On Tuesday, Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy was ousted by a narrow vote on a motion to vacate his seat.. His ousting was driven by a flank of hard-right Republicans led by Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz.
The final nail in the coffin for McCarthy was working with House Democrats to pass a temporary spending bill and avoid a government shutdown. As part of the agreement he made with the House Freedom Caucus this January, it only required one member of the House to introduce a vote to oust the Speaker of the House.
McCarthy’s removal was inevitable; however, he is just a small piece in the overall puzzle. The Freedom Caucus was able to hold so much power over McCarthy because of their razor-thin 221-212 majority in the House.
McCarthy received overwhelming support to remain as speaker from his own party — 208 Republicans voted for him to keep the job. However, it only took eight to remove him. The ability of eight far-right members of Congress to overpower the third most powerful position in the United States government further emphasizes the prevalence of counter-majoritarianism in the United States.
As defined by Darrell West, counter-majoritarianism is when small groups of people are able to thwart actions desired by a large group of people. Across all three branches of the American government lies opportunities for counter-majoritarian action. Take the Supreme Court, for example. In the 21st century, this group of nine people has made long-lasting, impactful decisions on American public policy. Through the process of judicial review, they gave corporations first-amendment speech rights, allowing for even more money to be pumped into American elections.
Additionally, they were able to overturn the 50-year precedent established by Roe v. Wade in a 6-3 decision. Despite 62% of Americans supporting the right to choose, the court was able to completely go against what the majority of the country supported simply because they could. Earlier this year, the court was able to force universities to remove race from their admissions list when considering applicants. Regardless of your stance on these decisions, the fact that such monumental policy choices are made by such a small, unelected body is undemocratic.
It’s not just the courts, too; in the United States Senate, counter-majoritarian policies have been in play for decades. Thanks to the filibuster, it is now commonly agreed upon that it takes 60 votes to pass legislation in the Senate. This threshold substantially weakens the strength of the majority party that was voted in by the electorate.
The overall balance of power between parties in our bodies of government has become tighter. Additionally, political polarization between the two parties is at an all-time high. This combination leads to counter-majoritarian policies becoming the norm by making it far easier for members of the Senate to kill popular pieces of legislation. Take, for example, one of President Biden’s landmark campaign policy promises: The Build Back Better Act. The act passed in the House on strict party lines; however, it died in the Senate all because West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin voted against it.
Mass shootings are rampant in the United States. This year alone we’ve had over 500 of them. Despite 60% of Americans supporting stricter gun laws, lawmakers have failed to enact meaningful gun control for decades due to counter-majoritarianism.
But it’s not just in our institutions where counter-majoritarian policies are taking place. Republican states have made concerted efforts to put their thumbs on the scales of elections to tip the scales in their favor. In Arizona, Republicans have introduced legislation to increase the overall threshold for ballot measures to succeed from a simple majority to 55%, bills that would make it harder to gain access to early ballots and legislation that would allow for mail in ballots to be thrown out if they arrive by Election Day.
Counter-majoritarianism is one of the largest threats to American democracy because of how widespread — and incentivized — it is within our system. The reason the Freedom Caucus was able to hold so much power over Kevin McCarthy was exactly because they were the small number of votes that he needed to get over the finish line and become the Speaker.
But the effects of counter-majoritarianism have been detrimental to the majority of the country. It has ripped away reproductive rights, allowed for the influence of money to be even more prevalent in our elections and has put one of major legislative bodies into a state of chaos.
America has a knack for consistently failing to uphold the democratic values it loves to preach. The influence and success of counter-majoritarianism is yet another in a long line of examples about how the American government is not a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Rather, it is a government that is at the whims of a small concentrated few.