How can an institution stand for something if anyone can join? Both major parties have faced this question this year, as self-described independent Bernie Sanders has plagued Hillary Clinton on the road to the Democratic presidential nomination and celebrity outsider Donald Trump has effectively secured the Republican nomination. In the face of Republican leaders and elders withholding their endorsement from him, Trump has only escalated his defiance of GOP orthodoxy, reportedly proposing an increase in tax rates for the rich and in the minimum wage. Meanwhile, Sanders's dogged challenge may pull Clinton further to the left by convention time than she or the Democratic National Committee may deem convenient. Disaster seems to have befallen the Republicans, while the Democrats most likely will prove stupidly lucky in getting Clinton nominated in our turbulent anti-establishment environment. But why did Trump or Sanders even have a chance? It bears repeating that the two major parties have little power to prevent anyone from getting on their primary ballots as long as candidates state their intentions and/or get the necessary signatures by whatever local deadlines exist. No one on the national level has the power to disqualify candidates, much less people registering to vote, for going against the party platform. In one sense this actually reinforces our democratic habits, since the primary voter becomes the ultimate arbiter determining who a "real" Republican or Democrat is. But that's only the case if both parties respect democracy. The imminent schism between Trump and Speaker Ryan, among others, shows that some Republicans intend to put ideological integrity before the will of the rank and file, apparently preferring the devil they know -- Mrs. Clinton, not Senator Cruz -- to the uncertainty of Trump's intentions. If, as these leaders hope, they remain in charge after a Trump trainwreck, will they learn any lessons from this year?
The only lesson to learn for either party is that the only guarantor of ideological integrity is the privatization of the party, the removal of the candidate-selection process from the public realm of a government-funded election, at whatever expense to the party, and its liberation from government rules limiting the conditions parties can impose on candidates. Such a reform is obviously subject to abuse -- parties adopted state-funded primaries in the first place to keep party bosses from limiting party members' choices -- but it places responsibility for abuse where it belongs, with the party. Why don't the major parties do this? It can't be that they're cheap, given how much they spend on campaigns, though you can be profligate and still want someone else to pick up the tab sometimes, e.g. on primary day. For this persistent flirtation with self-sabotage to make sense, it might be wise on this occasion to think of the major parties as part of a single "establishment" whose interests are not exactly those of either party or both combined. To the extent that stability is a prime establishment interest, the fluidity of party identity that results from existing rules may serve that interest by providing a kind of steam control, allowing the two-party system to absorb discontent, at whatever cost to coherence, in order to prevent the consolidation of a persistent if not permanent alternative. Tempt the insurgents to take over a major party, the theory may go, and the sooner that insurgency will play itself out. The theory may prove valid for the Democrats if no permanent movement results from the Sanders insurgency, but some Republicans now seem uncertain about playing their side of the game to the end. For the theory to hold the status quo should be able to withstand even a Trump presidency, just as it has, to a great extent, survived the long insurgency that began with the Barry Goldwater candidacy and culminated with the generational triumphs of Ronald Reagan, the Contract With America, and the Tea Party without the insurgents carrying out their agenda to reverse the New Deal. The heirs of these insurgents are among the many Republicans who fear Trump. We presume it's because they fear that he will govern as yet another "imperial" President with perhaps less comprehension of, much less respect for the Constitution than his recent predecessors. But there may be more to it than that. Their opposition to their presumptive nominee ultimately may tell us more about them than about Trump -- and if they survive to reclaim the reins of the party, what they do afterwards to prevent another Trump-style takeover, or don't do, may tell us still more.