Category: Past Events

Title: Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy Talks Distrust in Democracy on the Hilltop with Mo Elleithee

Author: Jane Wright (MPP'25)
Date Published: April 10, 2024

On Tuesday, April 9, 2024 students gathered in Lohrfink Auditorium on Georgetown’s campus to hear from Former Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy in a conversation moderated by GU Politics Executive Director Mo Elleithee

The event was introduced by Cody Becker (MPP ‘25), a graduate student in the McCourt School of Public Policy and current leader on GU Politics Fellow Machalagh Carr’s Student Strategy Team. 

Elleithee started off the conversation by citing recent polls, including GU Politics’ March 2024 Battleground Civility Poll, that reveal Americans’ declining trust in government and increasing belief that our democracy is under threat. 

“Democracy itself – it is still the greatest form of government because we the people get involved,” McCarthy said about democracy. “But it’s not fast, it’s not overly efficient.”

McCarthy adds that a fragmented news landscape, social media, the Covid-19 pandemic and a history of challenges to certify the election have compounded people’s distrust.

On polarization and partisanship as part of this distrust, McCarthy noted that, “America refers to states as red or blue– and they define you all that way. Even if you took people within your own party and asked them to find what your party stands for – they couldn’t agree.”

Elleithee next asked McCarthy about his perspective on trust in elections, and particularly about his vote on January 6th regarding the certification of the election. McCarthy cited changes in election policy due to the Covid-19 pandemic as a reason to challenge the election. 

“One of the cornerstones of a democracy is your ability to question something,” McCarthy said. 

He pointed to times throughout history that both parties challenged the election, particularly the controversial 2000 presidential election. McCarthy emphasizes that Joe Biden would have won the presidency regardless of the outcome of the election certification challenge. 

“Challenging something doesn’t mean you’re overturning something. A challenge is a challenge.” “What happened on January 6th was wrong,” McCarthy added. “I don’t apologize for any of the people who did it. I don’t think it was right in any shape or form.”

Elleithee followed up by asking McCarthy about his experience in the U.S. House of Representatives and declining trust in Congress.

McCarthy reflected on his experiences as a U.S. Representative saying, “I served 17 years, I loved every single day. I served as Speaker, it was tough, I loved every moment — highest to the lowest.”

He also emphasized the strong work ethic that his parents instilled in him and reflected on applying for an internship to work in his district representative’s office. 

“He turned me down. But you know what I did? I got elected to the seat I couldn’t get an internship in and became 55th Speaker of the House. Only in America could that happen.”

He encouraged people not to feel down about democracy, recalling Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the ability of our democracy to sustain itself.

“Name one other nation in the world that is conceived in liberty,” McCarthy said. “We strive for a more perfect union — we’re not perfect.” 

When asked about his support for congressional action on Ukraine, McCarthy emphasized the need for compromise. 

“We should fund Ukraine but, for the same purpose, we should secure our own border,” he said.

Students then had the opportunity to ask McCarthy questions. 

One student asked if McCarthy was concerned about the future of bipartisanship, particularly with some swing senators not running for reelection this year. He said that they are not running because they think they cannot get reelected. 

“We’re not rewarding that type of work,” McCarthy said.

Kwan Hopkins (C’24) told McCarthy, “Under your leadership, the Republican Party blocked, in every turn, democratic attempts to standardize elections across the country.” He continued on to refer to McCarthy’s support of former president Donald Trump and asked, “Do you feel you have turned your back on democracy in any way?”

McCarthy defended his support of Trump, saying “I think he is much better than our current president… The great thing about our country is we can believe something different, but we build those beliefs based on our experiences,” McCarthy said. “And based on my experiences working with both men, it’s not a hard decision.” 

Jason Goodman (MPP’25) asked McCarthy how he could support Trump given the former president’s position on immigration. 

“Trump often uses rhetoric that immigrants ‘are poisoning the blood of our country.’ Can you explain why you believe that a leader that uses such inflammatory rhetoric about immigrants is the best person to lead our country?” Goodman asked.

McCarthy denied having heard Trump say that. “We are a country based upon immigrants. It’s a strength within our nation,” he said. “You want to weigh that against a president that doesn’t secure the border at all – that anyone can come through.”

Another student asked McCarthy about the House Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government formed under McCarthy’s leadership. McCarthy emphasized the importance of the committee’s work in combating threats to democracy. 

“Is it a threat to democracy if you keep someone off a ballot, just because you don’t like them? I think it’s a big threat to democracy.”

McCarthy adds that the Weaponization Committee was created to get to the heart of these issues about democracy. He said we have to do something, “if we have people on all sides believing we have a problem.”

Elleithee concluded the event by thanking McCarthy for speaking with Georgetown students candidly and taking student questions. McCarthy stayed briefly after the event to talk to students and take photos.


This article was written by Jane Wright (MPP’25), a first-year student in the McCourt School of Public Policy.

Watch full recording below.