Off with their heads! The authoritarian populist revolt in the House of Representatives

So here I am, hoping to defend my dissertation on conservative views on undocumented migration soon—a dissertation researched and written with a view of conservatism not as monolithic but rather as composed of several tendencies—and the Speaker of the House, John Boehner (figure 1), a functionalist conservative, announces his resignation under fire from authoritarian populists.[1] The latter, presently known as the “Tea Party,” want to shut down the government unless funding for Planned Parenthood is eliminated from the budget.[2] Planned Parenthood isn’t all of it: There are also “the Export-Import Bank, debates over military vs. domestic spending, the Iran nuclear deal and the debt limit all threatening to play a part in at least a temporary government shutdown.”[3] Functionalist conservatives were determined to avoid yet another shutdown.[4] And so the authoritarian populists floated a dubious plan to push Boehner aside.[5]

Fig. 1. John Boehner wields the Speaker’s gavel. CNN, fair use.

To say the least, Boehner’s resignation was unexpected. “‘Last night I started thinking about this and this morning I woke up and I said my prayers — as I always do — and I decided today’s the day I’m going to do this. As simple as that,’ Boehner said during an emotional Capitol Hill press conference a day after he had a moving encounter with Pope Francis.”[6] A lot of people are wondering how it really changes anything, or more bluntly, saying flatly that it does not.[7] As Tierney Sneed put it,

the dynamics driving [authoritarian populist] frustration will remain the same after Boehner’s departure. No matter how badly conservatives want to repeal Obamacare, defund Planned Parenthood or block the Iran deal, the reality of a Democratic filibuster in the Senate and presidential veto in the White House will only get them so far.

“We are going to have Obama as President, we are going to have Pelosi and Reid as minority leaders, and we have McConnell who continues to fail to lift the filibuster, so we’re not going to get our agenda done as it comes out of the House,” Rep. Bill Flores (R TX) told reporters Friday. “And you’re going to have a new Speaker, who is going to have to wonder if he or she is the next person to lose their head.”[8]

[House Ethics Committee Chairman Charlie Dent (R-Pa.)] accused [hard-line conservatives] of opposing Boehner at every turn, and noted they have “never had a horse of their own.”

“Any jackass can kick down a barn door. It takes a carpenter to hang one. We need a few more carpenters around here. Everybody knows it,” Dent said off the House floor.[9]

There’s some talk that “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) may need to be the next GOP leader on the chopping block, particularly for his unwillingness to get rid of the Senate filibuster.”[10] But Senator Ted Cruz, who might well favor such a move,[11] is not the Senate.[12] So far, in a drama that now dates back several years, the Senate has remained temperamentally different from the House. I don’t believe that McConnell is, by any stretch of the imagination, the only problem authoritarian populists have there. All of which really leaves Dan Balz’s question unanswered: “Can a party so riven by anger, a party divided over confrontation vs. compromise, actually govern in Washington?”[13]

A lot of this seems driven by an animosity toward Barack Obama that, as I note in my forthcoming dissertation, bodes ill for anyone who understands government as a product of negotiation and compromise. While I do not doubt that some of this antipathy is due to his race,[14] there was also a segment of conservatism that rejected Bill Clinton’s (and I suspect Jimmy Carter’s) legitimacy simply because—apparently—they are Democrats. Republicans, therefore, might seem capable of governing with a Republican but not a Democratic president.

This is somewhat surprising and even incomprehensible to me. Talk about how “the party of Eisenhower and Reagan is no more”[15] is nonsense. Writing for the American Conservative, Bruce Bartlett argues that Obama governs as a moderate Republican—like Richard Nixon.[16] And the truth is that even the Democrats long ago moved to the right of Eisenhower. In many ways, Obama in fact governs as a neoconservative.[17] And I might find the progressives whom Obama has repeatedly thrown under the bus[18] a lot more compelling if they manifested anything like the anger to be found on the right, but in truth, far too many of them are far too comfortable with the status quo. So apart from race and party, I’m left wondering what all the authoritarian populist fury really is about.

Authoritarian populists do have one legitimate grievance: They have been sucker-punched on so-called “free” trade. Many of them have lost jobs that have gone overseas.[19] But much of the rest of their rhetoric is ignorant and racist bullshit. In my dissertation, I find reason to doubt a distinction between authoritarian populism and paleoconservatism, the latter being a grouping that includes white supremacists.

Ironically, the received wisdom now is that there will be no government shutdown but instead a “clean” continuing resolution. Which, among other things, means at least in the short term, there will be no cutoff of funds for Planned Parenthood.[20] If authoritarian populists are in fact capable of governing under present circumstances, they sure seem to have pulled a bonehead move here.[21]

  1. [1]Dana Bash et al., “House Speaker John Boehner: ‘I decided today is the day’,” CNN, September 25, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/25/politics/john-boehner-resigning-as-speaker/index.html; Jennifer Steinhauer, “John Boehner, House Speaker, Will Resign From Congress,” New York Times, September 25, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/26/us/john-boehner-to-resign-from-congress.html
  2. [2]Kristina Peterson and Siobhan Hughes, “John Boehner and His Patience Are Tested Anew by GOP Lawmakers,” Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/john-boehner-and-his-patience-are-tested-anew-by-gop-lawmakers-1442179120; Amber Phillips, “Get ready: Experts say a government shutdown is now even more likely,” Washington Post, September 14, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/09/09/get-ready-experts-say-a-government-shutdown-is-likely/; Todd S. Purdum, “The Cannibal Party: Being a GOP House speaker might be the worst job in Washington,” Politico, September 25, 2015, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/09/boehner-resignation-house-speaker-history-21319; Scott Wong, “House conservatives warm to McCarthy as Speaker,” Hill, September 15, 2015, http://thehill.com/homenews/house/253744-house-conservatives-warm-to-mccarthy-as-speaker
  3. [3]Amber Phillips, “Get ready: Experts say a government shutdown is now even more likely,” Washington Post, September 14, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/09/09/get-ready-experts-say-a-government-shutdown-is-likely/
  4. [4]Alexander Bolton, “Here we go again: Cruz vs. McConnell and Boehner,” Hill, September 24, 2015, http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/254743-here-we-go-again-cruz-vs-mcconnell-and-boehner; Tierney Sneed, “Anti-Abortion Hardliners Not Budging In Shutdown Fight With GOP Leaders,” Talking Points Memo, September 15, 2015, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/dc/government-shutdown-fight-abortion; Peter Sullivan, “Boehner, Pelosi huddle ahead of funding showdown,” Hill, September 17, 2015, http://thehill.com/homenews/254134-boehner-pelosi-huddle-ahead-of-funding-showdown
  5. [5]Gregory Koger, “The revolt against John Boehner: Worst. Plan. Ever,” Vox, September 16, 2015, http://www.vox.com/mischiefs-of-faction/2015/9/16/9334293/boehner-revolt-bad
  6. [6]Dana Bash et al., “House Speaker John Boehner: ‘I decided today is the day’,” CNN, September 25, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/25/politics/john-boehner-resigning-as-speaker/index.html
  7. [7]Dan Balz, “For Republicans, questions of who can lead them and can they govern?” Washington Post, September 25, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/for-republicans-questions-of-who-can-lead-them-and-can-they-govern/2015/09/25/34f45c74-639d-11e5-9757-e49273f05f65_story.html; Todd S. Purdum, “The Cannibal Party: Being a GOP House speaker might be the worst job in Washington,” Politico, September 25, 2015, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/09/boehner-resignation-house-speaker-history-213193; Tierney Sneed, “Republicans Openly Wonder: Will Kicking Boehner To The Curb Change Anything?” Talking Points Memo, September 25, 2015, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/dc/boehner-replacement-gop-turmoil
  8. [8]Tierney Sneed, “Republicans Openly Wonder: Will Kicking Boehner To The Curb Change Anything?” Talking Points Memo, September 25, 2015, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/dc/boehner-replacement-gop-turmoil
  9. [9]Cristina Marcos, “Furious Boehner allies lash out,” Hill, September 26, 2015, http://thehill.com/homenews/house/255026-furious-boehner-allies-lash-out
  10. [10]Matt Salmon, paraphrase in Tierney Sneed, “Republicans Openly Wonder: Will Kicking Boehner To The Curb Change Anything?” Talking Points Memo, September 25, 2015, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/dc/boehner-replacement-gop-turmoil
  11. [11]Dana Bash et al., “House Speaker John Boehner: ‘I decided today is the day’,” CNN, September 25, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/25/politics/john-boehner-resigning-as-speaker/index.html
  12. [12]Alexander Bolton, “Here we go again: Cruz vs. McConnell and Boehner,” Hill, September 24, 2015, http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/254743-here-we-go-again-cruz-vs-mcconnell-and-boehner
  13. [13]Dan Balz, “For Republicans, questions of who can lead them and can they govern?” Washington Post, September 25, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/for-republicans-questions-of-who-can-lead-them-and-can-they-govern/2015/09/25/34f45c74-639d-11e5-9757-e49273f05f65_story.html
  14. [14]Zack Beauchamp, “How Racism Caused The Shutdown,” Center for American Progress, October 9, 2013, http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2013/10/09/2730651/how-racism-caused-the-shutdown/; Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Obama’s Twitter Debut, @POTUS, Attracts Hate-Filled Posts,” New York Times, May 21, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/22/us/politics/obamas-twitter-debut-potus-attracts-hate-filled-posts.html; Morris Dees, “Attorney General Holder is right: Racial animus plays role in Obama opposition,” Southern Poverty Law Center, July 16, 2014, http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/news/attorney-general-holder-is-right-racial-animus-plays-role-in-obama-opposition; Ginger Gibson, “Powell: GOP has ‘a dark vein of intolerance’,” Politico, January 13, 2013, http://www.politico.com/blogs/politico-live/2013/01/powell-gop-has-a-dark-vein-of-intolerance-154019.html; Alex Koppelman, “Now Bill Cosby weighs in on Carter’s side of race issue,” Salon, September 16, 2009, http://www.salon.com/2009/09/16/cosby_race/; Ewen MacAskill, “Jimmy Carter: Animosity towards Barack Obama is due to racism,” Guardian, September 16, 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/sep/16/jimmy-carter-racism-barack-obama; David Maraniss, “What drives the Obama doubters and haters?” Washington Post, July 27, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/what-drives-the-obama-doubters-and-haters/2012/07/27/gJQAIbImDX_story.html; Tony Pugh, “There’s no denying Obama’s race plays a role in protests,” McClatchy, January 12, 2012, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2009/09/18/75694/theres-no-denying-obamas-race.html; Ron Rosenbaum, “Is the Republican Party Racist?” Slate, October 8, 2012, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_spectator/2012/10/is_the_republican_party_racist_how_the_racial_attitudes_of_southern_voters_bolster_its_chances_.single.html; Sam Tanenhaus, “Original Sin: Why the GOP is and will continue to be the party of white people,” New Republic, September 10, 2013, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112365/why-republicans-are-party-white-people; Joan Walsh, “The real story of the shutdown: 50 years of GOP race-baiting,” Salon, October 1, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/10/01/the_real_story_of_the_shutdown_50_years_of_gop_race_baiting/; Joan Walsh, “Angry right gets mad when you accuse it of race-baiting!” Salon, October 2, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/10/02/angry_right_gets_mad_when_you_accuse_it_of_race_baiting/; Gary Younge, “Obama and the Decline of White America,” Nation 289, no. 13 (October 26, 2009): 10.
  15. [15]Harry Reid, quoted in Dana Bash et al., “House Speaker John Boehner: ‘I decided today is the day’,” CNN, September 25, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/25/politics/john-boehner-resigning-as-speaker/index.html
  16. [16]Bruce Bartlett, “Obama Is a Republican,” American Conservative, October 21, 2014, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/obama-is-a-republican/
  17. [17]David Benfell, “Oy Vey: Paleoconservatives, Neoconservatives, and Alleged Anti-Semitism,” April 1, 2014, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2014/04/01/oy-vey-paleoconservatives-neoconservatives-and-alleged-anti-semitism
  18. [18]Blue Texan [pseud.], “Ed Rendell Tells Democratic Base to “Get Over It” on Rachel Maddow,” Firedoglake, September 23, 2010, http://firedoglake.com/2010/09/23/early-morning-swim-ed-rendell-tells-democratic-base-to-get-over-it-on-rachel-maddow/; Blue Texan [pseud.], “Stop Whining, Liberals!” Firedoglake, September 27, 2010, http://firedoglake.com/2010/09/27/late-night-stop-whining-liberals/; Michael Falcone, “Opposite Day On The Campaign Trail?” ABC News, September 21, 2010, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2010/09/election-2010-opposite-day-on-the-campaign-trail/; Glenn Greenwald, “Obama’s view of liberal criticisms,” Salon, September 17, 2010, http://www.salon.com/2010/09/17/obama_139/; David Neiwert, “President Obama lashes out at his liberal critics: Choice is to ‘get things done’ or feel ‘sanctimonious’,” Crooks and Liars, December 7, 2010, http://crooksandliars.com/david-neiwert/president-obama-lashes-out-his-liber; Heather Digby Parton, “‘It’s always the hippies’ fault’: Why the left treats its idealists all wrong,” Salon, February 5, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/02/05/its_always_the_hippies_fault_why_the_left_treats_its_idealists_all_wrong/; Greg Sargent, “Liberal blogger directly confronts David Axelrod, accuses White House of ‘hippie punching’,” Washington Post, September 23, 2010, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/plum-line/2010/09/liberal_blogger_directly_confr.html; Stephen Stromberg, “Joe Biden scolds progressives — and he’s right,” Washington Post, September 16, 2010, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/postpartisan/2010/09/joe_biden_scolds_progressives.html; Sam Youngman, “White House unloads anger over criticism from ‘professional left’,” Hill, August 10, 2010, http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/113431-white-house-unloads-on-professional-left
  19. [19]Chip Berlet, “Taking Tea Parties Seriously: Corporate Globalization, Populism, and Resentment,” Perspectives on Global Development and Technology 10 (2011): 11-29, doi: 10.1163/156914911X555071; Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
  20. [20]Sarah Ferris and Peter Sullivan, “Odds of shutdown shrink with Boehner exit,” Hill, September 25, 2015, http://thehill.com/homenews/house/254953-odds-of-shutdown-shrink-with-boehner-exit
  21. [21]Gregory Koger, “The revolt against John Boehner: Worst. Plan. Ever,” Vox, September 16, 2015, http://www.vox.com/mischiefs-of-faction/2015/9/16/9334293/boehner-revolt-bad

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