“The Party Decides” in the Age of the Trump Coup
Today is a dark and remarkable moment for the United States. A quasi-facist demagogue whose only qualification for the Presidency is a preternatural grasp of show business has taken a critical, though not irreversible, step towards seizure of control of one of the two great political parties of a nation with a third of the world’s wealth and nearly half of its nuclear weapons. This essay is decidedly not about the terrifying consequences for the nation and the world should the Donald be the one standing on the Capitol’s West Front on 1/20/17; but that is far and away the most important story following last night’s events, and one that no analysis of the many other interesting or illuminating facets of the story so far should obscure.
Nevertheless, this essay focuses on questions of underlying theory and political understanding (though from the point of view of an amateur, not a political scientist). Among the many unusual aspects of the Trump coup (for that is what it was; more on that later) was the degree to which it was unanticipated by elite observers both within and outside the Republican party. While this run-down of the failure of the GOP to mobilize will likely become a empirical touchstone in future analyses of this cycle, it limits its scope mostly to the party’s uppermost echelons. But the failure to anticipate the rise of Trump was a broader elite phenomenon (from which, defining elite expansively and as non-pejoratively as possible, I do not excuse myself), and the question of why has, somewhat oddly, centered on the kind of wonky political science treatise that rarely captures the imagination of a wider audience.
Yet The Party Decides, by Profs. Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller, with astonishing rapidity became a touchstone, then a flash point, for the punditocracy. A thorough recounting of exactly when, how, and to what degree its central thesis (or rather a version of it, more on which later) has become an organizing principle in the understanding of the presidential nomination process would be a fascinating work to read; however, that is not this essay, either. For the purposes of my readers, for whom I will assume the fact of The Party Decides’ ascendance is non-controversial, I will only cite two recent data points to cement it. Firstly is Dan Drezner’s recently expounded theory that The Party Decides was a linchpin in broader elite thinking that lulled many of the individuals and groups in a position to stop Trump into a false sense of placid invulnerability. Secondly is Nate Silver, whose persistent discounting of Trump’s chances of achieving what he has now all but achieved has become in-and-of-itself a notorious encapsulation of the elite failure I’ve described, beginning his process of introspective reevaluation by re-reading and re-evaluating The Party Decides.
I think Silver has come under a somewhat outsized degree of criticism, though why is a whole different article; my own feeling is that FiveThirtyEight’s largest failure this cycle is of a different nature — also a different story altogether. While I think Silver’s piece is worth a read, I think he neither quite captures exactly what The Party Decides really impies, nor why the events of 2016 make it more, not less, compelling. That’s because while the impetus, and most of the empirical analysis of, The Party Decides centers on the presidential nomination process, its underlying theory, and the implications of that theory, is perhaps what makes it most interesting and important.
Having not read the book since roughly this point in the past election cycle, since which I’d like to imagine I’ve become a more experienced and learned person — at the very least I have more Twitter followers—I too took it upon myself to re-read The Party Decides; what follows are the my thoughts on the book, its theories, and how to interpret it in light of what might seem — but only seem — to be events that challenge its conclusions and predictions.
A caveat— as noted above, I am not a political scientist. Therefore, my ability to evaluate certain claims made by The Party Decides about the state and history of debates within the political science community are necessarily limited. In some cases — in fact, immediately — I may restate The Party Decides’ perspective on those debates without endorsing that perspective per se; more generally, I certainly welcome any critiques of any of my own opinions on theories of politics, but especially by those with the qualifications I lack.
Why The Party Decides?
The most striking thing about reading The Party Decides in 2016 is that the authors immediately and repeatedly disclaim that their view on the presidential nominating process, and their foundational theory of political parties, are minority views within the political science profession. They state this most clearly a bare few pages into the first chapter:
Most scholars deny that parties play a strong role in presidential nominations nations on the grounds that party leaders lack formal control over the nomination.
Before even delving into the theoretical and empirical arguments the authors make for their position, therefore, it’s worth considering how what purports to be a minority view within the community of experts (whether it was at the time I have no reason to doubt; whether it still is I have no basis to judge) was so quickly and thoroughly adopted by large swathes of the elite commentariat as something approaching gospel. This is especially notable given precisely what kind of book it is — a thoroughly academic work, by academics, without the meta-push by its publisher to drive the public conversation that explicitly accompanies many other books written by academics. This is a story of how a book that wasn’t even reviewed by The New York Times was referenced on nine separate occasions in that publication’s pages last year — and six subsequent times in the past two months.
As I said above, the granular empirical narrative of that adoption is a different article, but timing no doubt plays a role. The confluence of compelling nomination contests and the rise of “wonk”-dom in political commentary created demand just at the moment that a clearly- and compellingly-written book by experts focused wholly on that question arrived (and as an ebook, which I don’t think should be discounted).
But why this particular book espousing this particular theory? To my knowledge, no similarly well-written and researched academic book entitled The Party is Impotent arrived concurrently, so its certainly possible that the hunger for theory, any theory, would’ve just as likely latched on to that book— but I doubt it. The superficial conclusions of The Party Decides— for I suspect that for many, though far from most, of the commentariat who explicitly or implicitly relied on its reassurance have not actually read the book — offer something uniquely compelling to mainstream pundits.
That something is the reassurance (I won’t say illusion) of control and predictability — the idea that that the presidential nomination process is something that follows regular rules and stays within predictable bounds, and that ultimately is decisively influenced not by the vagaries of momentary and unknowable swells of popular passions but by a group of steady-handed and respectable fellow elites who can effectively blockade the reins of power from being seized by extremists or unaccountable wild cards.
Secondarily, it also privileged these elites in the narrative itself in two ways; firstly, by making people like them — and in fact, even them themselves — the crux of the narrative, and secondarily, by making their ability to decode the process, read tea leaves, and render glimpses of the invisible primary visible the necessary guide for would be educated citizens to understand major political events.
It therefore seems clear that The Party Decides was exceptionally primed to go viral among punditocracies new and old alike; it’s a classic case of “if it didn’t exist they’d’ve had to invent it.” Yet it is not at all clear that those same pundits have thoroughly grappled with the underlying theory — and the subsequent implications — that The Party Decides makes as its foundations. It’s a theory that isn’t so much about what parties do but, fundamentally, what parties are.
What is a party?
Its primarily instrumental adoption in the media to the contrary, the underlying theoretical question that The Party Decides seeks to answer is not, in fact, how parties select presidential nominees — this question is instead a bookend to that theory, before as an entree to it and after as an exceptionally useful, important, and data-rich phenomenon against which to test it.
So let’s skip straight to the goods — The Party Decides posits the core genetic foundation of political parties as being organized groups of what they term “intense policy demanders.” To distill to its essence, The Party Decides postulates a world where these demanders engage in a “long coalition,” which essentially amounts to a permanent state of negotiation with each other, with ambitious office-holders, and with voters to maximally achieve the party’s myriad policy goals, which is dually-dependent on putting forward candidates for office who will reliably and effectively support those goals while still being acceptable to the public at large.
The authors run down the history of this model, and competing models, in the political science literature — as I’ve disclaimed already, I’m in no position to adjudicate their representation of the history of political science (although I will note that they explicitly note that the prior theorist whose model most closely presages their own is E. E. Schattschneider; given that, in a wholly different context, I’ve been formulating a [shorter] essay focusing on the renewed salience of a totally different theory of Schattschneider’s, this might argue for a broader revisiting of his work). But what I am in position to do is three-fold: firstly, discuss how this theory is in conflict with many other popular narratives of policy and politics, including narratives often espoused by many in the elite punditocracy who also cite The Party Decides; secondly, discuss more broadly what it might mean to put policy, interests, and ideology back at the center of politics; and thirdly, discuss how this theory and other claims in The Party Decides can help us understand the current GOP nomination process.
This all focuses more on the theory of The Party Decides than the empirics; that should not lead anyone to discount the latter. Far from it — the later chapters of the book, in which the authors carefully lay out the data they’ve collected and their various ways of analyzing it, are not only fascinating but have clearly laid the groundwork for continued empirical research along those lines. The invisible primary will never be quite so invisible again, and I encourage interested readers to actually, you know, read the book and ponder some of its more granular findings.
The modest and straightforward tone of The Party Decides, along with its empirical focus on a particular political process, probably leaves many if not most lay readers with an insufficiently expansive sense of the implications for what The Party Decides’ theory of political parties means for many more dominant modes of thinking about politics.
Most obviously, it makes most political horse race coverage look like not just the horseshit we all knew it was, but actively counterproductive to understanding politics. In the particular context of presidential nominating contexts, The Party Decides sharply distinguishes candidate-centric models from interest-centric models, tricky given certain superficial similarities. Not that the histories, peculiarities, and decisions of candidates aren’t important — but they’re important insofar as they are players in a game designed by others. They’re highly visible, but not the key agents in the political process, and focusing on them as such, even in the context of soliciting interest group support, is in some ways parallel to the kind of immature fandom that often gloms onto sagas of science fiction or fantasy.
It also belies at least some rhetoric around special interest and lobbying. Special interests and their agents are often seen as corrupting, parasitical interlopers on a mythically pure body politic — and only somehow cleansing our system of them will, like purging King Théoden of the influence of Wormtongue, restore an ideal of good governance that consists of a direct and unmitigated relationship between statesmen and voters. As I will discuss further below, though, a politics free of special interests is, in the world of The Party Decides, not a politics at all.
But perhaps more importantly, it runs directly counter to many more deeply-rooted narratives about politics. These narratives range in terms of complexity and sophistication, and many resemble the The Party Decides model, with a crucial difference — they focus on politics as purely an outgrowth of material interests. Many expressions of public choice economics, of political analysis influence by economics or done by economists, as well as much lay cynicism, take this form. There are obviously also left-leaning strains of this kind of thinking, though their prevalence both in the popular and elite imaginations of the United States are at perhaps their nadir.
Essentially, if the The Party Decides model is on some level an accurate explanation of how politics works, a lot of popular and elite thinking about not just how politics works but what politics is is just plain wrong. If so, what should replace it?
A politics of interest
The high season of presidential nominating contests, when uncertainty and intra-party interest-group and ideological pressures are at their highest, is also the high season for elite calls for an independent or third-party candidate for president. This candidate (or candidates — the fanfic is often predicated on some sort of tag-team of centrists from each party) would capture the hearts of the great American middle sick of partisanship. They’d cut the Gordian knot, solve all the problems (even if they thought the causes of those problems were very good), and tell the special interests to go stuff it. This particular fantasy, which I’ve always thought of as the Bethesda fantasy both because it’s magical and because Bethesda, Maryland is probably the only jurisdiction such a candidate should expect to carry, was never very likely anyway for a number of reasons.
But if we were to take the The Party Decides model seriously, it’s not just unlikely; it’s unintelligible. In a world where “special interests,” not candidates or even voters, are the very foundation of politics itself, is a world where the Bethesda candidate is in fact a manifestation of pure anti-politics, a kind of fluffy authoritarian nihilism that wants to collapse the messy, complex, and irreconcilable demands of organized interests and ideologies into a kind of corporatism, in which voters are shareholders judging leaders on a unitary axis of ROE. It’s the kind of thing that’s only possible to countenance when the only problems one can envision the political system addressing in their own life is that one’s taxes are a little too high and everybody’s just so mean.
The Party Decides implies two substantial reimaginings of politics that are important to disaggregate. One, already discussed, is to shift the center of agency away from politicians and voters to interest groups — this is easier in theory, but trickier in practice. The human brain is hardwired to see individual, charismatic protagonists as the agents of their own stories; finding the right balance in integrating personal and contingent forces into an understanding of history and politics without succumbing to the siren’s call of Great Man narratives is a genuine challenge.
The second reimagining is to understand politics as irreducible; that there is not a single, unified theory of human motive that can adequately explain politics without appeal to the particulars of belief and the history of coordination and organization among believers. It suggests that the answer to Varys’ riddle may be “the priest” more often than many of us might feel comfortable with in modern material and supposedly rational and scientific culture (and expands what “the priest” really means) — at the very least, it forces us to think really hard about that riddle, and the meaning and foundation of political power.
The Party Decides posits the bounties of political power as a reward to the solution of nested coordination games. It by necessity focuses its analysis and empirical research on the highest-order of those games — the effort of organized groups to coordinate around a nominee that meets certain satisficing conditions both within the group and to the electorate. But it is perhaps the underlying work of organization implied by this model that I find most intriguing.
In a world where political coordination is governed by purely material interests, both levels of organization are either deterministic or arbitrary. But in a world where politics is fundamentally motivated by the broadness and intensity of held ideals, and the many contingencies that lead those ideas to organize, you trade the false comfort of grand theory for the open possibility of much greater transformations of the polity, the economy, and society — if you’re willing to spend a long time boring hard boards.
It also changes how one thinks about the ways different political problems can and can’t be solved. Francis Fukuyama was right to identify Hegel’s “struggle for recognition,” imagined by him as the universal desire for people to have themselves and their affiliated identities and institutions to have their worth and status non-coercively validated by others, as a central and non-excludable element of all models of politics. I’ve previously written about my expectation that political conflicts along these lines, which are in some ways more dangerous and intractable than purely material conflicts, will become more common over time; I would nuance that view by noting that conflicts over material and tangible outcomes are often intertwined with these less-tangible conflicts, making them even harder to resolve.
It’s worth stopping this essay here to address a meta-issue: putting the weight of noting what it doesn’t do, and in the context of much grander themes of the nature of political endeavor, seems like a lot for a book about political science that is, both in subject and approach, much more modest than some other books I’ve written way too much about. I’m not arguing that that modesty is deceptive; far from it. Instead, The Party Decides is a great example of how a more modest book, carefully contained in scope but built brick by brick on sturdy foundations, can provide tools for thinking that can augment and enhance, rather than foreclose or compete with, other theories and analytical tools. As I’ve suggested above, The Party Decides makes an interesting read, both as companion and corrective, with more ambitious books; it also makes an interesting read with books that focus on the parts of the process outside its scope, such as Rules for Radicals.
None of this, of course, reconciles the analysis of The Party Decides to the Trump coup. And let’s be clear — a coup in the most classic sense is precisely what Trump is doing. Edward Luttwak defined a coup as “the infiltration of a small but critical segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder.” In that broad sense, what Trump is doing is the best democratic analogy to a coup — a concerted effort to seize the critical seat of party power by force of demagogic and factional will followed by coercion of a critical mass of the remaining centers of party power to reconcile themselves to the fait accompli of his rule. And it’s working; see in the endorsements of figures like Christe, LePage, Brewer, Sessions, Collins, Hunter, DesJarlais, Marino, and even Palin not as the Party Deciding but the scurry of hungry opportunists seeing a bandwagoning gamble as preferable to a limited future within the party as currently constructed.
Of course, the Trump coup is precisely the thing that, according to The Party Decides, shouldn’t happen. Perhaps strangely, the most analogous figure (in this narrow but crucial sense) to the Donald in the post-’70s era that is the center of The Party Decides’s empirical analysis may be Gary Hart. Hart, a charismatic and handsome Senator from Colorado with mildly heterodox views, attempted both in 1984 and 1988 to win the Democratic nomination largely on the power of a personal movement that undercut traditional Democratic power bases. He lost, of course, both times; while his second campaign was short-circuited by a sex scandal, it’s worth comparing that to the failure of a sex scandal to derail Bill Clinton just four years later (as well as this article contrasting Bill Clinton’s continued persistence through repeated sex scandals to Eliot Spitzer’s immediate implosion, noting that the presence or absence of party support was crucial).
So why did Hart among others fail where Trump seems poised to succeed? This essay wouldn’t be much worthwhile if it didn’t attempt to answer this central and pressing question; fortunately, an answer is forthcoming. In fact, it can be found, hiding in plain sight, in a recent work of political science examining this very question. I speak, of course, of The Party Decides.
When the party doesn’t decide
The Party Decides is about rules, not exceptions; it presents a model of what has happened, and what to expect to happen, when prevailing conditions are stable. It does, however, present two moments where instability weakened or the party grasp on the nomination process or forced it to shift. From these, we can begin to draw, if not model, at least a heuristic about when we should change our expectations about whether the party will exert its usual decisive influence over the nomination process.
Here it is worth noting — we speak specifically of “decisive influence,” not totalizing influence. Throughout the book, the authors readily admit that parties do not exert anything close to complete control over their nomination process; only that, when parties are strong and conditions are stable, the fact of party coordination will be sufficiently decisive to determine the outcome, though that is somewhat more fragile under the post McGovern-Fraser rules. That this claim was always substantially weaker than it was made out to be by some in the elite media redounds to the earlier points about what some wanted to see in the book, regardless of what it actually said.
NOTE: I would be remiss if I didn’t note that, as I was putting the finishing touches on my own piece, Prof. Noel published a piece in The New York Times that also tries to answer the question this section tries to answer. Rather than try to fully integrate his sometimes-but-not-always overlapping piece into my own, I’m just linking it here with one major note: I actually disagree with one claim Prof. Noel makes — but, weirdly, it’s one where he thinks The Party Decides fell short, but I don’t. He singles out both the Demcratic primary of 2004 and both parties’ primaries in 2008 as areas where the party failed to decide; but its notable that in all of those cases the eventual nominees were, empirically, the kind of nominees parties decide on when they do decide. This is not in-and-of-itself sufficient evidence, ergo Prof. Noel’s humility; but as somebody who has no academic reputation to defend, I’d bet dollars to donuts that an omniscient view would reveal a substantially greater degree of party decision around Kerry, Obama, and McCain than meets the eye, though at various points in the cycle. At the very least, each of those candidates were playing the party-decision game, and in each case the party seemed clearly able to restrict the nomination to nominees who met most of its core requirements, which is in some ways more important and foundational than being able to affirmatively decide on the final nominee, and is the failure of the current GOP that so clearly distinguishes it from any other case in modern history.
In building our heuristic, we being with one of the less-heralded and probably less-digested propositions of The Party Decides, around what did and did not change with the adoption of the McGovern-Fraser reforms. According to the authors, “the invisible primary” — the process of party decisioning that predates the visible decisioning process — “had begun to displace party conventions as the real venue of party decision-making well before the McGovern-Fraser reforms.”
They single out the revolution in communications and transportation technology that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century as slowly but surely undermining the original purpose of the party convention — to get all the important people in the same place at the same time! They single out FDR’s 1932 campaign, as a proto-“modern, technology-driven campaign” which catalyzed the already increasing “pressure to decide before the convention.”
While McGovern-Fraser didn’t kill the party convention until after 1968, 1952 was the last multi-ballot major party convention, and “only because Adlai Stevenson, the choice of the insiders, would not consent to become a candidate until the convention itself.” Sufficiently early adoption by party players of new technologies didn’t weaken the grasp of the parties on the nomination process prior to World War II, but it did fundamentally change how that grasp was exerted.
Therefore, the temporary but real havoc wreaked by McGovern-Fraser didn’t create the invisible primary; it just shattered the transmission mechanism by which party coordination was transmuted into decisive influence over the party nomination. It is worth stressing both the haste with which a new and reliable transmission mechanism was constructed — by 1980, the party had reasserted its control over the process — and the degree to which the loss of control, though temporary, was very real — neither McGovern nor Carter were the choices of their party, and GOP control was also somewhat shaky during the same period.
It is worth noting that both of these periods have at least something broad in common — technological change, exceptional economic distress or political instability, broad-based dissatisfaction with the status-quo. One can imagine a world where party control in the 1970s was shaken in the absence of McGovern-Fraser, just as easily as one can imagine a world where parties maintained more continuous control in the face of procedural reform absent the background conditions of technological change.
We should therefore expect party strength to slacken in the presence of certain kinds of exception stress on the broader polity — economic, political, social, and technological. With that framework, the conditions in which a charismatic demagogue could seize the GOP nomination by force in 2016 come sharply into focus. We can observe them each individually, moving from the most foundational to the most contingent; but it is important to keep in mind that all of these interacting make for a more potent and unstable disequilibrium than their apparent sum.
The rise of Trump
As has been frequently observed, the underlying economic conditions over the past two decades are clearly the core fuel for the Trump fire. There is a core group of GOP voters for whom the upside of recent economic growth and recovery was absent but nevertheless disproportionately bore the costs of economic downturns. These voters — largely white, largely less-educated, largely in the kind of work most likely to face fierce competition from voters, immigrants, or outsourcing — were, not coincidentally, those voters whose shift from the Democrats to the Republicans from the late ’60s to the early ’90s were politically epochal, more on which later. For now, keep this in mind.
Another huge factor is the GOP’s crisis of internal legitimacy. This is distinct, though not unrelated, from the broader crisis of the GOP brand following the unprecedented omnishambolic disasterpiece that was the Bush administration. That U.O.D. did have the effect of wiping out a substantial share of the GOP’s internal legitimacy reserves — this was encapsulated neatly by the vignette of W. himself descending into South Carolina to pitch Jeb after Trump shat all over the centerpiece of the fragile shards he calls his legacy, only for Jeb to get a trivial share of the vote and promptly drop out — but had less impact within the GOP itself than it did with the population more broadly, though the GOP presiding over the economic conditions above probably did further distance white working-class voters from traditional GOPonomics.
But further events — notably the rise of Tea Party, the failure of the Romney campaign to oust Obama , and the concurrent and increasingly rapid cycles of ideological purity testing and purging — accelerated the decline of internal legitimacy. At this point, the bitter internal recriminations are such that Mitch McConnell, perhaps one of the most cynically effective high power players in recent American history, who had made it his single-minded quest to destroy the Obama presidency at all costs, is viewed by many within the party as a sell-out establishment squish. These are the conditions under which the Cruz mini-coup of 2013 could take place, and also the conditions under which it is notable that a man so deeply loathed and thoroughly loathed by GOP elites was and perhaps still is for a critical moment the likeliest path to block Trump.
Another ill-understood change has been the privatization of campaign funding. Due to the lack of obvious correlation between money and victory, many have discounted warnings about the power of money in modern elections. This is wrong, but it is interestingly wrong. What’s important about the post-Citizens United universe, and the way it intersects with the increasing prevalence of private super-fortunes, is that the party monopoly on money has been broken. Having the most money does not guarantee a candidate victory, but having no money usually spells defeat. But if candidates can find personal patrons with effectively unlimited pockets, they can continue campaigning without the sanction of a broader segment of party elites or factions. Just because you have Sheldon Adelson on your side doesn’t mean you’re going to win, but a substantial commitment from the brothers Koch means the party loses a key stick in their arsenal of ways to incentivize candidates out of a race they want to consolidate. Theda Skopcol talks here about her recent research documenting the degree to which, within the GOP in particular, big money has fled the primary party apparati and instead concentrated in purely private groups.
This also intersects with technology — the power of the internet further empowers small-donor campaigns, a dynamic seen on both sides of the house. This, of course, can be part of the party-decision mechanism — demonstrating fundraising prowess can be part of the way a candidate auditions for the benefit of party support — but in the case of, say, Ben Carson, so long as you can disconnect the lucre machine from actually winning primaries or having a hope of winning the nomination, it can quickly become toxic to the party’s health.
Technology more broadly is another minor but still-important gamechanger here. You may not know this, but Donald Trump has an account on Twitter.com that he makes frequent use of. What was once a channel for pure blowharding, however, has increasingly become a platform from which Trump has monopolized the zero-sum resource of media oxygen. He hasn’t so much bypassed the media filter as bent it to his will by forcing them to address his ability to directly address the public; I’ll conclude by noting that in August, Trump had ~3.6mm followers; today he has ~6.5mm. Just like his net wealth in relation to the world’s richest men, this is an order of magnitude below the uppermost echelons occupied by Taylor Swift or the incumbent President, but sufficiently vast to serve his purposes. His ability to dictate the terms of the conversation is increasing in line with his dominance of polls and primaries, but is magnified by his mastery of social media. The Party Decides notes this as a potential destabilizing factor, and the years since its publication have only brought accelerated change.
Whether all of this had to lead to the complete meltdown of the Republican party currently underway is unknown, but it has been true throughout history that the contingent possibility of uniquely situated entrepreneurial individuals to effectuate major change has generally come under background conditions of instability, flux, and dislocation. What it should indicate is that the degree to which we — yes, that includes me — dismissed Trump’s chances over the summer and even into the fall even as his high poll numbers persisted means we should have more complex and fluid priors as well as less baseline confidence in them. This, of course, flies in the face of what The Party Decides offered to elites that motivated its quasi-totemic status and subsequent bitter recriminations— as explicated above, a comforting narrative of control, predictability, and rationality — but it’s more in line with the kind of uncertainty, comfort with ambiguity, and fluidity of events and meanings that life itself actually brings. Social science can help us to understand, anticipate, and adapt to that, but it cannot wish it away.
The Republican party as party
I want to conclude this essay by discussing something particular to the Republican Party that The Party Decides does not address, and in fact, implicitly perpetuates, I think to its minor detriment. This is a shame, I think, because cutting through a certain view of the Republican Party using the frame of The Party Decides helps us cement our understanding of the rise of Trump, both in why it happened and why it wasn’t stopped.
There are, I think, two key sub-narratives to understanding the transformation of the Republican Party over the past-half century. The first is the ideologization of the party’s disparate beliefs and interests; the second is the shift into the party of the white working class. The thing about these two epochal events is that, while they shared a broadly similar root cause and happened in concert, they were not the same thing; they were, in fact, in considerable tension, a tension contained in various ways over recent years that has finally exploded in this election cycle.
I don’t think I need to be the one to retell in any considerable detail either of those two subnarratives (that’s Rick Perlstein’s job); what I want to do is touch briefly on their causes and then move on to their consequences.
The movement of the white working class into the Republican Party was largely driven by the feeling those voters that they were on the losing side of the big political battles of the late 1950’s and 1960’s; the winners of those battles and their champions were all in the Democratic Party, so the Republican Party had an opportunity to seduce them. Since the Republican Party was fueled by interests who felt themselves to be on the losing side of the New Deal, itself central to the Democratic Party, they were on a deep level well-prepared to form a coalition with others who felt to be on the losing side of Democratic Party triumphs. While some movement into the GOP was motivated by policy — more on that below — the majority of that movement was centered around a sub-policy sense of the loss of order and a cherished socioeconomic status quo, and voters rallied to the party that promised its defense and restoration. These are, in large part, the “authoritarian” voters that are suddenly gaining attention from media outlets.
More unusual and, in the long run, perhaps even more destructive was the ideologization of the Republican party. Various policy organizations— the pro-life movement and the pro-gun movement come to mind— began to coalesce into the Republican coalition, either because of similar affinity or largely appealing to voters who were already likely Republicans. This happened over time, though — even into the early Aughties, there was still non-unity within both parties on these issues. This, however, is not particular interesting or different — policy movements constantly grow and shrink over time, becoming larger and smaller parts of party coalitions, never quite achieving lockstep unity in either, always in some tension with the two-dimensionality of the left-right political framework, both in political practice and in political theory.
What is interesting is the increasingly rigid framework of “the conservative movement” that was overlaid over the collection of “conservative” positions within the Republican party. The degree to which two-dimensionality of politics is organic or an imposition aside, there’s no strong reason growing from political, economic, or moral theory that the collection of various positions subscribed to by the present alignment of the two-party system of the United States has to correlate to some deeply-rooted ideological harmony and truth. There’s no deep logic — other than the high-level unity of opposition various waves of socioeconomic transformation and the low-level overlap of supporter and voter bases — that actually unifies the disparate positions that collectively inform the conservative movement.
This is fairly obvious on a theoretical level but even more obvious on an empirical level — there are plenty of places in the world similar to the United States where there is no “conservative movement,” even though there are plenty of conservatives, and where conservative parties embrace only some of the platform cherished by the core conservatives of the Republican Party.
What’s important to note here is that the increasing power of the idea of the conservative movement over the agenda of the Republican Party, and the increasing view within the Republican Party to view everything on the two-dimensional spectrum of ideological purity rather than the multi-dimensional matrix of an issue-group coalition, and the simultaneous shift of authoritarian white working class voters into the GOP were concurrent events with similar causes but not the same thing. Essentially, a kind of bargain was struck — the GOP commanding heights would be run by the conservative movement so long as they catered to authoritarian voters in the ways that mattered most to them.
The problem with any highly ideological movement, though, is that it is deeply inflexible and subject to brutal internecine conflict and purges. As it distends and contorts itself into greater absurdities (my personal favorite is Roy Edroso’s ongoing documentation of the Zhdanovism of conservative cultural criticism), it simultaneously roots out impurities, casts out unbelievers, and tends towards doubling-down rather than accommodation in the face of adverse events. Ergo the famous Digbyism: “Conservatism cannot fail, it can only be failed.”
None of this, of course, makes any sense if one is looking clear-eyed at an issue-group coalition, and despite some efforts within the Democratic Party to sort candidates along a two-dimensional axis of once “liberalism,” now “progressivism,” most observers do tend to see the Democratic Party as an issue-group coalition first and foremost. But the GOP elite’s inability to understand Republican Party as a coalition of interest and voters has left it brittle and ill-prepared to adapt to a changing environment.
Enter one of the other key causes of potential party weakness identified by The Party Decides— the emergence of new organized issue groups. They identify this in particular as fueling the Dean campaign; the rise of an organized antiwar faction was an unforeseen chaos agent in 2004. But by 2008 the Democratic Party had sufficiently evolved to accommodate those views that the party, though not unanimously, decided on an antiwar candidate — one that also satisfied most other key issue groups and offered exceptional and unique value as a candidate for office.
The Republican Party was ill-equipped to do the same with the increasing salience of immigration as an issue. There were no encyclicals or canons that dictated the correct position on the issue; more worryingly, the authoritarian voter base of the party was increasingly at odds with the party’s business faction, both of which were essential to its coalition, and party strategists who saw long-term benefit on one side of the issue had an uphill climb in convincing officeholders to risk their jobs over angering their base. In the same interview referenced above, Theda Skopcol notes that the people and institutions who constituted the Tea Party movement bifurcated along precisely these lines — big conservative money that deprioritized immigration and focused on traditional conservative issues, and authoritarian voters for whom immigration was a central and motivating issue.
Whether or not under different circumstances — a better economy, more internal legitimacy, a less ideologically hardened leadership — the Republican Party could have somehow more smoothly and coherently evolved to defuse this crisis vector is unknowable. Nevertheless, it is from this fissure in the party, built on decades of increasing tension, instability, and underlying party fragility that Trump emerged, like a short-fingered toupeed kaiju waking after a thousand-year slumber in a volcano, to wreak havoc on the American polity.
A future without Duverger?
We have now reached the purely speculative portion of this essay. Feel free to cease reading.
Three things are now very likely, though none are certain:
- Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee.
- If he is, he will lose the 2016 general election.
- A party civil war unprecedented in the postwar era will commence — indeed, it has already begun.
How any of this will end is unknowable, and certainly all the more so for the very fact that Trump very well could lose the nomination or win the Presidency, though the latter is so terrifying a possibility one shudders to even utter it. Yet the third thing seems inevitable even in the case of a Trump loss. The GOP has teetered too far over the abyss for too long; it has glimpsed Cthulhu; there is no going back.
I am just as unqualified as everyone else — in fact, likely less qualified than many, if not most — to project the future of American politics. One possibility that hasn’t yet entered mainstream discussion, however, seems increasingly likely to me — a permanent shift away from America’s two-party system.
Duverger’s law — that a first-past-the-post/winner-takes-all system inevitably tends towards two parties — has, either explicitly or implicitly, been taken for granted in nearly all analysis of American politics for decades. To cite the number of times it has been used to bludgeon breakaway movements or dissatisfied ideologues or advocates into compliance would be like counting the grains of sand on a beach; instead, I’ll just let The Simpsons sum it up:
Yet it is a curious fact that, in many other countries with FPTP/WTA systems, all of them just as much real, actual countries as the United States, there has been no tendency towards Duverger’s law. In addition to the examples of the UK and India cited at that link, Canada has had third and even fourth and fifth parties represented in its parliament in substtantial numbers basically always; and even here in the US, there have been many elections in the postwar era where a third-party candidate has received large shares of the popular vote, and two in which a third-party candidate won states outright. Perhaps having a national election for a President, rather than a prime minister elevated from among the legislature, was exceptional impetus towards two-party consolidation; but perhaps it is time to wonder just how strong that impetus is. Maybe what we should be asking ourselves is whether the United States uniquely avoiding the formation of viable and persistent third parties was, to some degree, a fluke.
That question may be at risk of, for the first time in American politics, becoming academic. It is hard to imagine precisely how the GOP can be reconciled with itself after this election; it is equally hard to imagine how any of its major factions can be reconciled with the increasingly confident and leftward-moving Democratic Party. The result may be as logical as it is locally unprecedented — three persistent parties in American politics, and in the future, perhaps even more.
This is of course, only locally unprecedented. Trumpism is not uniquely American (though more superficial characteristics of it certainly are); it comes from a tradition with long and deep roots in Western modernity, one that previously peaked in Europe in the 1930s but is making a major comeback there as we speak. In that sense, the rise of Trump and Trumpism should have been a perfectly reasonable thing to predict, if not exactly predictable.
Whether we truly see a permanent split on the American Right remains to be seen; what that might portend for the future of the American Left, elements of which have been dying for a similar split for ages now, remains even further afield of the horizon. If there is a bright spot to be found in the darkness of a quasi-fascist coup in one of America’s two major political parties, it is the possibility that, if we survive this crisis, we may open a world of political possibility that we could previously only imagine as fantasy.