The vote to impeach McCarthy, a warning to democracy

2023 10 03T205955Z 1693319832 RC28L3A47HVA RTRMADP 3 USA CONGRESS MCCARTHY Large
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) speaks on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in favor of his motion to vacate the chair of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and end McCarthy's continued leadership as Republican Speaker of the House, in this frame grab taken from live C-SPAN television footage shot at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. October 3, 2023. U.S. House of Representatives/C-SPAN/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. REFILE - FIXING HEADLINE

When the House of Representatives voted to impeach Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday, it marked a historic moment, signalling a sharp rebuke of his leadership and an intensification of the internal strife within the Republican Party. However, political scientists argue that this event carries a deeper significance, serving as a warning sign for the health of American democracy.

According to Daniel Ziblatt, a government professor at Harvard University, “If you want to know what a democracy in trouble looks like, this is what it looks like.” He emphasizes that this should raise concerns about the state of democracy in the United States.

Ziblatt, co-author of “Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point”, points out that the vote demonstrated how a small group of representatives entrenched in party ideology can wield significant influence over an entire institution. It also highlights the daunting challenge of achieving effective governance in the House, especially when facing critical decisions related to the budget and support for Ukraine.

Political scientists identify several interconnected reasons for Congress reaching this state of dysfunction. The influence of social media and sensationalist news channels has encouraged politicians to prioritize appearances for the camera rather than the interests of their constituents. This has fostered the creation of partisan echo chambers where party nominees are determined through primaries rather than general elections. Additionally, weakened political parties have succumbed to the influence of their most vocal and extremist members.

Collectively, these factors have led a small number of lawmakers to effectively paralyze one of the three branches of government. The group of eight Republicans who opposed McCarthy’s leadership, mainly representing the far-right Freedom Caucus, was outnumbered by 210 of their GOP colleagues who supported McCarthy. While these rebels represent just 1.8% of the country, all hailing from Republican districts, their combined votes with Democrats proved sufficient to oust McCarthy in a divided chamber. Led by Matt Gaetz of Florida, McCarthy’s opponents rejected spending increases and protested against certain government actions.

“Washington needs to change,” declared Gaetz from the House floor.

Experts argue that the actions of Gaetz and his allies have exacerbated the dysfunction, leaving the House without a clear path to effective leadership. While a government shutdown was narrowly averted this week, the looming threat of another shutdown next month and the crucial aid to Ukraine to counter Russian aggression hang in the balance.

Laura Blessing, a member of the Government Affairs Institute (GAI) at Georgetown University, said that these days we saw how a very small number of people in the Republican camp of the House of Representatives had an outsized role in causing dysfunction in Congress and in the fiscal sector. She added that those who voted against McCarthy are not only a minority in the House but also within their own party and lack the support to pass their own bills.

While recent events are disheartening, the prospect of what lies ahead is even more concerning. History has shown that government dysfunction can precede the erosion of democracy, making way for authoritarianism. According to Ziblatt, “Typically, the collapse of democracy is preceded by political deadlock and extreme dysfunction, giving the feeling that there is nothing left to do.” He underscored the importance of governments responding effectively to real crises to maintain legitimacy and prevent citizens from seeking alternative means of governance.

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