Shikha Mukerjee | Insurrection in America: How tail wagged the dog!

Over 150 years ago, the House of Representatives had voted 133 times to elect Nathaniel Banks as Speaker in 1856.

After 14 failed attempts to win the Speaker’s gavel, Kevin McCarthy finally succeeded in bartering his authority to win in the 15th attempt the coveted prize of leading America’s House of Representatives. It was tamasha at its best.

Over 150 years ago, the House of Representatives had voted 133 times to elect Nathaniel Banks as Speaker in 1856. There have been other times when it took the majority party in the House several votes to settle on who would be Speaker, the last being in 1923.

It was also an extraordinary event: to get a Speaker elected from the party that holds a wafer-thin majority in the House of Representatives, namely the Republican Party, it required the candidate, Mr McCarthy, to promise turning himself over to those who held him to ransom. It meant bartering his authority, power and control over running the House to half a dozen far-right Republicans, who have been variously described as “Nihilists”, “Anarchists” or “Insurrectionists”, without anyone raising any objections.

The obvious pride of these far-right members in holding the House and an orderly transition, from a Democratic Party under Nancy Pelosi to the Republican McCarthy as Speaker, hostage for four days is the degree of dysfunction within the Republican ranks, as well as of the American system of legislative democracy, with its fragile but enduring checks and balances and separation of powers. The model adopted by America of keeping powers separated and in check became the template for other political systems, including India.

As the House reconvened to resume working as the legislative arm of the government, work that had stopped till Mr McCarthy was elected, it became apparent that the far-right, labelled as the “Freedom Caucus”, would continue to play the newly-elected Speaker like a puppet on a string. Mr McCarthy bargained away his authority to win the job, as the new House Rules reveal. He can be ousted by just one member calling a snap vote.

The power of one versus the power of the majority may sound like an extremist version of the principle of democracy, where the minority has as much clout as the majority, but in reality, as the vote over the House Rules “package” revealed, it is effective, however bizarre the bargain. The tail wagged the dog, which is not democracy in action at its best. It was history.

Unprecedented and dramatic as the event was, the American political system has normalised insurrection as part of how it handles dissent and denial of facts. By making it sound ordinary that the legislators who perpetrated the hostage-taking of Congress as nihilists, anarchists and insurrectionists, it confirmed that it was willing to ignore the obvious contradiction. Government and governance in American will now be in the hands of nihilist, anarchist legislators who ideologically despise the established order, be it social, political and government. “Insurrection” is the new way of doing things. It started with the carefully orchestrated and coordinated attack on Congress on January 6, 2021, when violent groups almost succeeded in preventing the orderly transition of power from the President who lost the election, Donald Trump, to the President who won, Joe Biden.

For the next two years, the radical Republican fringe will get to decide on how the government functions, regardless of who is the President. By capturing the leadership of the House, the Freedom Caucus will decide on how budgets are designed, the size of the US government deficit which will have enormous impact on the crisis-ridden global economy, how America fulfils its promises to keep the world safe in a period of unprecedented tensions, from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its implications for the rest of Europe to the aggressive moves by China and more.

The election reveals the deep divisions within the body politic and the Republican Party. The process laid bare the degree of dysfunction of the American political system. It was an outstanding example of how freedom, without accountability and responsibility, can be expanded within the democratic political system to create chaos.

Confusing as the American system may appear to be with those more acquainted with the Westminster parliamentary model, it is rather inappropriate that an ex-President of America, who continues to challenge the fact of his defeat, is involved in the insurrection that disrupted the orderly conduct of legislative business. It was a planned exercise to subvert the legislative arm of government, an insurrection against the system rather than for an agenda or a charter of demands that reflected a specific ideological position.

It was the sort of political theatre that India would love to see, but would hate to enact, because it upended the stodgy, conservative and orderly way of doing things. Not everyone in the majority party in the Lok Sabha or in the state Assemblies believes that the party’s choice is the best decision. But the Westminster parliamentary system does not tolerate defiance of party whips, which are tantamount to misdemeanours and an open invitation to some sort of punishment, including sacking. In the “naam ke vaste” coalitions that have officially been in power for decades, the choice of Speaker is decided in advance and the voting is usually incident-free.

The question is: Was the bargain that was eventually struck between freedom and order on the one hand, and negative politics, nihilism and disorder, that is anarchy, on the other? Was it a point when the majority wins principle in democracy shifted to a rule by the minority? It was certainly an exercise of freedom of choice within a party, signalling the depths of inner-party democracy. The outcome was, however, outlandish.

The edge-of-your-seats tension, hard and up to the very end bargaining that went on to get Kevin McCarthy voted in as Speaker, is not entirely unfamiliar. Speakers in India have been in a fix on the rarest of rare occasions. Recall 2008, when the CPI(M) bloc in the Lok Sabha pulled out and Somnath Chatterjee, the Speaker, had to make a difficult choice that ended with his very bitter exit from the party. He was found guilty of violating the CPI(M)’s whip and expelled.

The freedom to vote against party interests is insurrection against the orderly system that governs the conduct of legislators everywhere. To disallow the freedom is, unfortunately, necessary to pre-emptively prevent the sort of theatre that enthralled the entire world while 20-odd legislators held Kevin McCarthy and his ambition to become Speaker of the House of Representatives to ransom.

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