Ousting of Kevin McCarthy reflects today’s crisis of authority


Last Tuesday, before the eyes of a bewildered nation, Republicans in the House of Representatives committed the unnatural act of self-decapitation.

A revolt in Republican ranks, led by Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, resulted in the ouster of the Speaker, Kevin McCarthy.

As the headless chamber stumbled about in evident confusion, political commentators and ordinary Americans alike struggled to find a higher meaning in this baffling episode.

The facts of the matter are simple enough.

The Republicans hold a narrow majority in the House. McCarthy, who recently opened impeachment proceedings against President Biden but has worked with the administration to keep the government open, was much too partisan for the Democrats, who voted unanimously against him, but not nearly partisan enough for the eight Republican dissenters who joined them in the “motion to vacate” triggered by Gaetz.

That was enough to send McCarthy packing.

Never in the 234-year history of the House had a sitting Speaker been overthrown in mid-term.

It was a new thing under the sun. By any reckoning, McCarthy’s ouster was historic – or, in the language of the news media, “unprecedented,” a word that echoes like thunder in Washington, where the unprecedented has become appallingly commonplace. 

But what on earth did it mean? Once history is invoked, we should expect significant political change.

In this case, none has occurred. The next Speaker is likely to be an ally of McCarthy’s – neither Gaetz nor the Democrats will have much influence over that.

Gaetz’s expectations for the revolt were inscrutable. Was it a personal vendetta? Mere grandstanding? An ideological stance?

Or, as one wag has suggested, did he bring the House to a grinding halt for the hell of it – simply because he could?

Viewed in the proper perspective, the drama in the House transcends Washington’s petty dysfunctions and fits into a pattern that is global and secular: a crisis of authority that has battered institutions everywhere.

The primary cause of the crisis is a radical change in the structure of information.

Digital communications have given voice to an angry public and hurled it in a tectonic collision with the elites who run everything. 

The public considers the elites to be clueless, entitled, and deeply corrupt.

Faith in government has evaporated – remarkably, only 7% of Americans trust their assembled representatives in Congress, according to one poll.

The elites, for their part, are used to being admired and respected, and can’t understand why they are suddenly the despised villains of the movie. The destructive temper of the public terrifies them. Both sides, to some degree, are accurate in their assessments.

From the sadly misnamed Arab Spring of 2011 to the Black Lives Matter and January 6, 2021 riots, this subterranean conflict has been responsible for much of the turbulence rattling political life around the world and across society.

In this country, the Democratic Party is the home of an elite establishment that has tilted ever farther to the left. Its objective is to remain in power in perpetuity by controlling institutions like the media and the federal bureaucracy.

Since the rise of Donald Trump, the Republicans have been the party of populism and revolt. Like most populists, Republicans in office seem to have no particular political objective – no strategy, no program, not even a coherent ideology. They just wish to bask in the warm sunshine of eternal negation. The goal is to stand against.

McCarthy tried to weave a path through this treacherous landscape but in the end was caught in an impossible bind. As Republican leader, he became to the Democrats a sort of Trumpian ogre and disturber of the peace.

As Speaker of the House, he was perceived by hardline Republicans like Gaetz to be a part of the corrupt establishment.

There wasn’t enough middle ground to sustain his political career.

The digital environment has spawned strange political mutations, with Trump, of course, being the most outrageous and best known.

Gaetz belongs to a lesser branch of the same species. It’s clear from his statements that he has no idea of what he stands for.

He may actually think that standing for something is the equivalent of selling out to the establishment. To compensate, he is vehemently against everyone and everything – all Democrats, most Republicans, the Ukraine war, the entire city of Washington, DC, which he has said he wants to “change” in some indeterminate way. 

Breaking ranks with one’s party was once rare in Congress.

It came easily to Gaetz, and with good reason. We are often told by the media that our country is bitterly divided along partisan lines, but that is true only insofar as, at the ballot box, we are forced to go with one of two options. In reality, we have fractured like a fallen mirror.

The old mass audience, its tastes restricted by limited choices, was an artifice of the industrial age. The digital dispensation has shattered that consensus and the public lies scattered among the shards. 

Gaetz feels no loyalty to the Republican Party – a thoroughly smashed-up institution in any case. He dwells in a political bubble that may be as large as the eight Republican congressmen who sided with him, or as small as himself. His fanaticism is unanchored to any group or doctrine.

He’s the grand inquisitor of a church that does not exist. That may seem contradictory to the edge of delusion, but it allows him a great deal of flexibility in picking his fights.

A contest without consequences isn’t politics: it’s a performance.

The decapitation of the House lacked substance but was an amazing bit of theater. Yuval Levin has observed that institutions like Congress were once “formative,” shaping those who belonged to some code of behavior, but in the digital age have become “performative,” mere platforms on which self-important people strut their stuff to the uproarious delight of social media.

The elites on the left love to play-act their social justice virtues, for example.

The Trumpist right must at all times bellow its hostility to the established order. The point isn’t to do or change anything but to garner an audience. Political disputes have become an excuse to create viral content.

A performative politics requires a star system.

Big personalities will fill the space abandoned by broken institutions: in the digital landscape, power and celebrity status are increasingly difficult to tease apart.

For years Trump was a master of this game, generating one wild controversy after another, sucking up so much media attention that his opponents withered in his shadow. 

For Trump, attention was power: the performance was the thing.

Gaetz, a fervent disciple of the former president, engaged in his spectacular act of intraparty vandalism in the full knowledge that it would bring him notoriety.

He too is an agent of chaos and an avatar of the unprecedented. Gaetz is said to be considering a run for higher office in Florida.

Whether he can ride his moment of fame to personal power in the manner of the John Ford film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” remains to be seen.

The collision between the public and the elites is structural and will not abate until our institutions, and those who control them, come to terms with the digital. That may take a generation.

The crisis of authority can be expected to deepen as the 2024 presidential campaign season highlights the astronomical distance between the public’s expectations and our political reality. Kevin McCarthy’s abrupt and inexplicable dethronement as Speaker was merely a step in that direction.

If a higher meaning can be attached to the incident, it’s as a warning: fasten your seatbelt, we face a lot of turbulence ahead.

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