By Robert C. Lieberman
A Profound Disappointment
For anyone who thought that Donald Trump’s electoral defeat and subsequent humiliation would diminish the extreme polarization that afflicts American politics, the opening of the 118th Congress can only have been a pretty profound disappointment. For half a century or more in the middle and late twentieth century, the American two-party system tended to pull toward the middle, on the logic that the best chance to win a two-candidate election came from catering to the “median voter” and avoiding extremes on either right or left. This orientation led, more or less, to consensus-oriented politics, incremental policymaking, and often frustratingly kludgy compromise governance. But as the last century waned, that pattern gradually broke down, replaced by the more strident, conflictual, and reckless politics that seemingly reached its apotheosis in the Trump administration and its ugly and violent aftermath on January 6, 2021.
We know that extreme polarization (along with racial conflict, economic inequality, and excessive executive power) has historically played a key role in stoking and prolonging democratic crises in the United States, and the Trump era was no exception; in fact, we are living through an extremely dangerous period in American history when, for the first time, all four of these threats to democracy prevail at once. But it seemed like the 2022 election might have been a shift toward something approaching normalcy.
The Monster in the Closet
It was the third national election in a row in which Republicans, flying the MAGA banner with varying levels of enthusiasm, performed poorly: they lost the House in 2018 and the White House in 2020, and vastly underperformed most expectations in 2022, failing to recapture an eminently winnable Senate and retaking the House with only an extremely slim majority. The Trumpiest of the Trumpy candidates who competed in 2022 mostly lost (I’m looking at you, Blake Masters, Dr. Oz, and Herschel Walker). And the most prominent and dangerous election deniers on the Republican roster also slunk off to oblivion (with any luck, this is the last time I will have to type the names of Doug Mastriano or Kari Lake).
As the calendar turned, many supporters of democracy probably found themselves relaxing. Surely a chastened GOP would try to lock the crazy back up in the basement, come to grips with their weakened state, and help usher in an era of more sedate and orderly politics. But I fear that our sighs of relief were premature. It’s as if we’ve been watching a horror movie. As the protagonist climbs the creaky stairs in the drafty old house, our hearts race and we shrink in our seats because we know that the slasher is lurking somewhere above. We reach the top and enter the bedroom only to find nothing there. But just as we exhale and reach for the popcorn, it turns out that the murderous maniac has been lurking in the closet all along.
Embracing Extreme Polarization
That’s exactly the feeling the first week of Congress has inspired. The horror show on the floor of the House was definitely entertaining (thanks in large part to the roving C-SPAN cameras that broadcast all the gore of legislating that is usually concealed from view). And while it may not have made us exactly scream with terror, it was certainly an ugly mess that left some blood on the floor (metaphorical, at least, but possibly real if Rep. Mike Rogers had had his way with Matt Gaetz).
Rather than being chastened, the extreme wing of the Republican Party arrived in Washington emboldened and determined to pull their party away from the ideological center and toward an anarchic approach to governance and a confrontational approach to politics that should make Newt Gingrich proud. (Newt himself may have scolded the anti-Kevin McCarthy faction of House Republicans for throwing a temper tantrum, but surely he can recognize that they’re using tactics that he pioneered a generation ago.)
So rather than dampening extreme polarization, the new alignment in Washington has deepened it. The floor fight for the speakership, at turns comical and embarrassing, along with the new House rules that McCarthy offered to avert a rerun of his own 2015 horror movie (when his ambition for the speakership was thwarted by the Freedom Caucus) revealed that far from being chastened, the party’s nihilist wing is emboldened and empowered. And because of their actions, polarization is alive and flourishing.
An Ongoing Sense of Crisis
There are several reasons why this might be so. One of the reasons the Republicans did so poorly in the 2022 election is that Democrats did well in competitive “purple” districts, so that the Republicans who survived the electoral onslaught were, on balance, more extreme than those who might have won but didn’t. A second is that the House Republican Conference is now missing some of the grownups who had the courage (or temerity, depending on your point of view) to stand up to the Former Guy, voting to impeach him and participating in the remarkable January 6 Committee and earning only exile for their pains. A Congress without figures such as Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, and Jaime Herrera Beutler is a diminished institution, and their fates stand as a warning to other Republicans who might toy with the idea of straying from the path of sycophancy.
Finally, because the Republican majority in the House is so much smaller than anyone expected, the few dozen bomb-throwers in the conference were able to drive their bargain. With a few more votes, McCarthy could safely have ignored them; but with almost no votes to spare to gain his majority, he had to cave and offer his renegade members a deal that puts the country back on the road not just to extreme polarization but also very likely to chaos: a return to debt-ceiling brinksmanship, repeated government shutdowns, and more. Under these circumstances, McCarthy’s victory may prove Pyrrhic and his legacy will likely be an era of renewed polarization and an ongoing sense of democratic crisis.
About the Author
Robert C. Lieberman is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. He is a scholar of American political development, race and politics, public policy, and democracy and the author of several prize-winning books. His most recent book is Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy (with Suzanne Mettler). He previously served as provost of Johns Hopkins and as dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.
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