I met chair of the House Freedom Caucus, Jim Jordan, this summer—months before I (and likely he) knew that he would be at the core of one of the most stunning power transfers in American politics. He was soft-spoken and charming in a folksy Midwestern kind of way—hardly a firebrand who could dethrone one of the most powerful men in government, stave off his deputy, and thrust an inert Republican establishment in the throes of revolution.
But if not a fire, I could at least sense a feeling of betrayal burning inside him, one that was evidently intense enough to cut short an infuriating Boehner era. Addressing a room full of writers, Jordan lambasted the largely Democratic push to renew the Export-Import Bank, and, more crucially, the GOP leadership’s unwillingness to do anything about it. He was reasonable and persuasive—eventually convincing even me, a procedural conservative too jaded to even roll his eyes when he get called a RINO, to support actually ending an institution.
That was the last time I thought about Jim Jordan until his Freedom Caucus, an invite-only group of conservative Congressmen in the House that was founded just earlier this year, gained traction in the last couple months over their role in stopping Planned Parenthood funding and, of course, the race to find John Boehner’s successor. Their political capital lies in their numbers—at around 40 members, they can prevent even a Republican majority from getting a minimum number of votes on resolutions. But much more notably, their political capital lies in the recent populist push for a radicalist Republican revamp—it’s the same fire that championed the Tea Party movement in the 2010 midterms, and certainly the same fire that pushed Boehner over the edge a couple of weeks ago.
This latter source of the Freedom Caucus’s power scares me. A movement grounded in popular fervor rather than rational principles is doomed to be fixated on short-term victories rather than far more important goals down the road. And as Election Day approaches, we must remember to play the long game. Republicans in their multifarious state—you have your evangelicals, your libertarians, your neocons—are more prone to accusations of dysfunction and disunion. The insurgency of the Freedom Caucus won’t help this image come election year, especially when juxtaposed with the ideological diversity of the 2016 candidates.
But what really irks me about the Freedom Caucus is that there is room for an intellectually rigorous movement from young legislators to reaffirm conservative principles in an entrenched GOP. I don’t think that the Freedom Caucus has met that standard yet.
It's nominally interesting to note that Freedom Caucus members are twice as likely to hold doctorates and three times as likely to have a medical degree than unaffiliated members of the GOP. The caucus members also tend to be younger and more geographically diverse. These are all indicators that the Freedom Caucus has what it takes to provide a healthy internal push to bring the GOP back on message—far more so at least than the deliberately contrarian, intellectually weak Tea Party movement.
Yet in this race for Speaker, the Freedom Caucus has simply inserted itself in the vacuum left by Boehner instead of reforming the undemocratic power structure altogether. For a group that came about to prevent a few people at the top from imposing their will on the entire House, the Freedom Caucus sure is hell-bent on imposing their will on the entire House—whether it’s by voting or withholding votes as a bloc or threatening to shut the government down altogether if they don’t get their way. It’s this total lack of self-awareness (a leader of the Caucus actually said in reference to establishment leadership, “The worst scenario is where you have one person or a small group of people dictate to everyone else what the outcome is going to be in advance.”) that prevents the Freedom Caucus from filling the admittedly necessary void in the GOP of starting a conservative renaissance.
The Jim Jordan I heard this summer could have filled this void, but he seems to be past the point of retrieval. He served an incredibly important purpose. Ousting Boehner presents Republicans with a chance to better capitalize on their “hundred-years majority.” But the Freedom Caucus needs to check its ambitions: when we ask for fire, it should not give us an inferno.
Shubhankar Chhokra ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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