This week of House Republican melodrama provided a depressing if revealing window into the character of one of two major political parties. This is obviously not something to be ignored. It’s not something we can afford to ignore. Our political parties are real-world facts, not story lines to be wished away.
But I don’t intend to dwell on the Republican party too much for the next few weeks, partly because too intense a focus on that could distort one’s overall view of things.
As Leo Strauss remarked,
It is safer to try to understand the low in the light of the high than the high in the light of the low. In doing the latter one necessarily distorts the high, whereas in doing the former one does not deprive the low of the freedom to reveal itself as fully as what it is.
So let us focus, for a while at least, and as much as is reasonably possible, on the high:
On Volodymyr Zelensky and the extraordinary citizens of Ukraine, who are fighting naked brutality with exemplary bravery.
On the courageous Iranians seeking to liberate themselves from those who oppress them based on the claim that the mass of mankind has been born with saddles on their backs, with a favored few booted and spurred, entitled to ride them by the claimed grace of god.
And on the efforts of all those here at home who have been working—and are working still—to defend and strengthen our democracy. Many of these Americans put their country first and their party and career last. I’d mention the work of the January 6 Committee in particular as a credit to our politics in an era of so much discredit.
Still, before turning my attention mostly to the admirable and the creditable: A word on the disagreeable and the discreditable.
Kevin McCarthy is now speaker of the House—the highest constitutional office in the land after the president and vice president. He is now second in line to the presidency. It is a powerful office, even if McCarthy won’t be among the most powerful of speakers.
He is our speaker. He is a Republican, but he does not merely act for Republicans. He is the speaker of the whole House. To some degree he represents all Americans.
Foreign leaders will visit him. President Biden and Majority Leader Schumer will have to deal with him (or at least first try to deal with him, before going around him). Business leaders, think-tank heads, representatives of many institutions of civil society—including those whose members disdain McCarthy and the Republican party that selected him—will have to attend to the speaker as they seek to represent their members, their interests, and their wishes.
Beyond that, the fact that Kevin McCarthy is now speaker is a reminder of the current balance of power in American politics. Despite some heartening results in November, the GOP was not decisively defeated. Republicans won not just a majority of seats in the House in 2022—they also won a majority of the popular vote for the House.
So, after two months of being cheered up by the election results (which were in fact cheering in important ways), we need to attend to the fact of Speaker McCarthy.
That fact is a very useful reminder there is much to worry about in the state of our politics.
Or to put it differently: The fact of Speaker McCarthy is a reminder that the current state of the Republican party isn’t just a problem for Republicans. It isn’t just a challenge to Republicans. It’s a problem for all of us. It’s a challenge to all of us.
Donald Trump called Kevin McCarthy “My Kevin,” a salutation that nicely captured McCarthy’s willing subservience to our worst president. “My Kevin” is now speaker of the House. My Kevin is now Our Kevin.
And that is our problem.