Members Only | January 5, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

The 19 are depoliticizing politics

Kevin McCarthy’s humiliation is a case study.


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Wednesday was yet another bad day for Kevin McCarthy, the second one in a row for the woeful California congressman. On Tuesday, he lost three rounds of voting to become the next speaker. Yesterday, he lost three more. The voting continues today. All House business is stopped until there’s a speaker. That includes swearing in members. Until then, there are, technically, zero representatives.

The obstacle is 19 members of the “Freedom Caucus.” They won’t budge. They keep voting for random no-name backbenchers, like Florida’s Byron Donalds. McCarthy has been staying up late trying to win over holdouts. His office feeds the press corps encouraging news, like the potential for concessions to lead to a breakthrough.

The problem is when human beings reject their own humanity and instead make-believe that they are entitled to extra-human powers that only a god is entitled to. 

That’s where the predicament begins.

Texas Congressman Pete Sessions said the key to a breakthrough is figuring out who the maga insurgents want as speaker. “Who are they now going to put up?” he said. “That is the question.” CNN host Laura Coates asked: “You don’t think McCarthy will secure [the speakership]?” Sessions: “I’m telling you, these 19 people are dug in.”

That’s where the predicament ends.

The 19 reject Kevin McCarthy, but they won’t send up a serious candidate either. McCarthy keeps offering concessions. They aren’t working. Can you offer something to those who don’t want it? Can you offer anything to those who change what they say they want?

A takeaway from McCarthy’s humiliation is that the chaos we’re seeing now is the chaos we will see over two years. There are other takeaways. Most are about the unknowable future and what might happen and why. That’s fine, but I’m more interested in what this tells us about the nature of American politics, about politics itself.

Bottom line: The 19 are depoliticizing politics.

This week’s paralysis is a case study.

When humans act like gods
The conventional way of thinking about radical ideologues like the 19 is this: they put politics over everything, even their own demands.

If that were the case, however, they would, first, have demands they had been committed to achieving and, second, be receptive to McCarthy’s offer to meet their demands. He put on the table seats on important committees, promises regarding government spending, and even power for the “Freedom Caucus” to fire him unilaterally.

But they are not committed to their own demands. 

They are not, therefore, receptive to McCarthy’s offers.

Politics doesn’t come and go. It isn’t arbitrary. It’s our natural state. Wherever there are human beings who organize themselves according to agreements made over relationships of power and interest, as well as demands for limited resources, there’s politics.

The problem, therefore, isn’t politics. The problem is when human beings reject their own humanity and instead make-believe that they are entitled to extra-human powers that only a god is entitled to. 

When humans act like gods, things stop.

When things stop, politics has been depoliticized.

Human world thrown into chaos
The House is literally stopped. 

Nothing can happen until there’s a speaker.

There can’t be a speaker until the 19 tell us what they want.

But when you make-believe that you’re a god, and that you’re entitled to extra-human powers that only a god is entitled to, you don’t have demands that any human can satisfy. Gods don’t negotiate. They don’t act politically. Their only interest is being treated like gods.

That’s as good an explanation as you’re going to find for the madness coming out of the “Freedom Caucus.” They say they want things, but it’s clear that these things are merely cover for something else – and that something else seems to be the desire to be treated as if they were above the human world of mundane politics – as if divine.

That throws the human world into chaos.

The exception to human politics
What do you do with political people who won’t act politically? 

I don’t know. 

What I do know is this refusal to engage in politics is a signature aspect of the GOP that’s virtually ignored by the press and pundit corps. The Republicans, especially the radical ideologues in the “Freedom Caucus,” regularly hold themselves above the world of mundane human politics. They act as if, because they are God’s chosen, they are the exception to the rules – like equality – that govern the lives of everyone else. 

If they are not the exception, they change the rules. 

Or they don’t.

McCarthy is still the majority leader. He could hold a vote right now to appoint someone to swear in the new Congress. He could hold a vote to change any House rule requiring a simple majority. McCarthy could, in other words, take action to restart and facilitate politics. 

He won’t, though.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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