The writer is executive director of American Compass

The unfolding spectacle of a US House of Representatives in disarray, unable to elect a Speaker, should be a common one. In every Congress, both the Republican and Democratic delegations harbour a range of radicals and characters who can exercise more power and garner more headlines by playing spoiler at the outset than they ever will in the normal course of House business. No candidate for Speaker could distribute enough favours to entice everyone into line.

So how does a combative and attention-craving gaggle of politicians ever unite to provide the absolute majority a Speaker needs? As the conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet famously observed, “People do not come together in significant and lasting associations merely to be together. They come together to do something that cannot easily be done in individual isolation.” Anyone can create a controversy. But only a united caucus can exercise its collective political power to achieve substantive ends.

Politicians who have dedicated their lives to attaining power within a political party generally do so in part for the sake of the power, but also because they want their party to succeed and bring about the kind of change to which they are ideologically committed. These commonly held interests are what make political parties work and allow a legislature to function, to whatever extent it does.

The problem for the current Republican party is that it seems not to have anything it wants to do. In 2020, it declined even to write a platform for its convention. In 2022, it struggled to offer any positive agenda. For many members, the incentive to collaborate and compromise is gone, because it would be in service to nothing.

In the short term, the results can seem nihilistic — the so-called “Party of No”. But the long-term prognosis is more promising. The GOP isn’t refusing to offer an agenda, it is incapable of producing one. What do the party’s members agree on any more? They used to be the party of big business, Wall Street and the Chamber of Commerce. Many are now at war with those very constituencies.

Tax cuts no longer unify. When House leader Kevin McCarthy eventually produced a pocket-sized “Commitment to America” before the midterms, it made no mention of tax cuts. Somewhat more comically, after Senate leader Mitch McConnell refused to put forward any midterm agenda, senator Rick Scott published “An 11 Point Plan to Rescue America” with only one tax provision: a tax increase for most households. In response to widespread outrage, he republished the plan (with the “11” on the cover literally crossed out and a “12” inserted) that now had a 12th point, “cutting taxes”, which included no new tax cuts.

Free trade? Maybe, maybe not. Deregulate, of course, except when proposing more regulation of technology, new drug price controls, stronger antitrust enforcement and aggressive industrial policy. Restrict immigration, or else maybe expand it.

Admittedly, this may not sound so promising. But chaos is unavoidable in the necessary process of demolishing an outdated consensus and developing a new one. The best analogy comes from science. Thomas Kuhn famously introduced the concept of a “paradigm shift” in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Scientists and philosophers once believed that scientific knowledge advanced steadily through incremental progress. Kuhn showed that the process was one of long static periods of “normal science”, during which researchers worked mostly to validate their existing paradigm, punctuated by bursts of disruption when an old paradigm failed and a new one emerged.

Likewise in politics, innovative ideas harden into dogma around which politicians and economists build their careers, warding off the heresy of new thinking until they render themselves so irrelevant to contemporary challenges that a crisis occurs, then chaos and then a better framework. The trailblazing agenda that the Reagan revolution brought to Washington in the 1980s, itself a paradigm shift, had devolved into stale dogma by the 2010s.

For a glimpse at the new paradigm, look to those who offer solutions, such as senator Marco Rubio. He kicked off the new year with an essay in The American Conservative on “rebuilding the Republican party into a multi-ethnic, working-class coalition”. He calls for “putting Wall Street in its place” and “reorienting our economic relationship with China”, and discusses plans to “bring critical industries back” and “rebuild America’s workforce”. That coalition, with goals like those, could build a durable governing majority. When it does, it will have no difficulty electing its Speaker.

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