11 December 2015

Party Discipline in the U.S., or the lack thereof

The Chicago Tribune has an op-ed today in which Patrick Reardon, a scholar and adviser to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, calls on the Republican Party to "expel" Donald Trump. Reardon must think that American political parties are like Communist parties, in which that sort of thing can happen. He's pathetically vague about how it could happen in the Republican party, saying only, "Karl Rove will know how to do it." Unless Reardon's been talking to Rove, I doubt he knows what he's writing about. As Time magazine pointed out earlier this year, in describing a GOP effort to rid itself of an undesirable national committeeman, the Republicans don't have "specific provisions" for removing members from the party. Democrats do have such a process, but it's elaborate and time-consuming. It shouldn't surprise us that it's so hard to throw someone out of the major American parties, because it's so easy to join them. No ideological tests are imposed; no one merely applies to be a Republican or Democrat. All you do is register and the actual party leaders have nothing to say about it. How can either party expect to expel people whose words or opinions are suddenly inconvenient or contradictory to the last platform when they never promised explicitly to abide by any platform or statement of principles in the first place? What this means is that people can decide who the Republican party runs for President merely by signing up for whatever reason they please, without having to state the reason. This hollowness of ideology helps explain the major parties' resiliency over the last 150 years, but it becomes inconvenient when it looks like primary voters may choose a candidate who isn't viable for the general election, as many Republicans fear Trump will prove.

If the GOP can't expel Trump, could they keep him off the primary ballots? From a cursory survey of states, it looks unlikely, especially since you have to deal with state election boards whose concern for a fair choice isn't automatically compatible with party interests. In some states all you have to do to make the primary ballot is be recognized as a credible candidate, as Trump must be recognized for now. In other states, ballot access depends on signatures, which Trump presumably has had no trouble getting, or payment of a fee, with which Trump should have even less of a problem. There seems to be no room for discretion on the part of party leaders. No one can step in and say Trump or anyone else can't be in the primary unfit or not ideologically sound. The most the RNC, if it so chooses, can do if it wants to stop Trump is what party organizations used to do all the time in the old days. It can endorse one of the other candidates as what used to be called the "regular" candidate, which guarantees no automatic advantage but would at least test the party loyalty and discipline of primary voters, who of course have no automatic obligation to the RNC.

Calls for Trump's expulsion are both puerile and premature. I still expect him to fade next year as the establishment rallies around one candidate, especially if other far-right candidates stay in the race to draw votes from Trump. But the problem Trump seemingly poses for the GOP makes you wonder whether their resilience has limits. If they do, we haven't seen them yet the way we saw the Whigs break under pressure in the 1850s. As long as the American people keep thinking in terms of two options, "left" or "right," and as long as independent parties labor under inertial handicaps, people and factions will keep fighting to take over one party or another, but will remain loyal in defeat lest the other party win. Trump himself may not remain loyal to the Republicans despite his promise, but that would be the storm of one season, unlikely to be repeated except by the man himself. Some predict that we'll see more Trumps but without similar pre-sold celebrity few are likely to match his quasi-success of the moment. Until something really transcends the left-right divide -- and both "left" and "right" are as resilient and adaptive as the parties that represent them -- the American Bipolarchy is bound to endure, and we'll be bound to it.

No comments: