Today the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted along party lines to remove Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) from her seat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The Republicans voting to remove her justified their action by pointing to language she used that they say was antisemitic. She has apologized for that language.
Earlier, House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) used his own discretion to remove Democratic California representatives Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from the House Select Committee on Intelligence.
While these removals are often portrayed simply as a quest for revenge after Democrats removed Representatives Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) from committees when they were in charge, there is a crucial difference between the cases. The Democrats removed Gosar and Greene—both members of the far-right group—after they threatened violence against their Democratic colleagues. Republicans removed Schiff and Swalwell over make-believe dangers and now have removed Omar allegedly over policy differences. At the same time, McCarthy reinstated Gosar and Greene to prime committee assignments.
The Republicans have accepted violence among Congress members.
Today’s vote is a window into a larger story. It appears the Republican Party has split, and the far-right wing is making a play to become what amounts to a third party. Its members demanded the removal of Schiff and Swalwell from the intelligence committee and Omar from foreign affairs: Schiff and Swalwell apparently because they have gone after former president Donald Trump, and Omar because she is Muslim and a woman of color.
Removing Schiff and Swalwell was relatively easy, since the speaker can determine the make-up of select committees himself. Removing Omar was dicier, since it required a vote of the House. Today, McCarthy gave the far right what they wanted, getting rid of Omar.
In order to justify it on grounds other than racism, though, he had to pretend the issue was antisemitic words. It’s a hard sell to convince people that the Republican Party cares much about antisemitism when it has embraced the openly antisemitic Ye, also known as Kanye West, and when Trump recently warned Jews that they must “get their act together…before it is too late.” Kevin McCarthy himself in November 2022 indulged in antisemitic tropes when he tweeted: “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election! Get out and vote Republican….”
McCarthy catered to far-right members in order to get the votes to become speaker; now he is giving those members what they want in order to keep them from ousting him and to get them on board for imperative legislation like a bill to raise the debt ceiling.
The power the far-right representatives are getting is making them a force distinct from the rest of the Republican Party. They demanded, and got, extraordinary representation on committees apart from the normal party apparatus, power over the Speaker and the introduction of bills, and now have normalized violent rhetoric within the party.
Their rise is a logical outcome of the history of the Republican Party. Back in the 1980s, those Republicans determined to get rid of government regulation of business and social programs did two things.
First, they insisted that any government regulation of business or provision of a basic social safety net was “socialism” because, they claimed, the tax dollars that such government action cost would come from those with money—who they implied would be white people—and thus would redistribute wealth from hardworking white men to those who benefited from such programs. This idea has nothing to do with the modern definition of socialism, which means government ownership of the means of production. Instead, it is a holdover from the Reconstruction years in the United States, when white supremacists insisted that Black voting would mean a redistribution of wealth as formerly enslaved people voted for lawmakers who promised to fix roads, and build schools and hospitals.
Second, Republicans in the 1980s made a deliberate decision to court voters with religion, racism, and sexism in order to hold onto power. Antitax crusader Grover Norquist brought business leaders, evangelicals, and social conservatives into a coalition to win elections in 1985. “Traditional Republican business groups can provide the resources,” he said, “but these groups can provide the votes.” Over the decades their focus on religion, race, and sex ramped up until it took on a power of its own, stronger than the pro-business ideology of those who fed it.
Now, a generation later, that rhetoric has led to its logical conclusion: the Republicans have created a group of voters and their representatives who are openly white supremacists and who believe that any attempt to use the government to hold the economic playing field level is socialism. They are overwhelmingly evangelicals. They back former president Trump or someone like him and are eager to break the power of the current government even if it means defaulting on our debt. They threaten violence.
With the Republican Party just barely in control of the House, that group now wields enough power that it divides the House into three groups: the Democrats, the Republicans who want to cut taxes and gut regulation, and the Republicans who want to destroy the “socialist” government, want to keep white people in charge, support Trump or someone similar, are fervently Christian, and openly court violence.
Today, the House voted to condemn socialism—another attempt to appease that far right—while Republicans then chided those Democrats who refused to vote in favor of that condemnation because they said they thought it was a setup to cut Social Security and Medicare as socialism. (They are not socialism.)
Also today, former president Trump “retruthed” the words of a person who warned that he and “80,000,000” were willing to fight for Trump and were “Locked and LOADED.” In the House, some of the far-right group are wearing AR-15 pins, but when Emine Yücel of Talking Points Memo asked Representative Anna Paulina Luna (R-FL) why she was wearing one, her office answered that it was “about sponsoring a gun bill and has nothing to do with whatever blueanon conspiracy theories are being floated on Capitol Hill,” a reference to the idea that Democrats-- rather than the Republicans like Greene who were QAnon adherents-- are embracing conspiracy theories. The members wearing the pins have not, so far, introduced any gun bills.
This is alarming, but it is not the first time an extremist minority in Congress has organized, determined to control the country. In 1879, for example, before the parties switched into their current arrangement, Democratic former Confederates banded together, demanded the leadership of key committees—which the exceedingly weak speaker gave them—and set out to make the Republican president, Rutherford B. Hayes, get rid of key Republican policies by refusing to fund the government until he caved.
With the support of House minority leader James A. Garfield, Hayes stood firm, recognizing that allowing a minority of the opposition party to dictate to the elected government by holding it hostage would undermine the system set up in the Constitution. The parties fought it out for months until, in the end, the American people turned against the Democrats, who backed down. In the next presidential election, which had been supposed to be a romp for the Democrats, voters put Garfield, the Republican who had stood against the former Confederates, into the White House.
He said the course’s segments on intersectionality — the understanding of how race, gender, class, sexual orientation, for example, can marginalize people — reparations, mass incarceration and the role of Black queer theory were a political agenda and not education.
Greenwald celebrated his exodus with a seven-minute appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show, where he claimed The Intercept’s alleged shielding of Joe Biden from scrutiny was all of a piece with an anti-Trump conspiracy in which “the CIA and the Deep State operatives became heroes of the liberal left, the people that support the Democratic Party, [and are] now in a full union with the neocons, the Bush-Cheney operatives, the CIA, Silicon Valley and Wall Street. That is the union of power, along with mainstream media outlets, that is fully behind the Democratic Party.”
[Greenwald has] become a practitioner of manufactured controversy in the service of the hard right in this country.
— Betsy Reed, The Intercept editor-in-chief
The strategy behind this Republican battle is to fight off the federal state until they have re-established federal power themselves
Florida governor Ron DeSantis has been grabbing national headlines with his relentless attacks on so-called “woke”. In addition to his Stop-Woke (Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees) Act, which prohibits educational institutions and businesses from teaching students and employees anything that would cause anyone to “feel guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress” due to their race, color, sex or national origin, he has barred University of Florida professors from giving evidence against the state’s voting law, claimed that professors at public professors have no right to freedom of speech, and organizing a “hostile takeover” of the New College of Florida, one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country. But he is far from the only Republican politicians to attack the education system.
UCLA Law School’s CRT Forward Tracking Project has tracked 567 anti-Critical Race Theory (CRT) efforts introduced at the local, state, and federal levels. According to the World Population Review, there are currently seven states that have banned CRT, while another 16 states are in the process of banning it. That constitutes almost all states with a Republican governor. While CRT is a highly specific academic theory that is almost exclusively taught at some law schools, the anti-CRT laws are incredibly broad and vague and target all levels of education. In my state, Georgia, House bill 1084 bans the use of so-called “divisive concepts” (eg race and gender) from teaching. In a sentence that could come straight from Orwell’s 1984, the bill prohibits schools from “promoting concepts such as tolerance, mutual respect, cultural sensitivity, or cultural competency”.
Although all bills explicitly ban the teaching of classic racism, ie that “one race is superior to another race”, they also ban the teaching of institutional or structural racism, ie the idea racial discrimination is not just the consequence of a few racist individuals (“bad apples”) but that it is structural, engrained in the country’s key institutions – from election laws to law enforcement. The idea is simple: if kids are not taught about institutional racism, and the white supremacy it upholds, they won’t question it later when they are voters. As Orwell knew, historical revisionism is always a project for the future.
Both legal professionals and laypersons have noted that “the bills are so vaguely written that it’s unclear what they will affirmatively cover”. This is not because of incompetence or oversight but by design. The vagueness serves, at least, two goals. First, and foremost, it makes the laws hard to interpret, which leads those targeted (from teachers to principals) to be extra cautious. Second, the vagueness provides deniability, both to the courts and to more moderate supporters. In fact, the prime goal is not for the state to censor teachers and schools but for them to self-censor. That is why it was only a minor setback when a Florida judge struck down the “Stop Woke” law, calling it “positively dystopian”. Across the state, teachers and universities had already started to self-censor. For instance, the University of Central Florida (UCF), the state’s largest university, removed all anti-racist statements from departmental websites, while several of its professors decided to cancel scheduled courses on race out of fear of breaching the “Stop Woke” law.
Although most of the current laws are targeting public institutions in Republican-controlled states, they are part of a national agenda. In his first speech as re-elected House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy pledged to fix “woke education indoctrination in our schools”, while former President Donald Trump has made the “issue” a priority for his 2024 campaign. Building upon the misguided ideas of his 1776 Commission, whose work was cut short by Trump’s lost re-election bid, the former President not only wants to stimulate “patriotic education” but also cut federal funding for any school or program that includes “critical race theory, gender ideology, or other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content onto our children”. And, make no mistake, university administrators will not risk losing millions of federal funding for a “gender” or “race” class, not even at the private Ivy Leagues in solidly blue states.
The recent Dobbs ruling has shown once again that “states’ rights” are not a Republican principle but a defensive, and temporal, strategy to fight off the federal state until they have re-established federal power themselves. We cannot expect individual schools and teachers to fight this battle alone. We also shouldn’t expect the educational establishment to stand up for academic freedom, as was made clear by the recent decision of the College Board, which stripped down its AP curriculum for African American Studies to appease DeSantis.
To counter the highly-organized conservative attack, we need a concerted and integrated campaign from all individuals and organizations that support academic freedom and liberal democracy, from the AAUP to the ACLU, and we need it sooner rather than later, as the damage is already being done – one in four of all teachers across the country have already altered their lesson plans due to anti-CRT laws. After all, as Orwell has taught us, how we see the past determines our future!