Most observers identify the Freedom Caucus, formerly known as the Tea Party Caucus, as the source of a palace coup resulting in the “retirement” of John Boehner, and the refusal of his hand-picked successor, Kevin McCarthy, to take possession of the gavel as speaker of the House.
The simple fact is that Boehner and McCarthy knew this reactionary faction of the GOP was gunning for them. Boehner simply quit before he could be fired; McCarthy quit while he was ahead.
The two leaders were targeted because they were willing to cut deals with Democrats. This is a problem for all of us because compromise is key if democracy is to function as it should. As political theorists Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson suggest, compromise is necessary to govern – to help citizens realize the benefits they seek and protect their rights. In short, compromise is essential to the health of democracy.
Yet, since the GOP regained the House, and the Tea Party faction took over the party four years ago, House Republicans have refused to compromise at every turn.
A list of refusals
Their steadfast refusal to compromise resulted in the failure to reach comprehensive immigration reform, a bill that enjoyed bipartisan support in the Senate. Further, the GOP’s refusal to recognize the Affordable Care Act (ACA) threatened to leave millions of Americans without health care and led to a government shutdown in 2013. They’ve threatened another shutdown over the funding of Planned Parenthood.
One may argue that House Republicans wish to remain true to their principles. They’ve defended their refusal to compromise on comprehensive immigration reform by citing conservative principles. The Senate bill, with its path to citizenship, rewards those who’ve broken the law, they say. They defended not compromising on the ACA on conservative grounds: it represents an expansion of state power. More recently, they defend defunding Planned Parenthood based on their belief in the right to life.
At first glance, these are all defensible conservative positions. The problem is that they don’t explain why conservative icons, generally admired by the Tea Party wing of the party, agreed to compromise in the past. Consider the founding fathers, a group often invoked by House conservatives. History tells us that the Federalists and Anti-Federalists failed to see eye-to-eye on the future of the new nation. However, they eventually compromised, paving the way to sustaining the model of modern democracy.
Even Ronald Reagan, perhaps the most revered figure among American conservatives, cut deals with congressional Democrats, granting amnesty to three million illegal immigrants with the Immigration Reform and Control Act and signing the Tax Reform Act of 1986.
Compromise, in short, is not anathema to conservatism. Indeed, the fact that Boehner was willing to cut deals while maintaining a lifetime conservative score of 94 (out of 100) from the American Conservative Union proves it.
Anxious about change
So, why was Boehner forced to surrender his gavel? Why is the Tea Party faction so dead set against compromise? The late historian Richard Hofstadter provides an answer. He argued that some on the right find change frightening. They wish to hold fast to the status quo. Of course, he was referring to the far right during the early 1960s as they reacted to the civil rights movement.
As Matt Barreto and I have argued, the Tea Party is similar to what Hofstadter observed in the 1960s.
Tea Party House members represent Americans who are anxious about the social changes that have taken place in the United States in the last few years. These changes include the election of the first nonwhite president, the increasing visibility of women in positions of power, the gay rights revolution, and the push to increase the rights of the undocumented.
Boehner’s forced retirement, and McCarthy’s inability to move forward with his candidacy, almost certainly had nothing to do with conservatism or lack of conservatism. It has more to do with a constituency riven with anxiety about a changing society. If they hope to avoid the same fate as former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who unexpectedly lost his primary to Tea Party candidate Dave Brat, House Republicans representing Tea Party-dominated districts must remain faithful to the preferences of their constituents, even if they know their actions are not in the interest of their constituents – or the country, in the long run.
Ironically, Boehner and McCarthy did what many politicians fail to do: they sacrificed political ambition for the common good. For Boehner, continuing as the speaker would have likely continued polarizing the GOP. Had McCarthy pressed on with his candidacy, the rift would have widened because he would have likely needed to secure votes from Democrats to win.
Healthy democracies require a loyal opposition: loyal to the principles on which the country was founded, capable of keeping the party in power honest, and able to furnish a credible alternative to the party in power. But a loyal opposition must exhibit some internal unity. In its present state, the GOP is in no position to play the role of loyal opposition.
The reactionary faction of the GOP has forced two strong voices of moderation out. Now, they would be wise to elect a speaker who will help them regain traction as the loyal opposition. They may find it instructive – comforting, even – to look at the examples of the founding fathers and Ronald Reagan. It’s important that the Republican Party gets its house in order and returns to playing its role as part of a well-functioning democracy in the United States.