Sept. 25, 2015. One day after achieving his dream of listening to Pope Francis’s address to a joint session of Congress, the embattled Speaker of the House, former U.S. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, gathered reporters for a surprise press conference. While he initially performed as a strident reformer for government accountability when he first was elected in the 1990s, Boehner grew into an establishment Republican. During his run, he became increasingly focused on making the government function despite being met with growing far-right obstructionists: the Tea Party.
The far-right had vilified Boehner at every turn for the past five years, but their recent outgrowth, the Freedom Caucus, pushed his final nerve and forced Boehner to retire. Upon leaving, however, he did not fail to take some parting shots at those he referred to as “legislative terrorists” who are tearing apart the Republican Party. And, almost as a final show of independence, Boehner’s final piece of legislation, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, passed the House with no Freedom Caucus votes, instead co-opting a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats in Congress who neglected the far-reaches of their respective parties. This act, however, was a brief veer from a larger overarching narrative of legislative radicalization by ideologues willing to hijack the legislative process.
The Freedom Caucus began as nine Tea Party members who were emboldened by the 2014 midterm elections to form a group of “bright junior legislators who do not look kindly on an established leadership that has largely failed to achieve conservative goals it has promised the voters.” While they view themselves glowingly, the establishment of the Republican Party, specifically Boehner, viewed their cohesiveness and activism as intransigence and false prophecy. Despite this, their membership has grown to as high as 40 members and currently sits at around 36 (an estimation because the Freedom Caucus does not release its membership).
This original group of nine were even further to the right than many of their Tea Party contemporaries. They were willing to exercise their influence to make legislation more conservative at all costs, including killing bills that they disagreed with despite these bills having the support of the majority of Republicans. While their principles are up for debate among both caucus members and Republicans at large, the former largely functions as one voting bloc and has undoubtedly caused widespread frustration and dysfunction in Washington D.C.
While Freedom Caucus members cause major disruption in Washington, their home districts’ Republicans do not look very ideologically different than those of the average Republican-controlled district. Common thought suggests that constituents’ ideology should be embodied by their member of Congress. However, given that Freedom Caucus members’ policies are significantly more conservative than the average Republican, the ideological similarities of Republican constituents is baffling.
The House Freedom Caucus refuses to take responsibility for the division that they cause throughout the Republican Party. They instead find enemies in congressional leadership to blame, and they exert this blame through not only rhetoric but also their political action committee: the House Freedom Fund. This PAC, according to former U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., is devoted to “sending principled conservative outsiders to D.C.” Functionally, they support mostly far-right primary challengers to establishment candidates in House elections.
In the 2018 midterms, the HFF was affiliated with 18 primary challengers, eight of whom won. This success rate for both the HFF and other far-right conservatives in Republican districts contributes to the overall polarization of Congress — it either forces establishment Republicans to move right to avoid a primary challenger or replaces incumbents with far-right newcomers. This ideological purity enforcement that the Freedom Caucus supports is systematically taking over the Republican Party and ultimately polarizes Congress because of progressive liberals’ scaled-back yet significant movement to the left.
This limits the choices of the American people and ultimately leads to increasing inefficiency in Congress until the entire institution grinds to a halt. In other words, the Freedom Caucus and some progressive groups are willing to sacrifice incremental action for ideological purity, and that harms all of us. It ruins everyday American’s faith in government and slowly pushes us to want to burn the place down. This mentality led to the election of former President Donald Trump, the birth of QAnon and the failed Jan. 6 insurrection, which is not going to stop unless we make it.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” my favorite scene is when a strange car pulls into Gatsby’s driveway after he has died, flashes its lights and leaves. The narrator says, “I didn’t investigate. Probably it was some final guest who had been away at the ends of the earth and didn’t know that the party was over.”
While it is such a simple statement, it makes a profound point about this country and our core values. Our greatest quality as Americans is innovation, which is sourced from a fundamental curiosity and a desire to improve our world. However, when hope is taken away from us, we cease exploring because we are no longer curious, which is when the party is truly over.
I’ll be honest; I believe that the Republican party faces an existential threat. It’s neither Trump nor the Freedom Caucus members themselves. Republicans are threatened by so many people turning off their televisions and tuning out political processes because they have lost hope, contributing to our dangerous culture of polarization and diminished communication.
Polarization has spread into everything from watching the news — when we choose to consume it — to who we choose as friends. At the center of it all is a growing mentality that says we cannot get along if we do not agree. Slowly, this polarization has turned many of us — on some issue or another — into miniature voting terrorists who are more willing to watch the world burn than get along.
Keith Johnstone can be reached at email@example.com.
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