Laugh at McCarthy's Travails, but History Shows Chaotic Congress Isn't a JokeRoundup
tags: political history, Kevin McCarthy, House of Representatives, Congressional history
Dr. Freeman has spent her career as a historian analyzing political violence in America, in duels, in Congress and elsewhere.
In recent days, we’ve watched congressional Republicans reap the whirlwind. In campaigning for the 2022 midterm elections, the G.O.P. rode a wave of extremism, saying little about the politics of hate and denial practiced by some of its candidates in an effort to capture votes.
The party is now paying a price for its silence. Its members are grappling with the reality of working with people who loudly and proudly challenge political institutions and the democratic process — in a democratic institution. During the speakership battle, that small group of extremists held the House of Representatives hostage.
This was far from the first time the House was mired in a stalemate over the speakership. It’s the 15th such battle in Congress’s history and the ninth time that electing a speaker required more than three ballots.
Each of those times, the struggle was a litmus test of the state of party politics and the state of the nation. Our recent contest was much the same, exposing party fractures and irreconcilable differences, but unlike previous battles, it lacked a policy- and legislation-bound core. More than anything else, it was about power — a gap that reveals much about the state of the nation.
Take the speakership struggle of 1855-56, the longest in American history. It ultimately lasted two months and 133 ballots. Why? Because the fight over the fate of slavery created party chaos. The Whig Party was dying. The Democratic Party was splintered over slavery. A newer third party — the nativist Know Nothing Party (or the American Party) — had gained a bloc of seats, and there was an amorphous antislavery party forming: the Republican Party.
In this way, the 1855-56 speakership contest was like the present one. It was a product of fractured party politics. Finding one candidate who satisfied the many voting blocs was near impossible, and on the unyielding question of slavery, compromise was difficult, if not impossible.