House speaker impasse lays bare failing US democracy
Worries grow as US political radicalization may affect more countries, push adventurism, analysts
Published: Jan 05, 2023 11:50 PM
The Capitol is seen on the morning of January 5, 2023, in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP

The Capitol is seen on the morning of January 5, 2023, in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP

Two years after the whole world witnessed the failing of US democracy as reflected in the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, more chaos took the stage in Capitol Hill as Republicans in the House of Representatives failed for a second straight day to elect a leader on Wednesday. 

A faction of hardline conservatives continued to hold back support for Republican Kevin McCarthy and the day of endless voting ended amid shouting and crowding with the House adjourning for the night.

With the eyes of the world seeing the embarrassing scene, which is usually a routine vote at the outset of a legislative session, the polarization and division of US politics and the decline of US democracy are too obvious to hide, and worries have grown as the political radicalization bug may spread to more countries from the US, and the domestic mess may push US politicians into adventurism and bring more uncertainties to the world, analysts said. 

The once-in-a-century political stalemate continued in the House of Representatives as no progress was made through a sixth round of voting for House speaker on Wednesday.  Twenty conservative holdouts still refuse to support McCarthy, leaving him far short of the 218 typically needed to secure the post of Speaker, a powerful job that is second in the line of succession to the presidency, according to US media reports. 

Animated private discussions broke out on the chamber floor and in huddled meetings throughout the Capitol between McCarthy supporters and detractors searching for an offramp, The Associated Press  reported. Since the midterm elections, when Republicans gained control of the House, the impasse over McCarthy has gotten worse. 

The conservative Freedom Caucus in the GOP led the opposition to McCarthy, believing he's neither conservative enough nor tough enough to battle Democrats. Yuan Zheng, deputy director and senior fellow of the Institute of American Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that the problem is that McCarthy is disliked by certain far-right Republicans who don't think he's qualified for the job and who don't have faith in him. They want to humiliate McCarthy so that he will make more concessions.

Hardline conservatives are vying to be the "critical minority" in order to have more power, and this tug-of-war has revealed the divide between many factions inside the GOP since it is unable to choose a convincing leader, Lü Xiang, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times. 

Republicans who don't appreciate McCarthy's chameleon-like behavior in pursuing his own interests in various factions believe he lacks leadership. It's still unclear how an agreement can be reached with those who have refused to back McCarthy, and the impasse might persist for weeks or even months, said Lü.   

Faced with the stinging defeat on Wednesday, McCarthy proposed more key concessions in his push to get 218 votes, including agreeing to propose a rules change that would allow just one member to call for a vote to oust a sitting speaker, US media reported. 

Some Republicans, including former US president Donald Trump, are urging fellow lawmakers to set aside their differences. "It's now time for all of our GREAT Republican House Members to VOTE FOR KEVIN," Trump wrote on his social media site Truth Social on Wednesday ahead of the day's votes.

But a final deal will not be easy to reach. Lü said that usually, the vote for House speaker seeks the greatest common denominator within one of the two parties in the US, and the current chaotic stalemate showed that the divisions within the Republicans are hard to fix and the mess is more like the prelude to chaos for the 2024 election.

Democrats may use this to question Republicans' ability to govern over the coming two years, as they have stumbled at the start of the Congress. However, Lü noted that the division not only exists in the GOP, but also in the Democratic Party, and that even if the Democrats can win control of the House, a similar standoff on the election of a speaker may occur.

President Joe Biden, departing the White House for a bipartisan event in Kentucky with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, said "the rest of the world is looking" at the scenes on the House floor. The US President described the standoff as "embarrassing" for "taking so long" and he has no idea who will prevail, media reported. 

The leadership fight in the House has provided a dismaying start for the new Republican majority in the House and may affect the Biden administration if the House is paralyzed for a long time and does not pass bills, said Lü. 

A speaker's election hasn't gone to multiple votes since 1923. Analysts noted that while it is still very likely that McCarthy will eventually succeed in becoming the speaker, the legislative institution will suffer the consequences as the Congress cannot begin its work due to the impasse and lawmakers will be engaged in fierce intra-party struggles and doing battle with the Democrats, therefore paying little attention to the real problems in the US.

The US is declining and its two-party system is becoming unsustainable in the upcoming 20 or 30 years with its major challenges, Lü said. 

Concerns have grown not just in the US but also the rest of the world over the shocking divisions and collapse of US democracy, and many analysts worried that some Western countries could be affected by the US political polarization.   

Lü also warned of the risk of a spillover effect from the US domestic chaos, as some politicians may turn to adventurism in their diplomatic policies to either shift domestic attention or to save the face of the US.

"We also need to make preparations for any possible risk, whether it's on the Taiwan question or other issues," said Lü, noting that possible US provocations will push China to take more firm countermeasures. 

Yuan noted that it will probably not be easy for McCarthy to do his job after he is elected as the speaker, and it is more likely that he will do something drastic to secure the position. For example, it is highly possible for McCarthy to make a trip to the island of Taiwan - which would show his tough stance and embarrass Biden. 

China-US relations were impacted after outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a provocative visit to the island of Taiwan in August 2022 and China responded with large-scale military drills around the island in response and took firm countermeasures.