Friday, February 5, 2021

Congress On the Record

As Jonathan Kirshner recently wrote in  "Gone But Not Forgotten: Trump's Long Shadow and the End of American Credibility," Foreign Affairs (March/April 2021), "the world cannot unsee the Trump presidency. (Nor, for that matter, can it unsee the way members of the U.S. Congress behaved in the final weeks of the Trump administration, voting opportunistically to overturn an election and helping incite violence at the Capitol.)"

Kirshner was considering the impact on international relations, but the point applies as much (or maybe more) at home. Thus it was that, this week, the members of the House of Representatives had to cast a public, on-the-record vote (in contrast to an earlier, cowardly secret ballot on Liz Cheney in the Republican Caucus) on whether or not to allow the now infamous freshman congresswoman from Q-Anon to sit on congressional committees - in other words, whether or not to hold her personally accountable for her hateful and threatening behavior. The House as a whole rose to this unprecedented challenge and voted 230-199 to remove Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from her congressional committees, and eleven Republicans joined the 219 Democrats in voting "Yes" on the motion. But 199 Republicans publicly voted “No” - in other words, announcing to the entire world their unwillingness to express public disapproval of hateful and threatening behavior, even when directed at fellow congressmen and congresswomen and thus undermining the very institutions at the heart of constitutional governance.

For better or for worse, the institutions of American politics push us toward a two-party system, which means that, instead of multiple parties competing for votes in an election and then forming coalitions afterwards in order to govern, we are saddled with two parties competing for votes, parties which themselves are inevitably themselves pre-election coalitions. Both parties' coalitions inevitably include centrist and more extreme elements. In the contemporary Republican party, however, what is left of the center-right, "conservative," "establishment" component of the Republican coalition is increasingly diminished, while the more extreme, anti-democracy, "populist" faction seems to be increasingly in charge. The growing size and power of this more extreme, anti-democracy, "populist" base of the party is not so much a creation of the Trump presidency as it is something more fully revealed and empowered by the Trump presidency, Trump having figured out how to capitalize effectively on the political bankruptcy of the "conservative" elite.

That said, a two-party democracy depends on both parties sharing a common commitment to constitutional democratic institutions and practices - at minimum, for example, elections and the peaceful acceptance of the legitimacy of electoral outcomes and a constitutive commitment to peaceful political competition, which precludes threatening or seeming to threaten public officials. That most Republican members of the House voted in support of Representative Greene and that so many (even under the protective cover of a secret ballot) voted against Representative Cheney does not auger well for the present and future health of American, two-party, constitutional democracy.

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