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The House speaker battle has roots in the Tea Party movement


It took five days and 15 rounds of voting, but we finally have a speaker of the House,


CHERYL JOHNSON: The Honorable Kevin McCarthy of the state of California, having received a majority of the votes cast, is duly elected speaker of the House of Representatives.


LIMBONG: And it took so long because of a group of 20 Republicans who refused to vote for Representative Kevin McCarthy. And though he was able to flip most of those votes, there were still a handful of representatives who wouldn't budge, even after he made considerable concessions to his role. Many of that initial 20 are members of the House Freedom Caucus. That's a group of Republican House members who represent the far-right of the party. And some of them can trace their early political success back to the Tea Party. That's another far-right movement that emerged within the GOP back in 2009, partly as a response to President Barack Obama's election.

But what, if any, link is there between the two? And what might that tell us about how far-right politicians are shaping U.S. politics? To help us think this through, we've called Rachel Blum. She's a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma and the author of "How The Tea Party Captured The GOP: Insurgent Factions In American Politics." Professor Blum, welcome to the program.

RACHEL BLUM: Thank you for having me.

LIMBONG: All right. So to start us off, can you briefly refresh our memory on what the Tea Party was? Like, how did they emerge and what were they advocating for?

BLUM: The Tea Party emerged in 2009, following the financial collapse and Barack Obama's election. Originally, it was a series of protest movements. But over the next two to six years, it became a full-blown faction that had representation at every level of state, local, national politics.

LIMBONG: So what does the Freedom Caucus have in common with the Tea Party?

BLUM: Well, you know, in one way, the Tea Party was its origin story. The Tea Party was marked at every level by this willingness to threaten its own party. I talk about it in my book as an insurgent faction, so one that's kind of rising up from within, using the mechanisms of power and some things that aren't just typically used as mechanisms of power to try to change what the Republican Party stood for. The House Freedom Caucus has used very similar strategies over the years. They tend to take a scorched-earth approach. They aren't afraid to oust their leaders or to show disagreement in public. They also aren't necessarily afraid of the label dysfunctional. They almost think it's good if government doesn't work, if they can't really legislate, if they do shut things down.

LIMBONG: Now, given what this current group of GOP lawmakers were able to accomplish, you know, in the speaker's race, I think it's safe to say that they were successful, right? And while the Tea Party was a vocal faction within the GOP, I don't know if I remember them getting to this point of power, right? Did something change? Was there, like, an evolution? Was there, you know, a growth of influence?

BLUM: I think it's been a little bit of a complex journey. But the way I'm thinking about it right now is as a series of undercurrents, right? Because the House Freedom Caucus, and many of the members that were originally part of the Tea Party wave - many of those people actually were kind of on board with Kevin McCarthy this time, like Jim Jordan, even though they opposed him when he first tried to run in 2015. And then you saw this other wing of the House Freedom Caucus that's primarily populated by newer representatives with less experience in Congress or governing, who seemed to have a very different kind of agenda.

So the Tea Party had always said it cared about fiscal issues and it was anti-establishment, but I think what we are seeing now is that those different ways of approaching government have split what used to be the Tea Party into at least two camps - so the ones who are kind of more experienced and realize that they do have to do something like governing and something like making coalitions and the ones who are still thinking of compromise as a dirty word, quite possibly because they have not been in government as long.

LIMBONG: Or because it's worked for them.

BLUM: Yeah. Well, and people like Lauren Boebert, right? She's only had to face two elections. She hasn't ever really been in a position where she needed to try to pass legislation or make compromises. So not only does it seem like it's worked for her, but she hasn't had to test it.

LIMBONG: So yesterday, we talked on this program about, like, how much exactly McCarthy had to concede to become speaker. Long story short, it was a lot. But I don't know - and I could be wrong, but I don't think Democrats have had a similar faction within their party that's been this successful in recent years, right? And, like, if not, like, why do you think that is?

BLUM: You're right that they haven't had a similar situation with the House speaker, but I do think the Democratic Party has lots of its own factions. The way I'd maybe reframe the question is, why is the Democratic Party less obstructionist and cantankerous, especially in public? And I think a lot of that's because of how the current Democratic Party evolved out of the 1960s. It became a party of all these different groups that were no longer represented or couldn't gain entrance to the Republican Party. So its very nature since the 1960s has been one where every time there's a national nominating contest, all of the factions have it out.

So they've had this kind of continued venue for dissent, and they know that they will get a voice. Whereas in the Republican Party, they've maintained a much stricter top-down approach. There wasn't even a platform debate in 2020. The platform was just Donald Trump. So for people in the Republican Party who feel like they've been sidelined to have a voice, they have to exploit situations like this where their numerical minority can kind of hit above their weight.

LIMBONG: Actually, yeah, as we keep an eye on Speaker McCarthy - right? - and how he interacts with these members of the Freedom Caucus, are there any things in particular that you're looking for?

BLUM: I think it will be interesting to see what the consensus among these different wings of the GOP really is. So we have a little bit of an idea of that from the concessions. We'll see more with the rules package on Monday. But what we've essentially come down to here is on the bare minimum of things that all the different people who call themselves Republicans can agree on. So it will be interesting to see if that number of things could maybe grow as they get into the business of running Congress or if, as we start to have budget battles, which we know we will have, if that consensus shrinks.

I'll also be interested to see how Kevin McCarthy plays his hand, because people criticize him as having a backbone or making deals with the devil or whatever we want to say, but you could also think of that as his political style, which is to try to keep as many people in the room talking as possible by saying what he has to say to different people. So we will see if that actually helps him wrangle people or if a lot of people just will never trust him because of the concessions he's made - and by a lot of people, I mean, not just the Freedom Caucus, but the moderate members who were really opposed to these concessions from the beginning.

LIMBONG: That's Rachel Blum. She's a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. Her latest book is "How The Tea Party Captured The GOP: Insurgent Factions In American Politics." Professor Blum, thanks for joining us.

BLUM: Yes, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.