In Their Quest For Dominance, Republicans Break Government At All Levels

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 12: Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., is seen after making a statement to the media on the government spending negotiations in the U.S. Capitol on Friday, January 12, 2024. (Tom Willia... UNITED STATES - JANUARY 12: Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., is seen after making a statement to the media on the government spending negotiations in the U.S. Capitol on Friday, January 12, 2024. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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Just months into his dark horse speakership, Mike Johnson (R-LA) tries to scuttle across the same tightrope his predecessor toppled from, shepherding through the chamber, without sparking a mutiny, the bare minimum legislating Congress has to pass. 

The dynamics are fundamentally unchanged from Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) brief tenure: Congress has to fund the government. A relatively significant chunk of House Republicans, given the extremely slim majority (which is getting slimmer all the time), won’t accept anything that deviates from their ideal, very parsimonious spending package loaded with far-right goodies. So the speaker is left with no choice but to make a deal with Democrats, leaving himself vulnerable to the ire of and possible ousting by his Republican colleagues. 

“It’s reflective of a highly fractious party way more interested in performative indicators of power than the basic tasks of governing,” Seth Masket, professor of political science and the director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, told TPM. 

We now have a Republican Party where power, divorced of any cogent, animating policy aims, is king. Spectacle, muscle flexing, reflexive opposition and, most importantly, owning the libs, is the currency of the realm. That dynamic not only allows for no compromise, but makes compromise with Democrats a capital crime — even when that posture consistently leads to outcomes farther from this hard-right group’s stated goals, since they completely remove themselves from the negotiating table. 

This dynamic has boiled over in the post-Trump era (if there is such a thing), but it’s been heating up for years, maybe even decades. Experts pointed to various inflection points — Newt Gingrich’s insurgency, the tea party movement — as fanning the flames. 

But the speakership battles of 2023 and 2024 have brought it all to a new extreme. It is perhaps the natural outcome for a party of strange factions united only by their loyalty to Donald Trump. The last vestiges of the Paul Ryan party, the Medicaid slashers and Social Security privatizers, sit uncomfortably beside the new crop of mini-Trumps, more interested in impeaching various members of the Biden administration than making policy.

“The politics of resentment have subsumed any kind of coherent policy agenda,” Sam Rosenfeld, associate professor of political science at Colgate University, said. “There’s a breakdown of consensus among Republicans about what they actually think about huge questions related to use of public power in society.” 

In that void, all that remains is a finely honed thirst for combat, an instinct sharpened and reinforced by the right-wing media ecosystem. 

It’s the only way to understand right-wing lawmakers’ predilection for grinding all House business to a halt — sometimes blocking their own (mostly messaging) bills — to punish then-Speaker McCarthy and now Johnson for even considering working with Democrats. It explains why House Republicans have turned bills that once passed nearly automatically, like the annual national defense bill, into party-line slugfests over culture war red meat they knew would never survive the Democratic Senate. It’s how you got Trump, aided by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), to shut down the government for a record 35 days in 2018 due to not getting enough border security funds — only to eventually accept Democrats’ terms. 

It’s power for power’s sake, a purposeful breaking of the legislature in performance of that power. 

Nearly every expert TPM interviewed about this phenomenon pointed to the right-wing media ecosystem, and specifically Fox News, for its role in encouraging the constant bloodlust and rewarding the best brawlers in the party. 

“It is a much more media-driven party than it used to be, and a more media-driven party than Democrats are,” Masket said. “Politicians in that party are aware that if you want to get on TV, there are ways to do that: You flex your power to look controversial, to stir things up. You don’t necessarily pass a bill.”

This is the party that incentivized Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to accuse then-nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson of being soft on child sex predators, to yell and pound the table while the camera was on him, only to kick back and search his Twitter mentions when the lens moved on. 

The extensiveness of the policy rot in the party is perhaps even clearer on the state level, where getting control, holding onto it and quashing anyone who objects always justify the means.  

That looks like state parties spending their energy censuring national Republicans for insufficient loyalty to Trump. It’s the Tennessee legislature expelling lawmakers for showing solidarity to gun control activists. In Wisconsin and North Carolina, it’s the Republican legislators using lame duck sessions to strip the incoming Democratic governors of major powers (and also in Wisconsin, the recurring desire to impeach Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz, beginning the day of her election). In Ohio, it’s state Republicans censuring their Republican colleagues for…voting for a Republican for speaker, because that Republican was also supported by Democrats. 

It’s a “pure performative gonzo politics of grievance,” Rosenfeld said. “The state parties are not doing anything serious — they’re censuring members of Congress of their party who go along with investigations of Trump, or support impeachment of Trump. It’s state level organizational decay, where we see some of the most out there and substance-free demonstrations as Republicanism as pure loyalty to Donald Trump.” 

That dynamic, too, ties into the media environment. With the withering of local news in many parts of the country, politicians and voters alike usually get their cues from national news. That’s helped drive the nationalization of state and local politics as a whole, with even the lowest-level local officials increasingly leaving behind the once-parochial scope of their offices. 

“With school board elections, it used to be, ‘how do we pay for textbooks?’ Now it’s critical race theory,” Jack Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, told TPM. 

For a party so lacking a coherent worldview, where doling out losses and humiliations and bending the knee to Trump are the only guiding stars, it’s no wonder that basic governing has become impossible. Not governing — holding the line against evil Democrats — aligns much more neatly with these incentives than cooperating with them, even once or twice a year. 

“Tensions are running high among House Republicans in a way I don’t think is reflective of any grand plan,” Rosenfeld said. “The antics have long superseded any strategy.” 

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