The fall of John Boehner and the nihilism of the House GOP

What do Boehner's enemies really stand for?

John Boehner.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

"There are anywhere from two to four dozen members [of the House GOP] who don't have an affirmative sense of governance… They just can't get to yes."

That's Rep. Charlie Dent, Republican of Pennsylvania, as quoted in The New York Times, talking about the members of the House GOP who helped force the resignation of John Boehner as speaker of the House.

It's a harsh judgment — but not nearly harsh enough.

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To get a proper grasp of just what's motivating this radical faction in the House (and its self-appointed cheerleader in the Senate, presidential candidate Ted Cruz of Texas), we have to push beyond Dent's observation to ask a simple but clarifying question: What would it take to get these two to four dozen Republicans to yes? What does this faction want?

The question is as old as political science. Its founder, Aristotle, suggested that politics consists of a contest between various factions or classes within the political community over which of them will rule, with each of them attempting to make a case for its victory by putting forth a distinctive vision of the common good.

In some of its dimensions, the common good seeks to further what Aristotle called "mere life," by which he meant primarily the establishment and maintenance of the rule of law and economic prosperity at home, and the defense of the community against external enemies. But in the contest between different classes over these issues, some go further, to justify their rule in the name of nobler goals or ideals. Aristotle called this "the good life" of devotion to commonly shared notions of virtue or human excellence.

So what does the kamikaze faction of the House GOP want to achieve? What is its vision of the common good and the good life?

Most members of the hard-line "freedom caucus" support a strong military, so that's something — the aspect of "mere life" that involves defense of the community against external enemies. For those who do the dangerous work themselves, it calls forth virtues — like courage, valor, fortitude — that can contribute to some forms of the good life.

Many also want to restrict immigration. As a contribution to upholding law and order as well as the economic prosperity of low-income Americans who are already here, that's another aspect of furthering "mere life."

That's a start. What else?


Yeah, that's what I thought.

To "what else?" the hard-line answer is: zilch, nada, nothing.

Here is what they really stand for:

First and foremost they'd repeal the Affordable Care Act without passing anything remotely comparable to deal with the millions of people who would instantly lose their insurance and access to affordable health care.

They'd also privatize Social Security and Medicare, and deregulate Wall Street, and gut Medicaid and food stamps, and cut financial aid for college students.

And of course they'd defund Planned Parenthood without making provision for substitute reproductive health services for women.

Prisons? Let private companies handle it.

The Internal Revenue Service? Privatize it.

Highways? Privatize them, too.

Amtrak? Same. (What else would you expect for such a "Soviet-style operation"?)

The postal service? Ditto.

Air traffic control? Yep.

Other infrastructure? Let it crumble. (Eventually even the liberals will demand that private companies take it over.)

Even the beloved military should be replaced by private contractors whenever and wherever possible.

That's what the hard-liners who deposed John Boehner really want. And if they don't get it, they're quite happy to just shut down the government for as long as it takes. Because no government is always better than Big Government.

This is politics as Aristotle understood it flipped on its head. It's politics conducted as anti-politics. Instead of working to advance a vision of the common good, the radicals in effect deny there is a common good at all and actively seek to hack away at any government program or service that seeks to justify itself in collective or communal terms.

In place of those collective, public goods, the hard-liners insist there are only private goods pursued by private individuals. They may claim to be patriots, unapologetic champions of America exceptionalism. But their vision of the world precludes treating the United States of America as an entity with a shared, public good apart from the aggregate private goods of the 318 million American individuals who make up the country.

The philosophically precise term for this position is nominalism — a view that denies the reality of abstract concepts and collectivities (like "common" and "public") and insists that the only real things are individuals.

In political terms, nominalists see collective action by government as justifiable only to the extent that it maximizes the freedom of individuals understood as disconnected social atoms. In their ideal America, there would be no public spaces (some, like Cruz, would even sell off the national parks and forests), only the most minimal public institutions, and very little social safety net beyond individual acts of charity.

This radically libertarian vision of a "nightwatchman" state that provides for the common defense and little else supposedly derives from the writings of John Locke. But of course Locke proposed it as a thought experiment to explain the earliest origins of government. Such a minimal government never actually existed. Not even in the 17th century, when it was first proposed, at a time when life was indescribably simpler than it is today — before the rise of modern economies, industrialization, multinational corporations, electricity, rapid transportation, telecommunication, medicine, pharmaceuticals, international capital flows, and the countless other things that make our lives so complex, and which the modern state (with its enormous size and regulatory reach and power) helps us to manage.

By all means, let's debate the size and scope of government. There may well be areas where we'd be better off with a smaller state, just as there might be areas where we'd be better off with a larger one. But the debate has to be waged in terms of what's best for the common good. Those whose policy goals demonstrate that they're operating with next to no notion of the common good have nothing worthwhile or constructive to contribute.

John Boehner appears finally to understand this.

Those who brought him down never have and likely never will.

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Damon Linker

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at He is also a former contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.