A Gentle Reader writes:
Trump has long said he could run as an independent, and is not committed to the Republican party. Carson today threatened to leave the Republican party. That’s their top two candidates in the polls. The second place Democrat is a lifelong independent, not committed to the Democratic party. What does this mean for party organization and party identification if so many members of the parties don’t care about commitment to party, or at least don’t care about their candidate’s commitment to party? Does that disconnect matter?
In practical terms, I don’t think it matters at all. The candidates will be office-holders within the Party structure. If Trump does, in fact, run as an independent, I don’t think it will mean more than John Anderson running as an independent in 1980, and much less than Strom Thurmond running as an independent in 1948—both of the abandoned Parties in those years won the election, by the way. The Parties will probably mutate a bit to regain more control, but the Parties are always mutating to regain control, and I think the basic organization outline of the nomination race will be the same in 2019 as it is now (pretty much the same as it has been since 1980 or so).
It’s tempting to say it doesn’t matter in cultural terms, either. People hate the Parties, people always hate the Parties. People hate politicians, people hate Congress. Those are constants. On the other hand, I do think we have a… benchmark? A benchmark of sorts, where the Other Party, particularly, may have reached some sort of tipping point in their cultural dysfunction. I hesitate to say it, and of course it’s easier to diagnose the dysfunction in the Other Party than my own, but still: that Party has some serious problems. And in the current system, one of the ways that our Parties work out their problems is in the Presidential Primary system.
This is the time when various factions choose candidates to support or to actively work against. In My Party, the factions are usually pretty obvious: people who are focused on labor, the environment, income inequality, federal debt, social liberalism, national security, privacy and a handful of other topics jockey for influence. Various people influential with those groups sign on to one campaign or another. The front-runners attempt to co-opt the groups supporting other candidates, and in doing so shift the party’s policy center toward the most influential of the factions. It’s true that this time, Bernie Sanders isn’t part of the formal Party, but he certainly is part of the Party (having been elected by Democrats and having caucused with Democrats) and his support is largely (as far as I can tell) typical of this kind of campaign. I compare it with Bill Bradley’s campaign in 2000; it will have some effect on both the candidate and the Party’s center of gravity, but it won’t push the Party outside the Party.
In the other Party… well, the support for Donald Trump comes from three major areas, as far as I can tell. First and I think most importantly, a large number of people want to watch Donald Trump playing the Donald Trump character, as they have for ten years or so; his skills are extraordinary and undeniable, even if I have no idea what those skills actually are. I doubt another reality-tv star of his magnitude will run for President soon, so that faction is probably unimportant structurally. The second faction supporting him are angry nativists, and I think that Party’s center-of-gravity will shift toward angry nativism as a result, which is wonderfully democratic and all, but kinda scary. Still, that’s the point of these things, and I think can be accommodated within the Party structure quite easily.
Digression: I should add in here that I think angry nativism isn’t a long-term winner for the Party, and that the Party will eventually need to push it aside, but certainly it hasn’t hurt them electorally so far. I believe it will happen, like with the My Party and segregation, and perhaps Donald Trump running as an independent will be the spark for that struggle, but I doubt it. I also should say my sanguine confidence in the long term doesn’t mean I am not terrified that they will do an enormous amount of damage in the short term. I would like to have some great ideas for what to do to prevent or limit that damage, but I do not. End Digression.
The third faction is the one that may be a structural problem for the Party: they are the people who support Trump primarily because he is not a politician. They believe (somehow) that his supposed straight-talking and his uncompromising arrogance make him a better, rather than a worse, executive. They wouldn’t bother me much, except that they seem to be the driving force behind what I see as the real dysfunction in that Party: the extent to which their elected legislators feel that competent legislation and governance will be punished in the primary. In part, that’s because culturally, for this group, liberals—identified with the Democratic Party, particularly Our Only President and the leaders of the House and Senate—are dangerous criminals who are destroying our country. Since the two Parties have to govern together (even if one Party has a majority in both Houses and has the White House, our system allows the out Party a wide variety of veto points) that means that this faction will always consider their leadership to be betraying not only their constituents but the country itself.
I don’t think this is symmetrical, by the way. Sure, there are certainly people on our side that abominate the Other Party. Sure, there are people on our side that get outraged when our leaders cut a deal with the Other Party. There are now and then calls from Left Blogovia to run a primary candidate against those legislators of Our Party who vote with the Other Party too often, yes, but (a) there don’t seem to be all that many actually primary challengers, and (2 and more important) the incumbents don’t appear to be terrified of primary challengers, whether or no. I believe that the Other Party’s partisans also perceive that their Party is more dysfunctional than My Party, but I could certainly be wrong about that.
So the problem, as I see it, is that this faction within (or sort-of within) the Other Party cannot be accommodated democratically. The Party has to participate in government; any actual governance will make any Party actor ineligible (to this faction) for factional support. I don’t think this is the usual dream of an outsider, an Ike or a Ross Perot, coming in and turning the moneylenders out of the temple. Maybe it is, and it just feels different because it’s happening now. I hope so. Maybe this faction isn’t big enough to cause structural trouble; I don’t think it’s possible to extract its numbers from the other group supporting him in the polls. Maybe this faction will dissipate on its own when their Party takes the White House, as it is bound to sooner or later. Maybe not.
Our system (the state and federal branches with separated branches at each level, with first-past-the-post geographic elections and the concomitant two-party system with permeable parties and extended informal party networks) has been amazingly, astoundingly resilient over more than a century. It translates popular passion into slow change. The Parties keep themselves going by accommodating democracy; the democracy keeps itself going by accommodating the parties; the people keep themselves going by accommodating each other. An argument that this time they won’t self-correct would have to be pretty convincing, and I expect they will find some way through, but it’s not obvious how.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,