Congressional Monkeys of the Great Disappointment: Why We Need a Liberal Realignment
When politically incompetent MAGA authoritarians are steering the House speakership process, it’s time for a new consensus
I have never been happier to be able to say, “Not my monkeys, not my circus.”
To hold a House majority but be unable to choose a speaker for 14 rounds of votes stretching over days—coming to the verge of fisticuffs—was an excruciating humiliation. Republicans had looked forward just a few months ago to a “red wave” that would give them control of both houses of Congress. Instead, they lost seats in the Senate and got a House majority so slim that it struggled to perform its first and most basic job: choosing a leader. This kind of failure hasn’t happened in a century.
But that is not what is most extraordinary about this week. What is extraordinary is the people holding up the process: the same brand of Republicans that cost the party its red wave.
In any sane universe, the remaining members of the Trumpist, ultra-MAGA, election-denying faction that was widely rejected at the polls in November would be outcasts consigned to a long exile in the political wilderness. Instead, they are the ones scheming to increase their power.
The Paradox of Power
That’s what this circus was all about. The rebel Republicans, a group of 20 of the MAGA-est members of Congress—flamboyant provocateurs like Reps. Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert and Andy Biggs—have reportedly managed to extract a series of big concessions. They won more seats for their faction on the House Rules Committee and a promise by mainstream Republicans not to interfere against MAGA insurgents in Republican primaries. They are also demanding a change to budget rules that would make it harder to pass large omnibus spending packages, allowing a small faction to hold up funding bills to threaten a budget crisis or to cut off future funding for Ukraine, a surprisingly high priority for conservatives who envy Vladimir Putin’s traditionalist authoritarianism.
They also won a promise to change House rules to allow a single member alone to precipitate a vote to remove the speaker of the House. And that’s the real point here. It’s not really about any specific demand. The House rebels are doing this to show that they can—to remind the Republican establishment of its dependence on them.
In a way, they are doing this precisely because they lost Republicans the recent election and face the prospect of being shoved into the wilderness. They have to make demands in order to avoid becoming irrelevant.
That is the big paradox here. By doubling down on Donald Trump, and particularly through their embrace of “stolen election” conspiracy theories, the wing of the party led in part by these same House rebels cost Republicans seats in Congress and squandered their party’s natural advantages in a midterm election year in which inflation skyrocketed. Many of these rebels were themselves barely re-elected. In Colorado, Boebert won by a razor-thin margin in a usually safe district.
And yet here they are, acting as if they are the ones in a position to make demands.
‘The Great Disappointment’
This reminds me of a phenomenon you sometimes see in cults: A charismatic leader’s big prediction fails—for example, the end of the world refuses to arrive, resulting in a “Great Disappointment”—which seems as if it ought to disillusion his followers, yet it actually makes them more dogmatic. One reason is that even as the movement dwindles, the truest of the true believers all remain and form a larger portion of what’s left. There are fewer sparks of intellectual independence left to moderate the fanaticism.
Something similar has happened to the Republican Party. November’s result should spur them to make a clean break with Trump and the MAGA movement. But the same result leaves them so weak, with such a narrow majority, that they are more dependent on their crackpot fringe. It also leaves them with a habitually weak and irresolute leadership that is less likely to fight back. Meanwhile, the mavericks and independents who could pull them out of this mess have all been shown the door.
Over the past seven years, Republicans made a giant political bet that they could govern by appealing almost exclusively to their most fanatical base. That bet has failed, and the last, most humiliating stage is the discovery that this very failure makes them even more abjectly dependent on the crazy fringe.
The clear alternative was for mainstream Republicans to seek out reasonable Democrats and create a bipartisan leadership arrangement with a candidate who could work across the aisle, drawing on support from the sane center of both parties. Yet despite the obvious need, nobody seemed prepared to pursue a bipartisan option. Why not?
The Man in the Middle Problem
This is the point at which we would normally talk about seeking out “moderates” and having them join forces around the cause of moderation. But what cause is that, exactly?
Call this the Man in the Middle Problem. As I described it years ago while watching Joe Biden try to survive the Democratic primaries: “By definition, the moderate is the man in the middle. His position is always defined by a middle ground between radical alternatives, and it is the radicals who set the terms. The farther out to the left they move, the more he has to move in order to follow them.”
This indicates the wider problem. “Moderates” are defined by the extremes, so most Republicans and most Democrats think of themselves as just a moderate version of—what? Of the radicals. Each party lives in a combination of awe and fear of their side’s most far-out faction—the ultra-MAGA Trumpists for today’s Republicans, the Squad for Democrats. Most members of Congress may not like these factions, but they know that the most politically engaged partisans in their party’s base will target them if they denounce the radicals too loudly, or if they work too openly across party lines. Just look at the fate of Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who has been so thoroughly vilified and hounded for not granting “progressive” Democrats their whole wish list that she had to declare herself an independent. She now maintains a fragile modus vivendi with the Democratic leadership in the Senate.
What we need is a deeper ideological realignment. We need to transcend the usual “horseshoe politics” in which everyone defines themselves as a “centrist” caught between two illiberal extremes that are often indistinguishable from each other. We need a consensus that defines itself not by content-free “moderation,” but in terms of “liberalism” in the political philosopher’s sense, meaning advocacy of a free society and defense of the American political system.
Such a broad, ecumenical liberalism can encompass the more reasonable people from both parties. I have proposed a kind of “neo-classical liberalism,” attempting to find a common ground between the classical liberalism of the right and the “neoliberalism” of the market-friendly center-left. This would provide a realistic basis for a governing majority that would much more closely align with a broad majority of American voters, as the last few elections have shown. Such a liberal majority would consign the illiberal crazies to the irrelevance they have earned.
I will be the first to grant that there is a lot of political and cultural groundwork to be laid to prepare people for such a realignment. Politicians in particular tend to be very cautious about seizing an opportunity before its benefits are obvious and safe. But perhaps by highlighting the problems with the way things work now, the House leadership crisis can start us thinking more urgently about how to get there.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2023.