The day after Mike Johnson was elected House speaker, the editorial board of The New York Times published a good summary of the Louisiana Republican’s radicalism on a wide range of issues. But in passing, the editors touched on an underappreciated point about the GOP’s trajectory.
It has been disturbing to watch the slide from Republican speakers like Paul Ryan and John Boehner, who denounced attempts to challenge the election results, to the hemming and hawing of Kevin McCarthy to the full-blown antidemocratic stands of Mr. Johnson. And it has certainly been a long slide from the party of Ronald Reagan — whose 11th Commandment was not speaking ill of other Republicans and who envisioned the party as a big tent — to the extremism, purity tests and chaos of the House Republican conference this year.
There are no credible questions about Johnson’s ideology. The Wall Street Journal, in a news report, described the Louisiana as “the most conservative speaker of the last century,” and I’m hard pressed to imagine how anyone could credibly draw a different conclusion.
But among the reasons that’s relevant is the eagerness among House Republicans to keep finding new ways to move even further to the right.
This also came to mind the other day when The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent highlighted Johnson’s radicalism on immigration, including the GOP congressman’s embrace of highly provocative conspiracy theories. It was, after all, at a Capitol Hill hearing last year when Johnson falsely asserted that the U.S./Mexico border is “open” because Democratic officials want to “turn all the illegals into voters.” Greg’s report added:
The pro-immigrant group America’s Voice, which tracks lawmakers’ positions on the issue, has not documented any comparable rhetoric in Johnson’s predecessor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy. “Johnson has gone farther than most of his Republican colleagues in elevating alarmist and dangerous rhetoric,” says Vanessa Cardenas, the group’s executive director.
It’s not just immigration, of course. On everything from abortion rights to climate change, LGBTQ+ rights to the separation of church and state, Johnson is well to the right of McCarthy.
Who was to the right of Paul Ryan.
Who was to the right of John Boehner.
There’s a school of thought in American politics that parties pursue course-corrections in the wake of electoral setbacks. Indeed, it probably seems like common sense: When a party fails to persuade voters and struggles at the ballot box, party leaders look for ways to become more popular in the hopes of winning the next time.
For Republicans, the course-correction never comes. The party struggled mightily in 2006 and 2008, and its response was to move further to the right. The GOP struggled again in 2012, and its response was to move further to the right. Republicans lost the House in 2018, and its response was to move further to the right. The party lost the Senate and the White House in 2020, and their response was to move further to the right. The GOP assumed it’d ride a “red wave” in 2022, but the party instead underperformed to a historic degree.
Its response — let’s all say it together — was to move further to the right.