While former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in California for the funeral of her friend Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Patrick McHenry, the Kevin McCarthy ally who is the new caretaker of the leaderless House of Representatives, kicked Pelosi out of her office in the Capitol. Former Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer subsequently received a similar eviction notice. It was a remarkably petty and spiteful act in the wake of McCarthy’s unprecedented downfall. But it showed that House Republicans had Pelosi’s successful reign very much in mind as McCarthy’s failure came crashing down on their heads.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, center, has demonstrated that credibility counts. J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Pelosi, after all, had run the House like a Swiss watch, passing hugely consequential legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act, which may not have much to do with inflation but is already having a huge impact on the transition away from carbon-based energy. And Pelosi did it with a majority no larger than McCarthy’s.

Pelosi is one of the most skilled politicians ever to be speaker. But her successor, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, is already having similar success. Democrats voted in lockstep with Jeffries on Tuesday to oust McCarthy, whom they mostly described as dishonest and untrustworthy, echoing the complaints of the eight Republicans who voted to remove McCarthy from power with no plan for what comes next.

Jeffries has obvious credibility among his troops. Like Pelosi, he navigates, and mediates, between his party’s mainstream and left flank with apparent ease. But his job is also vastly simpler than being the Republican leader. There is no nihilism caucus among House Democrats eager to burn democracy, including their own party, to the ground. And while Democrats have an ambitious agenda for the 21st century, Republicans have promised their voters a return to the 1950s. The Democratic agenda may be fraught and difficult; the Republican program is an undeliverable fantasy.

Political scientists call the phenomenon of mistrust, contempt and loathing of partisans for the opposing party “affective polarization.” It wasn’t Pelosi’s position on federal debt or aid to Ukraine that prompted her eviction from an office that was a symbol of her elevated status. Her eviction was a function of unbridled animosity and the crude, incessant desire to own the libs. Engulfed by crisis, McHenry’s first act was an expression of inchoate partisan rage.

Affective polarization has been terrible for Republicans – reducing them to a cycle of ever-more-destructive Trumpist tantrums. They’ve concluded that Democrats are so awful that any deception or corruption is justified, no matter how base, if it targets their opponents.


The same phenomenon has been oddly beneficial to the ethos and functions of Democrats, who are eager to believe that they are – and thus behave as – the opposite of their partisan opponents. Because Republicans have descended into incoherence and extremism, Democrats have been more willing to let their mainstream colleagues run the show – at the expense of angering their own left-wing supporters.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York is the preternaturally talented lodestar of the American left. She’s also an early endorser of middle-of-the-road President Biden, who she once described as a politician so distant from her own political instincts that the two should rightly belong to different parties. Ocasio-Cortez is frequently frustrated by her party’s moderation. But she channels that frustration into building support for her positions instead of lobbing grenades at her colleagues. The last thing she wants to be is a Democratic version of Rep. Matt Gaetz, the reckless instigator of McCarthy’s downfall.

Democrats have taken a good, hard look at the Republican Party and decided they would do just about anything not to be like that. If Republicans are the model of chaos, Democrats have come to value order and predictability. As Republicans grow ever more habituated to propaganda and lies, Democrats place increasing emphasis on credibility.

It’s noteworthy that Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has not faced the kind of rebellions and tantrums that are a regular feature of the Republican House. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that McConnell has also attempted to be a bulwark, however imperfect, against Trumpist lies, which have become the lingua franca of House Republicans. Once you start habitually lying to the public, it’s a short step to start lying to your own colleagues. Trust can’t survive.

The unity of Democrats may largely be a function of the threat posed to democracy by Republicans. As long as Republicans continue to threaten the republic – the majority of Republican House members voted to invalidate the 2020 election even after Donald Trump’s MAGA gang invaded the Capitol – Democrats are likely to present a united front that continues to inspire envy, resentment and backlash among Republicans. If Republicans want to see Democrats descend into the kind of internal conflict and confusion that define the House Republicans, they need only abandon MAGA authoritarianism and embrace democracy. Democrats won’t know what to do with that.

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