Representative Kevin McCarthy’s was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives of the 118th Congress, after a tumultuous week and 15 votes, the first time since 1859 that a Speaker went through such a long process. Democrats are described as having viewed with near-pleasure McCarthy’s difficulties to get Republican right-wing extremist to accept his candidacy, and US and international media have loudly proclaimed he is a seriously weakened Speaker.
Coincidentally, the vote came in the middle of the night of January 6, 2023, two years exactly after the attack on the same hallowed halls of the US Capitol, a moment where US democracy was seriously threatened. The reality is that US democratic institutions are more solid than some have predicted, they are functioning, in the confirmation of the results of the 2020 election, in the election by House Republicans of Speaker McCarthy, the second person in line to become President of the country after the Vice-President, just as they functioned in the Midterm elections on November 8, 2022, where there was considerable fear, after the January 6 insurrection, that the Midterms would be marred by political violence. None of the worse predictions came to pass, the 2022 Midterm elections were successfully completed with no significant outbreaks of violence, and the results were with rare exceptions universally accepted, even by the more than 300 candidates for office who proclaimed they refused the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Most of the political class and the media breathed a deep sigh of relief after the successful Midterm Election, the headlines reflected the general sentiment: “Democracy Survived the Midterms”, “American Democracy Won the Midterms”, “Democracy Makes a Comeback in 2022”, etc.
Is US democracy now safe, out of the woods? Not really.
Donald Trump is the first presidential candidate in all of US history to refuse to accept the result of a loss in a US presidential election, claiming the election of 2020 was stolen from him, in spite of overwhelming evidence that Joe Biden’s victory of both the Electoral College and popular vote were fair and legitimate. It is true that in spite of multiple efforts including his incitement of the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US capitol, US democratic institutions held against his efforts, Trump did not overturn the results of the election, Biden has been able to govern the US as its legitimate President since his inauguration. But Trump has succeeded in persuading a very large portion of the US electorate that the 2020 election was stolen from him. According to a poll organized by Newsweek in November, 2022, 40% of Americans believed the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, while only 36% of Americans disagreed with the contention that the election was stolen.
Can the US continue to function as a democracy if 40% of its population doesn’t believe in the results of a democratic election?
The relative poor performance of the Republican Party in the Midterms, and the loss in important races of many Trump-backed candidates, has led many commentators to consider that the Midterm results presaged a decline in the political fortunes of Trump, who according to this view is primed to be replaced as the Republican Presidential candidate by the likes of victorious Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
It is far too early, and in my view foolish, to make such a prediction, and the fact that McCarthy had to call on Trump to help him win over the most recalcitrant members of his caucus to get elected Speaker, certainly is not a sign of a decline of Trump’s control over the Republican Party. It is not difficult to imagine that the price McCarthy had to pay for Trump’s support includes a commitment to back the ex-President as the Republican presidential candidate in 2024.
So, America is back to normal: just as the Democrats were held hostage to every single Senator for the last two years because of a razor-thin majority in the Senate, so the razor-thin majority the Republicans have in the House will make them hostage to their extreme right-wing, and the concessions McCarthy made to get elected certainly presage poorly for any bipartisan cooperation between moderate Republicans and Democrats in the House. The US Government is divided, it will for the next two years experience gridlock, dysfunction and much acrimony, with ex-President Trump actively exercising his control over the Republican Party in anticipation of the 2024 Presidential election.