Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and thanks for joining us.
Now if you hear a little gravel in my voice, it's not from yelling at C-SPAN during all those speaker ballots. I'm just working out the vestiges of a nasty head cold. Speaking of those speaker ballots, as of Thursday morning, there's still no Speaker of the House. This is the third day of the House of Representatives' new two-year session, and so far it's in a state of limbo.
Speaker 1: Some men just want to watch the world burn.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In the 2022 midterms, Republicans won such a slim majority in the House but choosing a speaker requires near consensus among the party's members. The nearly unprecedented chaos that's ensued this week suggests that there may not be a single Republican Party. Instead, the GOP just might be the big tent gathering spot for several loosely affiliated coalitions. For House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, it's meant that after three ballots on Tuesday, three more on Wednesday, and a hasty adjournment on Wednesday night, he woke up on Thursday morning having been unable to secure the gavel.
Seriously, this dude is racking up a loss even more spectacular than the Atlanta Falcons' epic fail during Super Bowl 51.
Speaker 2: Hey, is something burning? Oh, wait, it's you because you just got burnt.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As long as there's no speaker, there's no way to swear in new members. There's no rules to govern procedure, no committee assignments, no meetings, no bills, no new laws. As long as there is no speaker, there is no legislative governance. It seems that less than two dozen ravel-rousing defectors have accomplished what Grover Norquist hoped for more than 20 years ago in an interview on NPR's Morning Edition.
Grover Norquist: I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I could drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Folks, this just might be what it sounds like as government drowns.
Speaker 3: The House is not in order.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Joining me now is Nicole Hemmer, political historian at Vanderbilt University and author of Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s. Nicole, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Nicole Hemmer: It's great to be back with you, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I just have to ask you the political science question rumbling around in my head right now. Is this a partisan realignment moment?
Nicole Hemmer: Oh, that's a great question. At the moment, it's not so much a party realignment. It's not one of those moments where one of the parties is beginning to overcome the other or the core beliefs or policy preferences of the party are changing. What it is instead is part of really what's now been a 30-year cycle of the far right in the Republican Party moving the party further to the right. If you imagine this is a process that was started under Newt Gingrich in the 1990s when he became speaker.
He was both well to the right of the previous Republicans, but he also faced a faction that was further to the right called the True Believers that were constantly trying to overthrow him and make the party more conservative, more right-wing. That's really what we are seeing today. Although I'm not sure it's quite so much policy differences that are at play here rather than just a desire to be the most anti-liberal and the most anti-establishment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm so glad you came there because I think that's been what's been somewhat confusing to me is to understand part of what's motivating this. I do hear it being talked about as being far right, which of course, brings us to some ideological perspective, but Kevin McCarthy simply would be among the most conservative speakers in US history where he becomes Speaker of the House. It's hard for me to see it as primarily ideological. Then I want to play a thing that happened yesterday that really made me wonder what's going on. This is Representative-elect, Chip Roy from Texas. He's not yet even been sworn in, but he's introducing the nomination here for Byron Donalds of Florida.
Chip Roy: Here we are, and for the first time in history, there have been two Black Americans placed into the nomination for Speaker of the House.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nicole, what does the [chuckles] Donald's strategy on Wednesday tell you about what might be going on here?
Nicole Hemmer: It is a good indication that a lot of this is performative. It's stick you in the eye, poke you in the eye politics. In part, I don't want to get into people's personal motivations, but it is telling that the choice of Donalds, who is African American, was put on the floor after Hakeem Jeffries as the Democratic nominee and leader became the first Black leader for any party in the House for the first time in history. That's part of it.
It's also notable that Chip Roy also spent yesterday on Glenn Beck's program, the conservative radio host. Glen Beck is part of the faction on the right, who believes Kevin McCarthy should not be speaker. That media environment is really important. A lot of what the folks who are fighting right now are vying for, they're vying for attention. They're vying for donations, and they're vying for a reputation as somebody who is going to hold the line.
Kevin McCarthy is seen by these folks as somebody who is not very reliable, and particularly, somebody who helped shepherd through the, I think, $1.2 or $1.4 trillion Omnibus bill, which has become the real thing that the anti-McCarthy faction is pointing to. As if you have McCarthy in power, you're just going to get more of this. He's not reliable enough. He doesn't have enough steel in his spine.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What I appreciate about your point on the raising money, taking a stance is it's highly visible in this moment of being able to watch it on C-SPAN straight through live, but again, I'm thinking back to my graduate school days. I learned Congress persons are single-minded seekers of reelection. In order to seek reelection, they make laws, they do constituent service, and they take positions. That maybe it used to come in your mailbox like, "Oh, this person who represents you voted against this bill or for this bill," but maybe this position-taking is just what it looks like in the metaverse, in our new way that media operates.
It's not a bad way as a not even-yet sworn-in person to really gain some traction, some power. There's 400-plus people.
Nicole Hemmer: Party loyalty is not the thing that's necessarily prized in this moment for these actors. What is prized is this idea of real consistency, real visibility, real stubbornness. That is what is on display here. It's not just for winning reelection because many of the anti-McCarthy faction are in pretty safe Republican districts, but members of Congress don't stay in Congress quite as long as they used to. A lot of these folks are also setting up future careers in media as co-leaders of America First or Nationalist Movement. They're keeping their eye on, in some ways, a larger prize, or many more prizes, perhaps, than we might have had in, say, the 1970s or 1980s.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, ya'll, we have to take a break. More of this conversation in just a moment.
We're back with Nicole Hemmer, political historian at Vanderbilt University and author of Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s. I want to play another bit from Representative elect Roy in his nomination, where he talked about why the defectors are refusing to fall in line. A lot of what he talked about were the rules, but I thought this summed it up well. Let's take a listen.
Chip Roy: This country needs a change. This country needs leadership that does not reflect this city, this town that is badly broken.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nicole, In your book, Partisans, you do write about the ways that being an outsider or at least establishing oneself as an outsider was a powerful part of it. Is that what's happening here?
Nicole Hemmer: It's a big part of it. I think that what's important for the right, especially, but even for Democrats as well, there has been this long tradition of running as an anti-Washington candidate. This became especially true in the 1970s and since that that's one way that you establish yourself as authentic and uncorrupted was that you ran against Washington DC, that you were not a creature of the swamp as we now talk about it.
What is different from, say, a Republican in the 1990s saying they were against Washington DC and somebody like Chip Roy now, is they're not just saying, "I'm against the city and against this culture, but I'm against this party and its leadership. That the Republican Party has become part of the swamp as well. That part of being anti-establishment means not just being against the Democrats, against Washington, against the federal government, but against a pretty large faction of the Republican Party." That's been going on, probably since the Tea Party days, but it has accelerated in the past six or seven years.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries had this to say after the first three votes on Tuesday.
Hakeem Jeffries: Because the Republican Conference has apparently been taken over by extreme mag of Republicans and to the extent, there are reasonable individuals on the other side of the aisle, they have no way out.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is that right? Do they have no way out or is there a way for the overwhelming majority of the Republican Party to actually manage this?
Nicole Hemmer: I think they can manage it, whether that means that Kevin McCarthy somehow becomes leader in the next few days or somebody else becomes leader. I think there will ultimately be a resolution in which members get sworn in and Congress precedes. It is going to continue to be not just a fight in the short-term, especially with the razor-thin margins in the house, it is going to be very easy for a small number of people, maybe even just one person, to cause chaos and hold up any real action in Congress.
That's a real concern in the short term because of this narrow majority that Republicans have. This idea of a more extreme faction having real sway over the party or setting the direction of Congress, that has been the story of Republicans in Congress since they re-took power in the 1990s. It's a unique phenomenon in the way that it's playing out now, but it's part of a much longer trend.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is it the accomplishment of a coup that did not happen on January 6th, 2021?
Nicole Hemmer: It absolutely is a continuation of that, and that's why I think that it's important to think about January 6th as we're thinking about what's happening right now because we're really focused on these 20 folks who are resistant to Kevin McCarthy's leadership, but there are more than 100 members of the Republican Caucus in the House who voted against certifying the 2020 election. This is a caucus that is a majority election deniers. I'm not sure that framing this as just the extremism of these 20 is the best way of understanding this Congress. Because it normalizes the extremism that we saw on January 6th.
Not when the Capitol was being sacked, but when after that happened, Republicans went to the floor and voted not to certify the election.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nicole Hemmer, political historian at Vanderbilt University and author of Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s. Thanks so much for your time today, Nicole.
Nicole Hemmer: Thanks so much for having me.
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