There is an old line which says that killing a king doesn’t make you a king, it merely makes you an assassin. This was not a line lost on the progenitors of democracy, for the Greeks knew intimately that the best way to remove an opponent was to slander them ruthlessly in the public square before ostracizing them, presenting their enemies with a choice — exile or death.
Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy chose death. Unlike Pericles who had a Cleon, and unlike Socrates who at the very least had a Thrasymachus, Speaker Kevin McCarthy had to settle for the modern political manifestation of Butthead — if Butthead had a proclivity for underage girls — namely one Rep. Matt Gaetz.
Lest this fact should be lost on anyone, in the 234-year history of the American Republic, not a single House Speaker has ever been removed on a motion to vacate. Yet true to his world, McCarthy honored his promise to the
Freedumb Freedom Caucus.
The mortal sin which McCarthy committed was nothing less than a vote on a continuing resolution to keep the government moving for another 45 days, minus funding for the Ukraine. House Democrats greedily sought the opportunity to knock out a responsible leader, only to realize perhaps too late that not only would the ostensible replacement — former Freedom Caucus leader Rep. Jim Jordan — will be ten times more combative than McCarthy, a delight to Trump-style populists but a putative disaster for progressives long-term. The specter of a widening Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza only makes the commitment to Ukraine more complicated, as House Republicans are eager to turn the condition into an either/or choice rather than a both/and proposition.
Now lest Democratic leaning readers revel too mightily in the Republican schadenfreude, it should be noted that at any point in time, eight Democratic lawmakers could have crossed the aisle and saved McCarthy’s bacon. Even radical centrists such as our very own rep. Abigail Spanberger refused to cross the line and honor what should have been a bi-partisan effort to prevent a government shutdown.
Instead, Democrats choose to play a cynical longer game, hoping that Speaker Jim Jordan will prove to be a disaster with the American public.
Yet after four years of the Trump presidency and another four years of Trump in the wilderness, it should dawn on rational observers that allowing more radical voices to disrupt and dominate the discourse only normalizes bad behavior. By cutting off the arms which extend the olive branches, we serve the purposes of the non-partisan uniparty rather than the bi-partisan spirit which concedes the political in favor of what is best for America.
Political parties are by definition totalitarian. Simone Weil talks about this phenomenon, and her observations continue to ring true:
- A political party is a machine to generate collective passions.
- A political party is an organisation designed to exert collective pressure upon the minds of all its individual members.
- The first objective and also the ultimate goal of any political party is its own growth, without limit.
From this, Weil condemns political partisanship as entirely totalitarian, with those who break party orthodoxy quickly branded as heretics and ostracized by the party — just as McCarthy and every other free-thinking patriot has been from Pericles to the present day.
Of course, partisans are going to — perhaps rightly — raise the question as to whether or not the party opposite would do likewise for them. How many Republicans from the Main Street Caucus would come to the rescue of a Blue Dog Democrat? How many Blue Dogs would come to the rescue of a Main Streeter (the answer, it seems, is zero).
Yet for those of us watching and considering an imitation of this dynamic, the stakes are much smaller and the impact much more local. Whether in Richmond or at the courthouse, at some point in time the decisions no longer impact an abstraction such as transportation funding or education funding, but that road, that school, this deputy, this teacher.
Which is where the totalitarian impulse can accurately be described as a disease created by the abstract rather than the personal. Where perhaps we forget that politics — a good politics — focuses on persons rather than ideological straightjackets. Where the politics of common cause and faith outweigh the rhetoric of division and fear.
Thomas Merton — that great Catholic ascetic — once argued that faith is not fanaticism because fanaticism is not free.
Fanatics make mistakes in pursuit of what they erroneously believe to be the highest good. Yet that good is nearly always an abstraction; the common good is to be found in each of us as persons free from abstractions. One does the right thing because it is right to do, not because there is advantage to be gained. That sort of thinking spoils the bunch.
So one wonders how free Spanberger really was to rally eight Democratic lawmakers to choose to rise to McCarthy’s defense? Or any other Democratic lawmaker for that matter? Certainly, Gaetz felt zero qualms about keeping his promise to play assassin rather than kingmaker.
Yet in the interest of the nation, would it not have been better for someone — anyone — to be the first to extend the olive branch and tell the extremes that their ability to issue the heckler’s veto over the common good stopped with them? Can we learn from that in our local and state politics and maybe — even against hope — expect better?
We have about a month to find out.
Shaun Kenney is a columnist for the FXBG Advance.