Ultimately, in politics, only voters can deliver the message, “You’ve hit bottom, and you need to change your ways.” But the MAGA House majority’s inability to select a speaker may already be pushing voters to stage an intervention in 2024.
There’s an irony in this early failure. Republicans came to it through a shameless addiction to power without principle. Starting in 2010, they gained political dominance across the country in state legislatures and wielded that power by gerrymandering congressional maps. The distorted districting maps they adopted herded minority voters and Democratic ones into electoral zones that looked like intoxicated amoeba. All that extreme gerrymandering has led directly to the current fiasco in the House.
The effort has put more Republican members of Congress in safe seats, with fewer Democratic constituents to answer to. That left the victors free to test the limits of their extremism.
Momentously, in 2019, a radical Supreme Court majority composed of Republican nominees issued a 5–4 decision in Rucho v. Common Cause. It gave radical partisan gerrymandering the court’s blessing as constitutional. The fifth vote in that ruling came from ultraconservative justice Neil Gorsuch, who was only seated after Senate Republicans unscrupulously refused to hold a confirmation hearing for Merrick Garland. He would have almost certainly cast the fifth vote the other way.
If you doubt Rucho’s effect in creating today’s Republican House majority, look to Florida as a case study. In 2022, its governor, Ron DeSantis, “strong-armed” through the state legislature an extreme, gerrymandered map that eliminated half of Florida’s Black-dominated districts. In November’s election, the state flipped red three blue congressional seats.
Similarly, North Carolina’s gerrymandering added three Republican seats that, based on the state’s Democratic vote-share, should have gone Democratic. (Incidentally, North Carolina is the state whose gerrymandered map the Supreme Court upheld in Rucho, and it is also the state whose map the court will judge in this term’s much-discussed case of Moore v. Harper.)
Similar results seem to have occurred in Texas and Kentucky, where partisan voter registrations are evenly divided. Yet in Texas, 25 of the 38 congressional representatives are Republican, a 2-to-1 ratio. In Kentucky, five of the six representatives are Republican.
Democrats, too, have gerrymandered in states whose legislatures they control, but their efforts have been far surpassed by Republicans’, and without the destructive effects for the country’s institutions.
And so, the debacle we’ve been witnessing in Congress. From gerrymandered Republican seats come noncompetitive districts that elect hardliners with little to no incentive to compromise on choosing a speaker—or anything else. They gain attention via television and social media and raise money from their MAGA base by standing firm and dropping pipe bombs on the system of governing, and rarely face consequences for the fallout.
The speaker-selection logjam is bound to break before long. But this saga will not be the last of gerrymandering’s legacy. Kevin McCarthy has conceded to his party’s extremists so much of the Republican speaker’s power that, whether or not he wins, the same people who have extorted him will spend the next two years treating the speaker’s podium as Kevin’s concession stand.
The next House leader will almost certainly lack the ability to herd the feral cats in the Freedom Caucus. Those who led the speaker fight will use their newfound power to drive Benghazi-style attacks on their political rivals, to initiate impeachment proceedings for Biden Cabinet members (if not Biden himself), and to “investigate the investigators” of Jan. 6.
In addition, the MAGA House majority will almost surely introduce bills to further remove Americans’ reproductive and voting rights, to cut Social Security benefits and taxes on the rich, to defund the Ukraine invasion fighters, and to otherwise pursue an extreme agenda.
Among the Republican House’s four-member majority are 17 from competitive districts across the country. The total vote differences in the closest five of those races were a mere 6,670 votes this past November. If the House majority remains as extreme and dysfunctional as it has appeared in its embarrassing speaker fight, that’s a very surmountable margin, even with the current gerrymandered maps. Continuing vigilance in the next two years by citizens committed to keeping our republic—and to fighting the erosion of democracy that gerrymandering has hastened—will help energize a nationwide campaign to defeat the radical House majority in 2024.
Maybe in that election, this version of the Republican Party will finally hit bottom and get onto the road to recovery.