The Schadenfreude of the Speaker
As much fun as was had last week watching the hammering Speaker McCarthy took on the way to the gavel, if it really is "The People's House", then it's our house that's on fire. So what do we do?
Amid a week of intense hot takes (not my strength or desire) since Kevin McCarthy became Speaker of the House and constant prognostication about speaker McCarthy’s demise, it has been hard to discern how to contribute to the conversation. But I’ve have been unusually consumed by all the analysis paralysis, so felt like there’s something here to explore and share — even if partially baked.
First, what exactly did we just watch? The honest answer: we just don’t know yet. At some level we need to start with knowing what happened and what is happening and that’s going to take some patience.
What I am sure of is that this spectacle wasn't just a party in disarray. A Speaker fight won by someone seemingly incapable of negotiating his own majority (who it seems almost no one including his allies trust or expect genuine leadership from) and a known publicly accepted fraud sitting alone in the cheap seats waiting to be sworn in are connected — and are profound and painful reflections of our broader civic culture.
Our civic culture — whether we are willing to accept that or not. It is easy and convenient to compare the discipline of Democrats (essentially spectators with no role in the process) to the disarray of the GOP intraparty foodfight and suggest this is the failure of the Right to address the most extreme elements of their own caucus, to see this Chaos Caucus as an element of the same experiment that escaped the lab represented by President Trump of what happens when immorality is appeased and encouraged for the purpose of acquiring power. And while all those things are true, not working to define a civic culture capable of productive bridging means we cannot absolve ourselves on The Left of our part in the dysfunction.
It offends me to have to claim that, to accept my own culpability for this dysfunction. But I can’t have it both ways — I can’t repeatedly proclaim the importance of representation and government by the people and encourage participation and engagement and active citizenship as the foundation and answer to our ails AND then not accept the responsibility of what that engagement leads to when it isn't clearly defined and when moral boundaries and Machiavellian gambits like supporting extremists in GOP primaries because they might be easier to beat in generals leads to their legitimization and the sustained justification and acceptability of the unacceptable.
Second, what I also expect will emerge as true in the coming days and weeks is that the seemingly endless palace intrigue of the 118th Congress so far is revealing in increasingly stark relief just how dangerous our lack of shared commitments are about what it means to govern, what it means to agree on even the most basic things. How does a die-hard commitment to leverage and performance over service affect governing in an era of empty vessel leaders?
Speaker McCarthy presents as a purely transactional person — Lucy Caldwell most recently labeled McCarthy an empty vessel on last week's Politicology podcast. Congressman Santos isn't even a real person — he’s a living caricature. The stars of the Chaos Caucus have no history of serious participation or genuine commitment to service. And they all seem to come from no where… Why is it that these meteoric rises only seem to emerge amongst people who at least seem to believe nothing? Or at least present as a container that can be filled with whatever a person hopes might fit?
In a morally flexible era that features fraud and rage and attention-seeking celebrity as the key tools to advancement, consistent morality is a bug. It puts you on too firm a ground relative to variable, shifting public narratives that change too fast for you to stay out of the way of the wave. I have written repeatedly about how what has been caricatured as cancel culture is actually a desperate, ham-fisted attempt to grasp for more accountability or to redistribute respect in society as Noah Smith has said. But it creates indiscriminate waves of mob judgment incapable of nuance, empathy, or redemption. All things required in a society where we are meant to disagree productively and keep learning.
But in a culture where that is not possible, people of conviction will eventually sideline themselves by sticking to what they believe because the world is not perfectly moral or consistent and we often don't agree on what's right and wrong. That is the moral conflict at the heart of American politics that the left in particular tends to misinterpret as a fact versus crazy argument rather than engaging with the moral conflict as moral. But that also means that too often the ones who rise are the amoral ones. The empty ones. The ones whose ambition and grasp for power supersedes belief such that they are capable of riding every (and any) wave. And because they are invariably loud, their voices overshadow servant leaders and dominate too much of our civic life. People have often asked me why Democrats don't “just do what Trump did in 2016,” and my reply generally sounds something like, “I don't want them to be able to. In order to do that they would need to believe nothing and be willing to say anything with no moral guardrails. No north star. No governing idea of a good future.” This last week has been painful, not funny, watching McCarthy take the gavel in front of Santos while negotiating with Gaetz, Boebert, and Greene who now seem to be the most powerful people in the House. Like it or not, our American republic is a self-government as imperfect and unrepresentative as it may be. And while it may be a funhouse mirror of extremes and caricature, Congress is a mirror nonetheless — no matter how shocking or offensive.
If we are not willing to accept rules of a system to stay and live in community, if we are not willing to set boundaries on the mechanisms of power and stick to them especially in the face of losing both arguments and elections, if we are not willing to stretch tolerance and inclusion as far as we can and then stand firmly on the edges and say no to things that do no belong in our community, then we should not expect more from those who lead us. If our civic norms are mean and we continue to reward cruelty, our civic life will remain impatient and unkind in ways that continue to alienate us and make creative participation hard to rediscover.
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