The last two times members of the House of Representatives had to resort to multiple ballots to elect a House Speaker tell us a lot about the present crisis. Both times the crisis resulted from a major shift in US politics and either the rise of a new party or a major shift in the role of an already existing one.
In 1858, the Republican Party, which had suddenly emerged, won a plurality in the House. It in effect replaced the Whig Party, which contained both pro and anti-slavery forces. But by 1858 the issue of slavery had become so hot that a party combining both sides of the issue could not survive. While the Republican Party was not overtly anti-slavery, it was the political center of anti-slavery elements. Because the Republicans didn’t have an outright majority, they could not elect their own Speaker without support from another party. This battle over House Speaker indicated a fundamental realignment in US politics. That realignment could only be settled by war – the US Civil War, and the Speaker battle was a warning of that coming Civil War.
The background to the 1923 Speaker election lay in the fact that for the first time, the majority of the US population lived in cities rather than the countryside. This was connected to a transition in the Republican Party, which won the majority in the House in 1922. Even at that late date, there was still a holdover from the former role of the Republicans as the anti-slavery party. This holdover combined with “progressive” forces which were led by Robert LaFollette (who later split from the Republicans). However, the mainstream of the Republican Party was becoming the preferred means of rule for the US capitalist class, and this wing ultimately did win control. It was the clash between these two wings that led to the Republicans having to use a mere eight votes before they were able to resolve the conflict on their ninth attempt.
Early Roots to 2023
Today we are seeing another transformation in the Republican Party. One aspect of this transformation took place as far back as the Nixon presidency. It was under Nixon that the Southern strategy was adopted. This was the strategy of undermining the Democratic Party in the South by indirectly (and sometimes not so indirectly) appealing to racism. But even then, the Republicans remained a clear capitalist-controlled party. As was said, “you could fit all the Republican Party members into one country club”.
The economic crisis of 2007-8 jump started the Party’s present role. Reacting to the bank and corporate bailouts organized first by Bush and then by Obama, a populist movement developed spontaneously. This was the Tea Party. However, as conservative writer Tim Alberta explains in his book American Carnage, there always was another aspect: The Tea Party resulted from “decades of a widening chasm in incomes and diminishment of factory work, shredded national identity, a dissipating sense of postwar unity – it was all blurring together in an abstract expression of outrage…. An early indication of the disquiet felt by many Americans regarding the changes sweeping the country – demographically, culturally, politically and otherwise.” Alberta explains that while it was a spontaneous populist revolt, the top Republican aligned capitalist CEO’s organized and financed the “Tea Party Patriots” organization, which they led into the Republican Party.
Assuming they could control them, the tops of the Republican Party welcomed these elements, who succeeded in electing a few of their adherents to congress. It didn’t exactly turn out that way. Around 2012, some of their representatives entered what was at that time called the Liberty Caucus, led by John Amish. This was basically a weak, wishy-washy group and Amish welcomed the reinforcements, “firebrands” as Alberta calls them. These included Representatives Mark Meadows, Raul Labrador , Mick Mulvaney and Thomas Massie.
“We fed the beast that ate us”
An early warning sign of what was to come was the primary defeat of Republican House majority leader Eric Cantor by “firebrand” Dave Brat in 2014. Brat won through campaigning around the issue of immigration. This was followed by a challenge to then House Speaker John Boehner. Boehner was a mainstream, Old Guard Republican who’d made some concessions to what had become the Freedom Caucus, but those concessions were insufficient. One of Boehner’s challengers was Mark Meadows. At that time, the House Speaker exercised tremendous power over his or her fellow party members because the Speaker had tremendous influence over the individual member’s fund raising abilities. Today, with the rise of internet fund raising, the Speaker’s power has been lessened. In any case, the challenge to Boehner failed, and in a hilarious scene described by Alberta, Mark Meadows – he of January 6 fame – went to Boehner, got down on one knee and pleaded “Mr. Speaker, will you please forgive me?” According to Alberta, Boehner later said that he considered Meadows “a perfect fucking idiot”.
But it was this “perfect fucking idiot” who had the last laugh – and not only when he became the most powerful person in the Trump administration but also in the struggle that ultimately led to today’s House battle! Along the way, Boehner was forced to resign. Before he did so, he called up then president Obama to let him know. “I’m going to miss you,” said Obama, to which Boehner replied, “yes you are.” And how! As Boehner’s former chief of staff Mike Sommers put it “we fed the beast that ate us”.
As a preview of what was coming, Boehner’s second in command – the House Majority Leader – sought to replace Boehner but was blocked by the members of the House Freedom Caucus because that aspirant was considered to be too mainstream. That person? None other than Kevin McCarthy!
The Old Guard of the Republican Party, representing the main wings of the US capitalist class, wanted to focus on tax policy and use the “balanced budget” slogan as a cover to cut social spending. Bush, Romney, Paul Ryan (remember him?) and others of that ilk wanted a compromise that allowed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The “crazies” cut them off at the pass. Along the way, these “crazies” chewed up and spat out two of the mainstream Republican speakers – first John Boehner and then Paul Ryan, both of whom saw what was coming and retired from politics. Boehner, by the way, demonstrated his power as Speaker by distributing to his fellow Republicans campaign “donations” from the tobacco industry on the floor of the House just prior to a vote on a bill that would curb the influence of that industry.
Enter Donald Trump
There were several Republican “bomb throwers” in the lead up to Trump. One of the foremost was Newt Gingrich, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2012. His run fizzled, possibly in part because the time was not fully ripe yet, but also because he lacked the appeal needed for such a populist challenge.
The stage was set by 2016 when another alternative came floating down the escalator: Donald Trump, the world’s greatest carnival barker. Oaklandsocialist has written many times about how Trump tried to seize one person control over the federal government. For example, we reviewed the book I alone can fix it, and compared Trump to Putin. In other words, Trump attempted to transform how the US capitalist class ruled, or to be more precise, he tried to force one person rule over the institutional rule of the capitalist class itself. At each turn of events, though, the leaders of the institutions for capitalist class rule turned Trump back. Foremost among them were the top generals such as Mark Milley.
A signal moment was the attempt to overthrow that method of rule through mob violence on January 6, 2020. In a way, that riot/coup attempt harkened back to the 1859 House crisis. What really sparked that earlier crisis, what strengthened the determination of the slave owners to resist any concessions was John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, which was an attempt to spark an uprising of the slaves and the violent overthrow of slavery. That raid was a warning that the overthrow of the slave-owner’s domination of the continent was going to be a bloody affair. It therefore meant the existence of the Whigs as a party that combined both the capitalists and the slave owners was impossible. In the more recent event, after a few weeks of Republican hesitation and confusion, January 6 actually energized the “crazies” in the Republican Party. It made clear to them their goal, which was and is the overturning in the very method of rule of US capitalism – the transformation from capitalist-controlled democratic rule to one person dictatorship (“bonapartism”).
There have been a couple of what could be called technical changes that have helped enable the Freedom Caucus Republicans to escape the control of the Republican “Old Guard”, meaning the mainstream of the US capitalist class. One such change has been the refining of gerrymandering. This has led to congressional districts that are completely dominated by Republican voters. The result is that in many districts, Republican nominees don’t have to play to the middle. This is played out in the fact that, as the NY Times reported half the Republican Representatives who voted against McCarthy come from just three states – Texas, Arizona and Florida.
A second “technical” change has been the rise of the internet and internet-based fund raising. This has made nominees less dependent on the central fundraising of their party’s leaders, as we explained.
But these technical changes in and of themselves would have been nowhere nearly sufficient. Rather, it is the weakening of US capitalism at home and abroad that have laid the basis for this and have opened the door to the rise of a radical right wing populist party that bases its rule on overturning democratic norms. The NY Times outlines the position of the Freedom Caucus members who are opposing McCarthy: “More than half of the lawmakers who voted against Mr. McCarthy explicitly denied the results of the 2020 election, compared with about 15 percent of the 222 total members in the Republican caucus…. Nearly all of the lawmakers who voted against Mr. McCarthy made statements casting doubt on the 2020 election, often repeatedly, not unlike the overall Republican caucus. At least 180 of the 222 House Republicans have questioned 2020, according to The Times’s analysis.”
The political analysts and talking heads are beside themselves. One Washington Post columnist compares the demise of one Republican speaker after another to the fable of the three little pigs, with McCarthy being the last of the pigs. “No one was going to mistake him for a Mensa candidate [Mensa is the society composed of supposedly exceptionally intelligent individuals], but he was fun and flexible. McCarthy built his house out of California cement, and then bided his time. When the wolf came to his door, McCarthy wasn’t worried. He figured he could smile and cajole his way out of the fate that had befallen his buddies. By the end of Tuesday, his house was swaying ominously…. What was once called the Grand Old Party is now essentially a gang of wolves, huffing and puffing at any democratic pillar or foundation they see, including their own.
It turns out that once you start tearing down houses, destruction becomes your only reason for existence.” [emphasis added]
If McCarthy is not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, he is a political genius compared to his Republican opponents. The NY Times describes some of those opponents: “Arizona’s Eli Crane, for example, is a former contestant on the business reality show “shark Tank,” where he pitched bottle openers made of dummy .50 caliber bullets. (Shoot open some bottles in the manliest way possible,” says an ad for the product.) Florida’s Anna Paulina Luna, an ally of the Trump die-hard Matt Gaetz, is a veteran and former swinsuit model who build a career as a conservative rabble-rouser, most recently runnning Hispanic outreach for the right-wing outfit Turning Point USA” this shows the degeneration of US politics in general and how it’s baked into the turn to far right demagoguery. It also shows what the Freedom Caucus’s real objection to McCarthy is, and it is a policy difference: The Freedom Caucus is ideologically committed to building a party that will overturn the democratic form of rule, whereas for McCarthy it’s just a matter of convenience – he’ll go whichever way the wind blows and therefore cannot be counted on.
The militants of the US capitalist class, the Wall St. Journal editors, ever with a sharp tongue, wrote “We were taught to believe that all jobs have dignity, but on second thought there is serving as Speaker of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.” They bemoan the failure of the Republicans because that party is the better bet to stop any concessions to the US working class. That is the meaning of their conclusion: “It’s sorrier still because the country desperately needs an effective check on the excesses of the progressive left that dominates today’s Democratic Party. That’s what voters said when they gave Republicans the House majority, which they seem intent on squandering.”
Mass Populist Party
This last alludes to what the talking heads on CNN and MSNBC are constantly complaining about – that the Freedom Caucus “crazies” are not interested in “governing”; they just want to rabble rouse. Whether the Republican radicals realize it or not, that inevitably will lead them to definitively transforming the Republican Party into a mass, populist party with an overtly fascist wing. Such parties are arising around the world. The supposedly staid old Germany is an example, with the rise of the Alternative for Germany or AFD, some of whose members were recently arrested for actually plotting a coup. (Shades of January 6!)
While the great majority of the US capitalist class opposes this drive, there are a few who actually support it. While the majority of the US capitalist class still remembers the lessons of the labor uprising of the 1930s and the black uprising of the 1960s, some others are encouraged by the extreme weakness – the actual crisis – of the US and the world working class. These others include Peter Thiel, the Mercer family and apparently Elon Musk. “Nobody can oppose us,” they reason, “so why not roll over all of US society?”
Meanwhile, Joe Biden and the Democrats yearn for a return to the good old days when the two parties collaborated. This yearning was symbolized by Biden’s visit to a bridge in Kentucky which was rebuilt with funds from the bipartisan recovery bill which Mitch McConnell had helped push through the Senate. That yearning simply represents the fact that the transformation of the Republican Party represents an equal crisis for the Democrats, who have based themselves on equal parts of rivalry and collaboration (= “bipartisanship”) with the Republicans. This crisis for the Democrats could open the door to the development of a mass working class party, one with socialist principles.
The next two years
A key concession which McCarthy has made is to grant any one Republican representative the power to force a vote for a new Speaker. If it holds, this concession to the “crazies” means that they will exercise veto power over any and all bills going forward. It gives a glimpse to the absolute chaos that will be the state of affairs in the House for the next four years.
It is not ruled out that the more conservative wing of the Democrats will step forward and take advantage of this crisis in order to assert their agenda. They could do this through offering to support a conservative Speaker, whether that be a Republican or a Democrat. In fact, it might not be only the conservative Democrats. Even “progressive” Ocasio-Cortez raised that possibility and talked about a possible “coalition government” when she was interviewed on MSNBC.
Role of Working Class
Which leads us to the final point – which is exactly that crisis of the US working class, many of whose members have been recruited into the Republican Party. This crisis stems from the 75 year long campaign to wipe out the memory and the traditions of militant struggle of US workers as well as the socialist traditions. This crisis of the working class also is the basis for the political crisis of the socialist movement (such as exists). The majority of this movement has entirely lost touch with the working class both at home and abroad. It is so lost that it in effect actually supports or gives cover to the fascist-linked Putin!
Great shocks will be required for even the beginnings of an uprising of the US working class. The crisis in the US House of Representatives is an indication that such shocks are coming. Socialists must prepare for those shocks first and foremost by understanding the nature of the present crisis, from Syria, Iran and Ukraine to here in the United States. Such understanding comes not with mere academic studying; actual involvement in the struggle is necessary, but it must also involve that struggle to make sense out of what appears to be mere chaos.