Analysis | Chaos in Congress points to failures in the U.S. system

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The tumult this week in Washington rippled across the Atlantic. Policymakers and analysts in Europe looked with furrowed brows at the chaos consuming the House of Representatives, where a clutch of Republican hard-liners instigated the ousting of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Tuesday. With the chamber in paralysis, a new battle over funding the government looms next month, while boosters of Ukraine’s war effort fear Washington lawmakers may be unable to authorize crucial new installments of military aid.

But the concerns harbored by onlookers abroad grow far deeper. They see an American political system lurching down the path of dysfunction and a legislature increasingly dominated by politicians uninterested in actual governance or democratic deliberation. And they see the asymmetry of what’s in motion — where the Republican Party, beholden to former president Donald Trump and a far-right Trumpist base, is the principal vehicle for the destabilizing forces coursing through the American body politic.

McCarthy’s tenure, the first speaker to be voted out of his post in the House’s history, was a symptom of the problem. The pact he made with the radical fringe of his party to win power in January proved to be his undoing. But, as noted by an editorial in leading French newspaper Le Monde, the House’s disarray reflects the bigger issue of a legislature where gerrymandering and low voter participation in primaries has yielded a cadre of lawmakers who view compromise as “anathema,” especially among the GOP.

“What’s at stake is more than the fate of a man finally devoured by the tiger he thought he could outrun,” the editorial read. “It’s about the institutional functioning of the world’s leading power. … The field of ruins that the House of Representatives has become can only worry America’s allies and delight its adversaries.”

U.S. democracy slides toward ‘competitive authoritarianism’

On Oct. 3, the Republican-led House ousted Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from the speakership, in a charge led by a minority of his own caucus. (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post)

Central to the crisis is the “Trumpist infection,” observed Spanish daily El Pais, which lamented the former president’s “rehabilitation” after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, as well as the worrying implications of dozens of Republican lawmakers openly or tacitly endorsing Trump’s well-documented attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. “Corrosion has reached the heart of power with no plan other than chaos and the personal promotion of the minority group that has taken democracy hostage,” noted the El Pais editorial. It urged Washington’s elites to “put institutions ahead of politics.”

That’s easier said than done, not least when this week’s unprecedented episode highlights the frailties of those institutions. Roland Nelles, Washington bureau chief for German weekly Der Spiegel, wrote that McCarthy’s removal was an illustration of a system that “is rotting from within” and raised fresh questions about the viability of the U.S. model of democracy as an inspiration to nations elsewhere. “What hubris or stupidity lies behind the assumption that one’s own opinion alone can bring salvation?” Nelles asked, gesturing to the grandstanding of the Republican hard-liners who triggered McCarthy’s ouster.

U.S. scholars now warn of the ways in which the political structures bequeathed by a centuries-old Constitution — including the anachronistic electoral college, a Senate more empowered than most upper chambers in bicameral parliaments in other democracies, and a Supreme Court where justices have lifetime tenure — have arguably incentivized the far-right drift of the Republican Party, where numerous politicians now seem to reject some of the basic democratic rules of the game.

“America’s countermajoritarian institutions can manufacture authoritarian minorities into governing majorities,” wrote Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their new book, “Tyranny of the Minority.” “Far from checking authoritarian power, our institutions have begun to augment it.”

Squabbles, missteps and a struggle to govern: The Republican week that was

Among certain intellectual circles on the American right, there’s growing talk of the need for a “Red Caesar” — a quasi-autocratic figure who can purge the supposed “deep state” and what right-wingers view as the prevailing liberal technocratic establishment. Trump has already described his potential second term as one where he will essentially enact such an agenda. The current atmosphere of stasis and chaos is exciting to some far-right ideologues because it can stoke the popular desire for “Caesarism.”

“What precedes a democratic breakdown is political stalemate and extreme dysfunction where there’s a sense that nothing can get done,” Ziblatt told my colleagues. “When governments can’t respond in genuine crises, it has a delegitimizing effect, and it reinforces the sense among citizens that we have to resort to other means.”

European analysts look on with a grim fatalism. “The situation here terrifies people in Europe for two reasons,” Tara Varma, a French visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution, told me. First, because of its “immediate effect on European security,” given the possible drying up of U.S. assistance to Ukraine. And, second, because of a deeper “fear that what happens in the U.S. foreshadows developments in Europe,” Varma added.

Numerous parliaments on the other side of the pond are beset by their own growing dysfunctions. Political fragmentation is a common trend across the continent. Mainstream parties are flagging in the face of a growing hodgepodge of factions, many more radical and populist than the next. The increase in angry partisanship and polarization is making ruling coalitions more fragile, and governance all the more difficult.

A survey of 36,000 respondents in 30 countries around the world carried out by the Open Society Foundations turned up an alarming statistic: Only a narrow majority among younger respondents believed that democracy was preferable to other systems of government. More than a third of respondents between 18 and 35 said they would support a strongman leader who would do away with elections and assemblies.

“Today’s young people have grown up and been politicized as the age of polycrisis has emerged, during which forms of climate, economic, technological, and geopolitical turmoil have grown and reinforced each other to a degree never seen before,” Open Society Foundations president Mark Malloch Brown wrote. “So, although most people globally still have faith in democracy, that faith is running on fumes.”

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