Democratic Institutions are Messy: Just Ask the US House of Representatives

Protect the Rules of Democratic Institutions

Democratic institutions are often inefficient and even messy, but they are not designed to be neat and tidy decision-making machines. They are designed to enable majority rule but also to protect intense minorities. Addressing the concerns of intense minorities have long been as critical to democratic institutions as building majorities. The alternative is inherently unstable. That means rules such as the Senate filibuster can have real merit.

The current struggles of the Republican Party in the US House of Representatives to elect its leader after the 2022 elections is a case in point. It has been over a hundred years since a voting process has gone through as many iterations, 11 by my count last night. Pundits are complaining about how embarrassing or inefficient this process has been and screaming that it puts a right-wing faction of the party in a position to block the majority. Up to 20 members of Congress are holding out and not being persuaded to vote for Kevin McCarthy, the incumbent leader of the Republican Party in the House, who served as Minority Leader from 2019-2023. As the presumptive Speaker of the House, given a slim Republican majority, his supporters see the minority opposition as obstructionist and anti-democratic. I disagree, even though I fear this faction could undermine critical policies and funding priorities in the next Congress.

US House of Representatives 2023

However, I would resist changing the rules to shape present decisions or policy priorities. They may favor a rightwing faction today but could favor a leftwing or center coalition tomorrow. The rules are not inherently right or left or central but rules that are fair game for politicians to use in the democratic process.

Remember, most of the rules of the House favor the leaders – Congress is hierarchical. Seniority, committee memberships, and offices in Congress carry many prerogatives. Given all these advantages, along with the bargaining power they provide, if the leadership of the Republican Party cannot get its favoured candidate elected, it needs to work more effectively with the opposition or find a candidate who can be elected by a majority.  

Don’t fiddle with such rules for short term advantages. In the long run, they might well be critical to protecting you, when you are in among the intense minority. And the view that American politics is run by some ‘tyranny of the minority’ is just not credible. Intense minorities can often block initiatives, but their opposition can result in compromise and even better outcomes – such as a candidate for the House leadership who garners greater support from across the factions within the Republic Party. That is the way democratic institutions should work.


After 14 defeats, Kevin McCarthy was elected on teh 15th ballot as House speaker. Concessions were granted to the opposition within the Republican Party, but the Party and Congress survived.

Comments are most welcome