for betrayal, but we still need to make sure that we do not have this betrayal in the future because the people we thought were our friends betrayed us. We can see that narrative being constructed every day.
As with all great stories like this, the details matter less than the feeling after you’ve heard the story, that you’ve been emotionally moved and you understand what this story has done to you. It’s been both a call to principle and a call to action.
On the other side, why isn’t this happening to Democrats? Nancy Pelosi held Democrats together despite significant disagreements over the course of her two stints as speaker. And Hakeem Jeffries, at least so far, has kept centrist Democrats from breaking off to reach an agreement with Republicans on the speaker.
Democrats haven’t been able to articulate a sense of their political project, but it’s basically a functional, normal political party. It’s notable that Jeffries got every goddamn Democratic vote.
That it’s not happening on the Democratic side makes you say we should not look for explanations like “the parties cannot organise in Congress anymore.” No, if one of these parties has its act together and the other doesn’t, then we look to that other party. That there is not a story on the Democratic side is less that there’s a great “puzzle” there, but more that the puzzle is on the Republican side.
If Republicans are the puzzle here, what would you say is the purpose of the Republican Party at this point?
Their purpose is to win elections. Whether or not they succeed at it is another story. When Martin Van Buren created the mass party in the 1820s, it was “All for the party and nothing for the man,” and the idea there is some subordination — this was something Pelosi was very good at — that there is some subordination of individual ambition for the collective good of the party. The idea was that, in subordinating individual initiative, the party itself could gain power and distribute the perquisites of office to the members who then lash themselves to the mast of the party.
That is not the ethos of the contemporary Republican Party. When that is not your ethos, then the question arises: What is this party all about? It’s about the dominance of social forces that are behind figures like Matt Gaetz, but in ways that prioritize their own desires for chaos, troublemaking and betrayal narratives.
The creation of narratives that are themselves a justification for action. It can even be a justification for explaining betrayals when other Republicans are collaborating with liberals, who are the enemy. For a lot of Republicans, it is, “If we collaborate with McCarthy, who is passing bills with the Democrats, then we are complicit in the great crimes of liberalism. If we really, really want to own the libs, we cannot countenance the ordinary politics of getting a House in order that means the libs and Joe Biden, and behind him, the dark forces that are modern liberalism, are given legitimacy and power. We then need to take measures that are beyond what our lily-livered predecessors would have done.”