Last week Kevin McCarthy—doing his best impersonation of a snake—slithered back to Donald Trump at his golf resort in Palm Beach with his hands extended. Instead of sticking to or even building off his floor speech indicating Trump was at least partly to blame for the storming of the US Capitol on January 6th, Kevin McCarthy decided that a few weeks time was enough to head to Mar-a-Lago and kiss Trump’s ring. The meeting was a gross display of political and moral cowardice.
But I’m not writing this to pile on the condemnations of Kevin McCarthy’s meeting with the Donald—that’s what Twitter is for. Instead of focusing on Kevin’s clear lack of a spine, I’ve asked myself: what is it about our institutions and electoral system that push people, like Kevin McCarthy, to believe that the only way he can hold or even gain power is to reconcile with the likes of Trump? What is it about our institutions that incentivize this kind of behavior?
In short, he saw the political writing on the wall and wanted back in Trump’s good graces.
Lack of competitive districts
In America, roughly 85% of all House districts are considered “safe seats”. That’s right, most House members’ reelection is virtually guaranteed. We shouldn’t expect 100% to be competitive, but 85% is high and it empowers the wrong voters.
Today, we live in an era of hyper partisanship where a Democrat in a safe seat could be a sock puppet and still win by double digits. Because of this, safe seat members of congress don’t worry about the November election. What concerns them are primaries. Kevin McCarthy represents an R+14 congressional district, so chances are he will win reelection handedly. What he’s worried about is a primary from a dark horse, conspiracy loving QAnon candidate who blames Jewish laser beams for causing the California wildfires. These are the people who inject OAN and Newsmaxx directly into their veins using an IV laced with a nutjob anesthetic. Donald Trump saw this dynamic within the GOP and exploited it. Trump is the base, the base is Trump. His endorsement is crucial for Kevin’s quest of a GOP House majority after the 2022 midterms and ultimately the House Speakership for himself. Without Trump’s support, it’s a much harder fight.
A quick side note: I want to make sure I don’t present a false equivalency here. Democrats of course have people in safe districts, but not anywhere close to the same rate as Republicans. Kevin McCarthy or Marjorie Taylor Greene (MTG) are not the same as AOC or Jamaal Bowman. They are in safe Democratic districts, but they don’t spout conspiracy theories or trivialize the attack on the U.S. Capitol. They advocate left-wing policies. That’s it. There’s a world of difference between the debate on the Green New Deal or #defundthepolice and saying the deep state and Democrats are staffed with satan-worshipping pedophiles.
America’s representative structure rests on a winner-take-all basis, meaning in any election, the person with the most votes is chosen. Even if they win by 1 percentage point, they’re the one who heads to Washington. To most Americans, this seems normal, and that’s understandable. It’s how we’ve always done it. But better models exist and we should absolutely implement them if and when it is possible.
Much of the democratic world uses proportional representation and/or ranked choice voting. Instead of one person representing a specific geographic area of any state (which is determined by partisan politicians) we should make districts substantially larger and have multiple representatives elected using ranked choice voting (see video below for full explanation of how a ranked choice voting and proportional representation system could work in America). In a proportional ranked choice voting system, the person who received 51% would represent that portion of the district, but those in the other 49% would also have someone who spoke for them in congress.
It could all change in two years
In our constitutional system, the entire House of Representatives and a portion of the Senate is up for reelection every two years. As citizens of a democracy, we have the opportunity to overthrow the government without firing a shot. We call that an election. But for much of our history, ejecting the party in power happened much less frequently than it does today.
As political scientist Frances Lee has written about extensively, power in congress did not change hands as consistently. Between 1860-1933, the Republican Party predominantly controlled the House of Representatives. From 1933-1980, Democrats dominated the lower chamber. It was only during the 1980s and 1990s that control of congress started to swing back and forth on a more regular basis. Every two years is another opportunity for the party in the minority to gain the majority.
Why does this matter? Because it helps explain the actions of people like Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell. If you believe that conservatism—whatever that means these days—is what’s best for America, or that the “libs” will end your way of life, why would you cooperate with them? Or better yet, why wouldn’t you obstruct everything they want to achieve for voters? You know that in today’s hyper competitive politics you have a chance every two years to take back the majority, and when Washington doesn’t work the majority is blamed no matter how much inaction is solely due to the obstructionism of the minority.
He still has no soul
When I look at last week’s Kevin McCarthy, Donald Trump meeting through this additional lens, it helps me understand what is pushing Kevin, besides simply his natural inclination to debase himself if it means a chance at power.
When you add up all the points above: safe seats + winner-take-all representation + it could all change in two years, you get a nutty politics. The incentives of this system— when combined with a polarized America, right wing propaganda outlets, and other dynamics—drive people like Kevin towards the fringe of his base (or at least towards placating them) and away from legislative cooperation. Trump controls the base, the base controls GOP primaries, GOP primaries control safe seat Republicans, and the winner-take-all representation system combined with competitive elections raise the stakes of politics exponentially every 2 years. This is what helps to give us the 201 Republicans who voted against impeachment and the 147 GOP members that voted against certification of the 2020 Electoral College results.
None of this is meant to take away from us calling out these individuals for not going against these incentives for the good of the country. The 10 Republicans who voted for impeachment should be rewarded for their bravery, which often came in the face of violent threats to their lives and the lives of their family. But when analyzing Kevin’s pilgrimage to Trump through these systems it helps me make sense of why he’s doing this, and reminds me that even if we got rid of every single member who supports Trump or incited the violent mob on January 6th, new crazies would most likely take their place.
Hopefully, understanding this can give us a new way to solve these problems. We’re probably not going to shame the GOP into denouncing Trump. But maybe we can change the incentives so these people are not rewarded for their radicalism. Better yet, maybe we can make sure these types of political actors don’t come within 100 miles of any meaningful political power.