There’s a conservative rebellion simmering in the U.S. House of Representatives. House Speaker John Boehner is resigning under pressure, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, his expected successor, dropped out of the race for Speaker last Thursday. As the House GOP emerges from the current chaos, the previously little-known Freedom Caucus finds itself in a potential kingmaker’s role.
The caucus endorsed Florida Congressman Daniel Webster (who is not a Freedom Caucus member) for Speaker, which played a major role in driving McCarthy from the race. A former Speaker of the Florida House with a voting record that is close to the ideological center of the GOP caucus, Webster won Freedom Caucus support by promising to run the House far more democratically than his predecessors, giving caucus members a voice in the legislative process that they heretofore lacked.
Who are the Freedom Caucus members and what do they want?
The Caucus consists of at least 36 conservative legislators. (The Freedom Caucus doesn’t keep a public tally of its members, so it’s membership is best determined by taking a survey of past reporting.) They have been described as a “brat pack “ of “un-American” “far right” conservatives who “want to rule the world.” The Republican Party establishment, the business lobby, and the news media have painted the Caucus’s members as radical extremists. Yet they are very much a product of recent trends in the party.
The caucus is overwhelmingly male, geographically diverse, and contains both religious “values voters” and more libertarian-oriented conservatives. Members are about twice as likely to belong to minority groups than their other GOP colleagues. About 80% were elected in or after the Tea Party Revolution of 2010, compared to just more than half of non-caucus members. As a consequence, they also hold less senior roles than many of the party colleagues.
Another notable difference between Freedom Caucus members and other house Republicans is that Freedom Caucus members on average seem to have stronger and more extensive educational pedigrees than do their GOP colleagues. Of Freedom Caucus members, about one-fourth attended top-50 universities according to one ranking, compared to about 12% of GOP non-freedom Caucus members. They are more than twice as likely to have doctoral degrees and roughly three times as likely to have a medical or dental degree as their GOP colleagues. Overall, caucus members have substantially more educational attainment than non-members, and, on average, attended more prestigious academic institutions.
Their educational background means that Freedom Caucus members are almost invariably used to being in a small conservative minority surrounded by liberals. They are not afraid of being unpopular, or of holding views that are disapproved of by institutional leadership. They have generally thought through—and are comfortable defending—the conservative premises of their arguments. When combined with their lack of seniority, it paints a picture of the Freedom Caucus members as bright junior legislators who do not look kindly on an established leadership that has largely failed to achieve conservative goals it has promised the voters.
As Margaret Thatcher said: “First you win the argument, then you win the vote.” To a great extent, the Freedom Caucus is telling GOP leadership that it has forgotten how to win the argument for conservatism. In many cases, it has not even shown much desire to make the argument.
As Ted Cruz, a notable Senate friend of the caucus, said regarding his own fights with GOP leadership: “You don’t have to win every fight; you don’t even have to fight every fight; but you do have to stand for something.” Conservative voters are tired of winning elections but losing legislatively. They are tired of a “100 year majority” that has yet to overturn, or even send for a veto, any major pieces of liberal legislation.
The Freedom Caucus’s ascendance represents the frustration of the more than three quarters of GOP voters who are supporting a presidential candidate who emerged on the national political scene during or after the Tea Party Revolution of 2010. And it is reflective of GOP voters’ disgust with the current party establishment that Marco Rubio, currently being touted as the “great establishment hope” for those major donors looking for an alternative to Jeb Bush, was originally elected on a Tea Party platform in the face of National Republican Senatorial Committee opposition and with the enthusiastic support of conservative firebrand Jim DeMint.
Whatever the group’s tactical or strategic shortcomings, the Freedom Caucus seems to attract representatives who are interested in winning the battle of ideas for conservatism. If they can combine that zeal for “winning the argument” with the electoral and institutional savvy of some of the more senior members, many of whom know how to “win the vote,” it could allow the GOP House to have a highly effective, conservative and substantive governing majority.
But whether this happens will be largely determined by the next House GOP leadership, who will have to work with the Freedom Caucus far more effectively than Boehner and McCarthy did. At a time of considerable intellectual ferment on the right, the GOP coalition may not survive an establishment counter-revolution.
Jeremy Carl is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution.