In Elevating Johnson To Speaker, Republicans Made a Full-Throated Endorsement of Extremism

Kash Jain ’24

Opinion Editor

On Oct. 25, just over three weeks after the House of Representatives voted to oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the House voted along party lines to elect Mike Johnson, a four-term representative from Louisiana, as speaker.

At the time of his nomination by the Republican caucus, Mike Johnson was not a particularly well-known name, even among political aficionados. Maine Senator Susan Collins told a reporter that she needed to google Johnson, and Senate Minority Whip John Thune said that he did not know the man who would soon become the leader of his party in the House.

Johnson’s lack of fame is not particularly surprising, as it may have helped propel him to victory. This nomination came after the failure of three candidates — Reps. Steve Scalise, Jim Jordan and Tom Emmer — better-known members who suspended their bids after failing to win over critics within their caucus. Each failed to unite their party, sometimes struggling to hold support over personal and political grievances. Finally, after Emmer withdrew, Johnson received the nomination and received full support from Republicans on the floor.

NBC’s Ryan Nobles attributed Johnson’s victory to the fact that he’s “a very conservative lawmaker… who is pretty low-key, an affable guy. Somebody that people have good relationships with.” Johnson’s ascension was heavily personalistic; he was someone who every House Republican was able to get along with, someone who hadn’t stepped on anyone’s toes.

However, soon after Johnson’s sudden victory, his voting record and stances gained significant attention. To call him a staunch conservative would be an understatement. He backs a total, national ban on abortion; he supports cuts to Medicaid and Social Security; he supports a total end to refugee assistance; he has opposed marijuana legalization, including medical marijuana; and he opposes gay and transgender rights, disagreeing with the rulings in Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges.

Johnson’s ascension is a resurgence of the religious right, an elevation of an ideology that acts as though the Bible, and not the Constitution, should be the guiding document of this nation. In selecting him as speaker, House Republicans have embraced and endorsed Johnson’s far right politics and a continued stampede on civil rights.

As the leader of both the House and the majority party, many of the speaker’s duties are administrative. However, for over a century, the office has been an integral cog in the legislative machine. Since the 1970s, the power of committee chairman has declined, and the power of the speaker has grown, cementing them as a leading architect of policy and their party’s agenda. This position is one that every member of the House should understand, both in function and importance. Johnson’s selection was undoubtedly driven by his palatability, both as a person and as a legislator. Even with the former, his stances are inextricable from his rise; given the speaker’s role, House Republicans have explicitly supported his politics, not just the person and potential leader behind them. They’ve made a statement on what kind of approach they want to take when making policy.

This endorsement is accentuated by the fact that there was an alternative path. Before the vote against McCarthy, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries called for bipartisan cooperation to lead the House. Following the successful motion to vacate the speaker, he stated that he hoped “traditional Republicans [would] walk away from MAGA extremism and join [Democrats] in partnership for the good of the country.”

Three days later, Jeffries made his ask even more explicit. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, the Democratic leader called on his colleagues to take a stand against extremism and work together to reform the House. He clearly proposed bipartisan, pragmatic cooperation to make the House function again.

His initial call was publicly rebuffed by McCarthy, and subsequent calls by him and other Democrats were either refused or ignored. Aside from a few scattered Republican voices suggesting that the caucus could need to negotiate if it couldn’t select a speaker and a few more voices chastising Democrats for deciding not to save McCarthy, even vague talks of cooperation were practically nonexistent on the right.

Republicans had the option, time and time again, to negotiate. If five Republicans broke from their party, with the support of Jeffries, they could’ve selected a moderate speaker, even one of their own. If any of them wanted to take a more moderate path, it was there for them. Instead, they rejected it.

Republicans had the option, time and time again, to negotiate. If five Republicans broke from their party, with the support of Jeffries, they could’ve selected a moderate speaker, even one of their own. If any of them wanted to take a more moderate path, it was there for them. Instead, they rejected it.

The reasoning here isn’t particularly difficult to understand — there is a clear penalty for being a moderate Republican. The party has forced out almost everyone who hasn’t kept up with its extreme tilt; after all, only two of the ten House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in 2021 are still in their seats. Criticizing the former president, his false claims of election fraud, or his right-wing stances can incur a serious cost for Republican officials. Refusing to back the primary Republican speaker candidate, no matter how extreme they were, would undoubtedly have come with similar repercussions.

However, part of politics is making decisions that may be unpopular but are the right thing to do. Either to save their careers or to deliberately push the House to further extremes, every Republican on the floor on Oct. 25 voted to make Mike Johnson speaker instead of shaking Jeffries’s outstretched hand. Regardless of the logic behind their votes, the outcome was the same: making a far-right extremist who has opposed even the most basic bipartisan measures, like reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act and funding infrastructure, Speaker of the House.

If this was somehow the only option House Republicans had, perhaps backing Johnson wouldn’t have endorsed extremism — but picking Johnson over bipartisan cooperation did.

As officials across the nation chip away at the rights of Americans — their right to vote, their freedom of speech, their bodily autonomy — Congress has the chance to be a guarantor or an even more powerful assailant of rights. Speaker Johnson’s track record suggests that he will continue to push forward with radical attacks on freedom, and by making him speaker, his Republican colleagues have become supporters of this extremist campaign.

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