To illustrate the level of dysfunctionality within the Grand Old Party and, indeed, US federal politics in general, one need look no further than the recent charade around the election of the Speaker of the House – the second in line to the president of the USA.
What becomes clear is the concerning normalisation of what would have previously been unthinkable lunatic fringe extremism.
To recap, following the loss of the 2022 midterm election, the Democratic Party Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, resigned. What then ensued in January 2023 was a tortuous week of wheeling and dealing on Capitol Hill that exposed sharp divisions in the Republican Party and raised fresh questions about whether Congress can function effectively.
Finally, after no fewer than 15 inconclusive elections, Kevin McCarthy was elected as Speaker.
“That was easy, huh? I never thought we would get up here,” McCarthy said with a laugh as he accepted the Speaker’s gavel.
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. And now we need to finish strong for the American people,” he added.
Sadly, it did not finish so well either. McCarthy must wonder whether that bruising ordeal was worth it. He had doled out so many concessions to his hardliner colleagues to get elected that he was hamstrung from the start.
He was repaid with disloyalty when the extremist wing of the party ousted him on 3 October.
Thus began the farce that takes us through to today.
The Republican hardliners then blocked the next candidate, Steve Scalise, on the basis that he was too moderate, before the extremist candidate Jim Jordan was upended by the so-called moderate faction of the party.
Finally, the party settled on Mike Johnson, a congressman from Louisiana, for two reasons. First, exhaustion – after three weeks of flailing around, the party simply had to align on the last man standing. Second, Johnson enjoys Donald Trump’s support, legitimising him to the majority of the party.
However, that is not to distract from what he stands for and has stood for throughout his political career.
Undoubtedly, he is the most polarising and extremist figure to be Speaker of the House since the Civil War. Not only has he been openly supportive of claims that the 2020 election was rigged against Donald Trump, but he is a Christian fundamentalist and biblical literalist.
Johnson has spent his career arguing that homosexuality is unnatural and should be illegal and, as co-author of the “life begins at conception” Bill, supports a federal outlawing of abortion in any circumstances.
The Harvard democracy scholar, Daniel Ziblatt – co-author with Steven Levitsky of the recent book Tyranny of the Minority – says a Johnson speakership is the most troubling sign of US democracy’s declining health since the 6 January 2021 attack on Capitol Hill.
The lunatics have literally stormed the asylum.
So, where to from here? First, the dysfunctionality of Congress is likely to hobble the federal democratic process. The Republican majority looks set to hijack Joe Biden’s runaway train of US Federal spending with the tools of repeated shutdowns and threatened debt defaults. This is no way to run a country.
Second, there are serious implications for US democracy if Johnson is still Speaker going into the US election next year.
Effectively being a Trump appointee, should Trump lose again, it is not hard to imagine what Johnson might try to engineer. Should Trump win, there will be nothing holding back the extremist bent of the House.
Expect increasingly draconian laws on abortion and other social issues, exacerbating ever-widening societal fissures.
Finally, there are global implications.
Since Johnson views debt as an issue of national security, new funds for Ukraine are doubtful, while providing more weapons and money to Israel is likely, given his religious bent.
The Republicans therefore may well hand victory to Putin in eastern Ukraine, forcing the embattled country into accepting a peace agreement by giving up a third of its territory. Clearly, in 2023 it is acceptable to claim and contest land through the barrel of a gun, in blatant disregard for international law.
Likewise, by continuing to support Israel, no matter what, even against UN and EU demands of a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, the precedent has been set that war crimes – at least when propagated by allies of the US – are admissible.
Such a stance will tear apart any fragile global consensus that humanitarian law should be respected. Not only will Israel’s mass slaughter of civilians in Gaza leave a stain on our collective conscience, but any pretence of America being a gilded “city on a hill”, with a democratic system setting it apart from the autocracies of Russia and China, has been exposed for what it is – a convenient lie.
As the US fiscal picture worsens, its political dysfunctionality risks becoming endemic and irreversible.
Currently, its economy is booming, thanks to the buoyant US consumer. However, this cannot continue forever; a slowing economy in 2024 could further accelerate the pace of fiscal and political decline.
The outlook for the guarantor of Western democratic legitimacy has rarely looked dimmer.
Perhaps it is no surprise then that so many in the emerging world – South Africa included – have long since ceased to view the US as the most relevant actor in their respective, increasingly complex, geopolitical contexts.
Whither America? DM