After dragging it out all week in humiliating fashion, House Republicans finally voted Kevin McCarthy into the Speaker position late on Friday night. We’re already seeing doomsday narratives about how this means House Republicans will shut down the government forever and cut Social Security and Medicare. It’s important to understand that most of this won’t really happen.
First, you have to keep in mind why this past week happened. Members of the House lunatic caucus dragged out the Speaker vote because they were fundraising off it the entire time. They know that these kinds of anti-government antics are popular with their far right base, and so they milked this for every dollar it was worth. When they finally relented on Friday night and allowed McCarthy to become Speaker, it wasn’t because anything had really changed ideologically. It was because the lunatic caucus concluded that they’d milked this stunt dry, and now they’re ready to move on to the next stunt.
The thing about this week-long Speaker stunt is that it didn’t actually harm the United States government in any major way. That’s because it didn’t have to. These things are about symbolism, noise, fluff. Just as the lunatic caucus couldn’t have just magically gone on forever with no Speaker, it can’t just magically shut down the government forever either.
House Republicans in moderate districts aren’t going to let their own reelection prospects be damaged by some long term government shutdown. They might sit back and let the lunatic caucus take things to the brink, or even shut things down for a bit, but they’re not going to let a shutdown go on forever – which means the Democrats won’t have to cave on Republican demands to cut Social Security and Medicare.
The problem is this. The lunatic caucus knows that just by threatening to shut down the government forever and cut Medicare and Social Security, it can get the media and pundit class to hype it as if it were a real thing that might actually happen. The media can’t pass up the opportunity to chase ratings with this kind of doom casting, and too many audience members think they’re only being “vigilant” if they sit there and panic over every scary thing the media says.
This all adds up to a vicious cycle where the lunatic caucus manages to fundraise off these empty threats just by getting the media to treat them as if they’re real. It gets worse when so many of the activists on our side think they’re helping by frantically yelling “oh no we’re all doomed!” Now people on all sides are hyping the same exact false narrative about House Republicans having a some magic wand.
This harms things in two ways. First, it creates the notion on our side that House Republicans are going to get their way no matter what, which tells activists on our side that there’s no reason to bother fighting back. Second, when all the focus is on these imaginary doomsday things that House Republicans are supposedly going to do, far too little focus is on the more subtle corrupt things that House Republicans are actually doing. In other words, panicked doomsday hysteria makes us less vigilant, not more vigilant.
In reality, there are two narratives we should be pushing right now. The first is that House Republicans are inept idiots who can’t even tie their shoelaces. The second is that House Republicans are evil for even threatening to do all these evil things that they can’t actually do. These two narratives make for effective messaging. It’s how you take the legs out from these House Republicans while they’re trying to carry out their agendas, and it’s how you convince voters in the middle to hand the House back to the Democrats in 2024 or any special elections that come before that.
Not coincidentally, these smart narratives are precisely what House Democrats have been pushing all week. The Democrats are in fact very good at messaging. It’s time more of us started listening to them, amplifying them, and learning from them. Anything else, and you’re just playing into the hands of House Republicans, who want you out there talking about how they supposedly have infinite powers to do any evil they want.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report