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The chaos in Congress this week didn’t happen overnight. It has been building to this for a long time, well before the Trump era.
American politics has been sliding into crisis and dysfunction for more than a decade, and the total breakdown in the House over Kevin McCarthy’s ouster as speaker is only the latest chapter in a longer story.
First of all, U.S. politics has become increasingly zero-sum over the past three decades.
But then, in addition, the Republican Party has become more antigovernment over the past 10 to 15 years. Many believe the GOP is two parties: One half of it quite conservative yet still interested in productive government, but it's in competition with another faction that just wants to suffocate the federal government wherever possible.
Changes in the media have encouraged politicians to perform rather than solve problems. Former President Donald Trump’s divisive style of politics has intensified acrimony and distrust. And Democrats have been unable to capitalize on Republican dysfunction.
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Democrats controlled the House of Representatives, with a large majority, for much of the 20th century. That began to change in the 1990s, when Republicans captured control of the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years.
Since then, Republicans and Democrats have alternated holding power in Congress, both in the House and Senate. Political scientists have argued this creates a harder-edged political culture that pushes each party to hold back from compromise.
The GOP becomes more antigovernment
In 2010, Republicans won a huge majority of 49 seats. That was the year of the Tea Party, a new movement inside the GOP to cut government spending.
But Republican insistence on spending cuts went so far as to create numerous government shutdowns and a debt-ceiling crisis. This began a period in which Congress lurched from crisis to crisis, much of it driven by hard-liners on the right who were not upset if the government shut down.
While some Republicans want to work within the political system to make conservative laws, many in the GOP now “are happy for nothing to happen,” said former congressman Daniel Lipinski, who was a conservative Democrat from Illinois in the House from 2005 to 2021.
Lipinski said many Republicans go back to their districts and boast, “Hey, I've stopped things from happening.” The previous two Republicans who were House speaker before McCarthy ended up quitting due to how difficult it was to govern with a Republican majority.
The modern media carnival
Ambitious politicians now can carve out a career and make a healthy living by simply fighting the other party and crowing about it to their supporters. Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican who spearheaded the removal of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy this week, is one example.
But the list of politicians in both parties who are revered by partisan voters and activists because they “own” the other party is long.
Modern media is a big reason for this. The work of passing laws is hard, grinding labor that often takes years. It used to be rewarded by voters and party leaders. But politicians now can jump up the career ladder by going on cable TV and saying provocative things.
Being a bomb-thrower increases TV ratings and makes the networks money, and it gives the politicians attention. Politicians can leverage that attention into influence over their party leaders and can raise lots of money over the internet through small donations of $5 and $10.
The Trump effect
The former president often baited Democrats and the press into expressing outrage, by saying and doing outrageous things.
Sometimes the outrage was commensurate with the offense, and sometimes it was not. But the Trump era has had an acidic effect on relations between Republicans and Democrats, sucking good will out of politics and infusing it with contempt and fear of the other side.
Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle said American politics is in “blood feud mode,” where “everyone thinks a really spectacular, impressive punishment is all that's needed to … avenge past wrongs and … deter further transgressions.”
“What it actually does,” she wrote, “is invite even grander retaliation.”
The Democratic response
The ouster of Kevin McCarthy from the House speakership is a good example of the challenge Democrats have faced many times over the past decade and then especially with Trump as the GOP’s leader. The Republican Party has adopted increasingly hardball tactics; some members even tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and so many Democrats have felt they should respond aggressively in retaliation.
In this instance, they did not trust McCarthy. They believed he had enabled Trump to return to power after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, which endangered democratic stability and the lives of members of Congress from both parties. They resented many actions he had taken that seemed to them unfair and extreme.
But McCarthy was targeted for removal by eight Republicans because he dared to pass a bill last weekend funding the government and avoiding a shutdown. That compromise bill to keep the government open drew support from all but one House Democrat and was opposed by 90 House Republicans.
Gaetz and his small band of right-wing rebels moved to oust McCarthy for this crime of bipartisan problem-solving. And 208 Democrats went along with that.
“What I assume happened is Democrats decided it was in their short-term political interests,” Lipinski, the former Democratic congressman, said.
It sent the wrong message to future Republican leaders, Lipinski said. And it won’t make the GOP more moderate, McArdle added, because of how primary elections give extremists more power than moderates.
So the tit-for-tat doom spiral of the past decade continues. And now, most immediately, another government shutdown looms in November, and U.S. support for Ukraine from Russian invasion is at risk. Beyond that, the U.S. government is facing a potential debt crisis.