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It’s tough to keep up with all of the news zipping through the Capitol right now, with 13 rounds—and counting—of balloting failing to produce a new House Speaker and Republicans seemingly far from settling on a new leader heading into the weekend. Sure, Rep. Kevin McCarthy flipped 14 of the 20 holdouts mid-afternoon Friday, but he’s still a few leaps away from grabbing the gavel or getting the House back to its functioning self.
So you’re to be excused if you missed an editorial this week from the Chinese Communist Party’s tabloid likening the inability of House Republicans to pick a Speaker with the separate threat posed by insurrectionists who attacked the seat of democracy during a violent—but failed—coup attempt two years ago this Friday. Both events, The Global Times argued, are reminders of just how fragile the American democratic experiment remains, and why, in critics’ eyes, it mightn’t be the shining example its defenders suggest.
“Faced with the political chaos in the U.S., there is a sharp question whether the political class of the country is able to govern, and whether the internal conflicts and contradictions of one of the major political parties contaminate the entire system,” editors there wrote, helpfully in English, slagging the ongoing drama that has since entered its fourth day of balloting.
Put simply: the American system is problematic and maybe best avoided.
The diagnosis stings a bit more after a week like this one, although the comparison between a House procedural vote and an insurrection is as messy as democracy itself. The timing is sure to trigger those of us who are watching the evolution of both stories, one after four days and the other after two years. One stubborn, the other violent, the two events laced together twin narratives about democracy itself, one in which elected officials get to cast votes and the other in which votes themselves can be ignored. But at the 30,000-foot level, each moment deserves some introspection.
And yet this is the state of Washington—and U.S. democracy—as 2023 starts, sending up plenty of worries for what the next two years of government stand to be. Republicans have a majority in the House but can’t even settle on one person to lead them. Now, 13 failed ballots deep into McCarthy’s maybe-quixotic climb to the Speaker role, Washington is trying to figure out what parts of the House might be salvaged and what others might just need to head to the scrap yard until, at least, 2024.
The typically pro forma effort to select a Speaker began on Tuesday and may stretch through the weekend. That the first vote didn’t yield a choice for a role that is only behind the Vice President in the constitutional line of succession for the Oval Office for the first time in a century should freak people out. The fact that there has been so dramatically little movement four days later should tee up panic.
Which is why the world well beyond the Beltway has noticed the mess—especially in capitals of the United States’ biggest foes, rivals, and adversaries. Facts don’t stop at borders the way they did during the glory of the Cold War.
After Wednesday’s votes foretold a protracted battle, military veterans now armed with voting cards invited reporters to a briefing room off the House floor to explain the global stakes of what their colleagues were doing.
“Authoritarian regimes all over the world are pointing to what is going on in the House of Representatives and saying Look at the messiness of democracy, look at how it doesn’t work, how it can’t function—and in contrast to their authoritarian regimes,” Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., told reporters. (Of course, they were all urging colleagues to drop opposition to McCarthy and fall in line in the name of Uncle Sam.)
Waltz wasn’t wrong. The propaganda arms of North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and Russia all highlighted the unusual instability unfolding on the Hill. In many of the same stories, they noted that jostling overlapped with the anniversary of the 2021 riot, which sought to destabilize the electoral system, too. Imperfect comparisons, for sure, given one was an intra-party feud and the other a violent attempt to circumvent democracy itself, but nonetheless proof points of America’s imperfections.
The tactic is hardly new. During the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, Soviet propagandists accurately reported on the lynching of Blacks in the South as evidence of America’s incomplete promises of equality. Vietnam was a propagandist’s bonanza for critics of the United States and the West. The post–9/11 War on Terror offered no shortage of hypocrisy, especially when it came to Gitmo and contradictions about the so-called American leadership in the world. And recent Black Lives Matter protests were made-for-Pravda moments highlighting once again the incomplete promise of American democracy. Lower in the stories, the critics could toss in some ad hominem attacks on Washington, buttressed by the facts that America was already proven a troubled preacher of its values.
All of which is to say this: the mess at the Capitol certainly does not put America’s best foot forward when it comes to propaganda. It’s an embarrassment on a global stage that this is dragging on in such a purely tribal way and the facts need no embellishment. But, on its own, the delay in picking a Speaker doesn’t mean the system is broken. It just means the people running it might have substituted their personal ambitions for realism. The sin isn’t the system; it’s hubris. Few Americans will notice the Communist tabloid’s verdict on the tableau in Washington, but it will inform Chinese minds far more than anything published in Western outlets. It might be time for lawmakers to look inward and see what they’re doing, not just to themselves and their party, but to America’s image abroad.
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