‘Chaos Doesn’t Scare Me. American Decline Does.’

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By Ketrin Agustine

‘Chaos Doesn’t Scare Me. American Decline Does.’

Jim Jordan’s bid last week to become speaker of the House — together with the withdrawal on Tuesday of Thomas Emmer from his campaign for the same job — revealed not only how far House Republicans have moved to the right, but also how weak the intraparty forces for moderation have become.

The full House, including all 212 Democrats, rejected Jordan in the first floor vote, but 90 percent of Republicans backed the election-denying Trump avatar.

Minutes before Emmer withdrew from the race yesterday, Politico reported that Donald Trump told an associate, “He’s done. It’s over. I killed him.” It was, according to Politico, a reflection of Trump’s veto power among House Republicans — “that while Trump may not be able to elevate someone to the post — his earlier choice for the job, Jordan, flopped — he can ensure that a person doesn’t get it.”

Lee Drutman, a political scientist and senior fellow at New America, published a piece on Oct. 20 on his Substack, “The U.S. House Has Sailed Into Dangerously Uncharted Territory. There’s No Going Back.”

“Republicans have moved far to the right and polarization is at record highs,” Druckman wrote, citing a measure of ideological polarization between House Democrats and Republicans known as DWNominate which shows House Republicans moving steadily to the right, starting in 1968, reaching a level in 2022 substantially higher than at any point in time since 1880.

House Democrats, in contrast, moved very slightly to the left over the same 1968-2022 period.

I asked Drutman whether he thought House Republicans could move further right. He replied by email:

Hard to say. We keep thinking the G.O.P. can’t move any further to the right and still win nationally, and yet, when more than 90 percent of districts are safe, and the Democratic Party is equally unpopular, and there are only two parties. the G.O.P. can win in too many places just by not being the Democrats.

In 2022, Drutman continued, “the G.O.P. definitely paid a small but significant MAGA penalty. So I want to say there are limits, and that I really do hope we are close to reaching them. But I wouldn’t bank on that hope.”

For those banking on hope, a closer examination of the Oct. 17 ballot I mentioned earlier, when Jordan won the votes of 200 of the 221 Republican members of the House, may dampen optimism.

Not only did the Republican Caucus overwhelmingly back Jordan, but the intraparty forces that would normally press for centrist policies failed to do so.

There are 18 Republicans who represent districts President Biden carried in 2020. These members, more than others, were forced to choose between voting for Jordan and facing sharp criticism in their districts, or voting against him and facing a potential primary challenger.

This group voted two to one (12-6) for Jordan, deciding, in effect, that the threat of a primary challenge was more dangerous to their political futures than the fallout in their Democratic-leaning districts from voting for Jordan.

Or take the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which describes its members as “tired of the obstructionism in Washington where partisan politics is too often prioritized over governing and what is best for the country.” Jordan’s approach to legislation and policymaking embodies what the problem solvers are tired of.

Despite that, the Republican members of the caucus voted decisively for Jordan, 21-8, including the co-chairman of the caucus — Brian Fitzpatrick, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Tom Kean, the son and namesake of the distinctly moderate former governor of New Jersey

In a statement posted on the Problem Solvers’ website, Kean declared that he joined the group “to help find solutions for families and businesses in New Jersey. Every day of gridlock in Washington is another day that issues impacting my constituents at home go unaddressed.”

A third overlapping group, The Republican Governance Group, would, in normal times, be a bastion of opposition to Jordan. The governance group calls for “common-sense legislation on issues including health care, energy, infrastructure and work force development” and its members “represent the most marginal, swing districts, and are ranked among the most bipartisan and most effective lawmakers on Capitol Hill.”

The conference declares that it “needs to lead in a time when partisan gridlock often derails progress.”

How did its members vote on Jordan? More than three quarters, 32, voted to make Jordan speaker; 10 voted against him.

In the middle of the weeklong Jordan-for-speaker saga, Ronald Brownstein, a senior editor at The Atlantic, wrote in “The Threat to Democracy Is Coming From Inside the U.S. House” that win or lose,

Jordan’s rise, like Trump’s own commanding lead in the 2024 GOP presidential race, provides more evidence that for the first time since the Civil War, the dominant faction in one of America’s two major parties is no longer committed to the principles of democracy as the U.S. has known them.

Each time the Republican Party has had an opportunity to distance itself from Trump, Brownstein continued,

It has roared past the exit ramp and reaffirmed its commitment. At each moment of crisis for him, the handful of Republicans who condemned his behavior were swamped by his fervid supporters until resistance in the party crumbled.

Earlier this week, Nate Cohn, a Times colleague, wrote in “Fight for Speaker Reveals Four Types of House Republicans”:

Mr. Jordan fell short of winning the gavel three times. But his failed bid nonetheless revealed that the ultraconservative faction of congressional Republicans is larger in number and potentially more broadly acceptable to mainstream congressional Republicans than might have been known otherwise.

An examination of the votes, Cohn continued, suggests

that nearly half of congressional Republicans are sympathetic to Mr. Jordan and the conservative right wing, putting anti-establishment outsiders within striking distance of becoming the predominant faction in the House Republican conference. It suggests that the party’s right wing could, under circumstances not necessarily too different from those today, make a serious bid for House leadership — and win.

The analyses above focus on the 90 percent of Republicans who voted for Jordan as evidence of the party’s rightward shift.

There is an alternative approach: to focus on the 20-plus dissenters. This approach leads to different conclusions.

An Oct. 19 Times article by my news-side colleague Catie Edmondson, for example, was headlined, “Mainstream Republicans, ‘Squishes’ No More, Dig in Against Jordan.”

Focusing on the small group of Republicans who rejected Jordan, Edmondson wrote:

In a remarkable reversal of roles, a group of roughly 20 veteran Republicans, including institutionalists and lawmakers in politically competitive districts, are flexing their muscles against Mr. Jordan’s candidacy. Their choice to do so has prolonged an extraordinary period of paralysis in the House, which began more than two weeks ago when the hard right deposed Kevin McCarthy as speaker. It has continued as Republicans wage an extraordinary feud over who should replace him.

The next day, a Washington Post article by Jacqueline Alemany, “Concerns About Jordan’s Election Denialism Flare During Failed Bid for Speaker,” made the case that Jordan’s refusal to accept the outcome of the 2020 election proved to be a significant factor in his defeat.

Alemany wrote:

As Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) waged his battle to become House speaker, some House Republicans were uncomfortable with the possibility of having an election denier occupying the most powerful legislative seat in the U.S. government heading into a presidential election year.

I asked Matthew Green, a political scientist at Catholic University, whether it was more significant that House Republicans could not come up with enough votes to push either Steve Scalise or Jordan over the top or that both Scalise and Jordan actually received plus or minus 200 votes each? He emailed back:

I think it’s more significant that neither Scalise nor Jordan could get the votes they needed to be elected Speaker. It’s a norm for lawmakers to vote for their party’s nominee for Speaker, no matter how odious they may find that person. That the G.O.P. could not keep McCarthy in power or immediately elect a replacement, even at the risk of extended paralysis of the House and major damage to the party’s reputation, signifies just how weak and divided the Republican Conference is right now.

There is little doubt that the three-week-long struggle, still unresolved, to pick a new speaker is quite likely to inflict some costs on Republicans.

First and foremost, if, as appears possible, the government is forced to shut down because of a failure to reach agreement on federal spending, Republicans have set themselves up to take the fall when the public decides which party is at fault.

Previous government shutdowns, especially those in 1995 and 1996, backfired on Republicans, reviving Bill Clinton’s re-election prospects to the point that he won easily in November.

I asked Kevin Kosar, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, about the current situation, and he emailed back: “A failure to choose a speaker before appropriations expire and the government shutdowns — that would look bad to many voters.”

The Jordan campaign for speaker may turn into a liability for Republican members in districts won by Biden in 2020.

After Fitzpatrick voted for Jordan, his probable Democratic challenger, Ashley Ehasz, a West Point graduate and combat veteran, declared:

Brian Fitzpatrick has campaigned on his supposed commitment to reaching across the aisle and solving problems — but time and again his votes have shown who he really is. He voted to install an anti-abortion, election-denying extremist as speaker and has made his values perfectly clear.

Sue Altman, executive director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance and the probable Democratic challenger to Kean, said, after Kean voted for Jordan:

Tom Kean Jr. just voted for a man who in his personal life helped cover up sexual abuse and in his political life tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election and pass a national abortion ban. This is not the Republican Party of Tom Kean Jr.’s father, and Tom Kean Jr. has done nothing but enable the most extreme elements of his own party instead of being a voice for moderation. Jim Jordan is a radical election denier who does not represent the values of this district and Tom Kean Jr. should be ashamed of his vote.

I asked Michael Olson, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, about the possible costs of a Jordan vote for these 12 Republicans in Democratic-leaning seats. He replied by email:

Concerns about appearing extreme should be particularly acute for these legislators. Most won by quite narrow margins. Voters do care about extremism on the margins — more extreme candidates seem to be more likely to subsequently lose — so a vote for Jordan could be a real liability in a campaign, or a vote against him a real feather in these folks’ caps as they try to establish their independent bona fides.

The political calculus of these 12 Republicans is, however, complicated. Olson cited a 2023 paper, “A Good Partisan? Ideology, Loyalty and Public Evaluations of Members of Congress,” by Geoffrey Sheagley, Logan Dancey and John Henderson that reveals the difficulty of the choices facing members of Congress.

Using poll data on the vote to impeach Donald Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection, Sheagley, Dancey and Henderson write that Democrats are:

More approving of a Republican representative who voted to impeach Trump. Republican respondents, however, are more approving of a conservative Republican representative and less approving of a representative who voted to impeach Trump.

For a Republican deciding whether to vote for or against a Trump impeachment, the loss of support among Republican voters far outweighs the gains from Democrats: “Approval for a Republican representative who voted to impeach Trump decreases by nearly a full point on the 4-point approval scale, while support among Democrats increases by only half a point.”

The political implications of this choice are, however, very different for a Republican evaluating prospects in a closed primary in which no Democrats can vote, than in the general election, when Democrats do cast ballots.

I asked Dancey, a political scientist at Wesleyan, about the calculations a Republican in a Democratic district has to make and he emailed back to say that a vote against Jordan would not prove excessively costly in November:

In a general election matchup where the main choice is between a Republican and a Democrat, I suspect that the vast majority of Republican voters would stick with a Republican candidate who voted against Jordan. Even if they don’t like the position the Republican took on that one vote, they won’t see the Democratic candidate as a better option.

In contrast, Dancey continued,

Voting for Jordan carries some risk of losing support from independents and moderate Democrats in the general election, especially since Jordan received Trump’s endorsement. Republicans running in Biden districts have incentives to create an image as a more independent-minded Republican who isn’t fully aligned with Trump.

That said, Darcey wrote, “Jordan is a less high-profile figure than Trump and at this point isn’t on track to actually become speaker. As a result, I doubt this one vote will be as consequential as something like voting to impeach Trump.”

Perhaps most damaging to Republicans is the perception that they are dominated by a group more determined to wreak havoc than to govern.

In 2019, I looked at a small percentage of voters committed “to unleash chaos to ‘burn down’ the entire political order in the hope they gain status in the process.”

The notion was salient once more on Oct. 3, when a cadre of eight Republican members of the House — led by Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida — brought down Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Gaetz evoked havoc again on Oct. 19 when he posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter:

Ever seen a SWAMP actually drained? This Florida Man has. It’s not orderly. Turns out, the alligators & snakes get unruly when the comfort of their habitat is disrupted. Chaos doesn’t scare me. American decline does.

I asked Kevin Arceneaux, a political scientist at Sciences Po Paris and lead author of the 2021 paper “Some People Just Want to Watch the World Burn: the Prevalence, Psychology and Politics of the ‘Need for Chaos,’ ” about the role of Gaetz and his seven allies. Arceneaux emailed back that he has no way of knowing, without conducting tests and interviews, how the eight “would answer the need for chaos survey items.”

But, Arceneaux added, “their behavior is certainly consistent with the ‘burn-it-all-down’ mentality that we found associated with the need for chaos.”

In addition, he continued,

We also found that a drive to obtain status along with a sense that one’s group has lost social status increases one’s need for chaos. It would be interesting to study whether Freedom Caucus members are more preoccupied with concerns about status loss relative to other Republicans. If so, that would offer some circumstantial evidence that a need for chaos could at least partly explain their willingness to damage their own party.

I asked Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, for his perspective on recent events in the House. He replied by email:

I’ve long thought that a party’s drift to the ideological extreme would inevitably be stopped and reversed to a certain degree by big defeats that force party voters to come to terms with pragmatic reality. These days, I’m starting to believe that Republicans moving headlong to the right may just give in to the inertia of motion and continue their lunge toward extremism until they can no longer win an overall majority. I’m not convinced of this yet, but the G.O.P. has put the idea on the table.

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