The Republican Party is technically no longer a political party.
This week the Republican Party failed to do something that it has done in every presidential election in its 164 year history: it decided not to adopt a political platform. This may not seem significant in light of other current events, but the history of political parties indicates otherwise and we may very well look back at this moment as being pivotal in American history.
Every four years the political parties go through the process of drafting and adopting a platform. They address virtually every conceivable political issue and represent policy preferences that have been hashed out and negotiated between different corners of the party. As such, they can be rather lengthly documents: the 2016 Republican platform ran over 50 pages and addressed everything from Cuban refugees to intellectual property rights.
In 2020, however, the Republican Party declined to adopt a party platform. Instead, it decided to adopt Trump as its platform. In its own words:
RESOLVED, That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda;
RESOLVED, That the 2020 Republican National Convention will adjourn without adopting a new platform until the 2024 Republican National Convention;
The common conception is that party platforms are meant to be statements to voters about what the party believes and what its policy preferences are. Practically speaking, this isn’t true. Virtually no one reads the platforms. The platforms almost certainly have no electoral impact in most election years. It’s hard to imagine a swing voter reading each party’s platform in order to make a decision of who to support.
Party platforms play a different role. It’s not the readers that make a political platform significant; it’s the writers. A diverse group of individuals have to wrestle with the question of what their political principles are and how those principles work themselves out in various political contexts. That isn’t an easy feat. But at the end of the process there’s a statement of principles that isn’t tied to any one individual.
Hopefully at this point it has become apparent how significant the Republican Party’s decision to adopt a person rather than a platform or statement of principles is. In doing so, they have tied the party to an individual rather than to principles or ideas.
This observation that the Republican Party has abandoned all principle and instead tied itself to an individual is hardly new. However, this specific act of endorsing an individual — no matter what principles that individual may or may not have — rather than adopting a platform has far more significance than first meets the eye.
The modern conception of political parties traces its roots back to Edmund Burke, a member of the British parliament in the second half of the 18th century. Prior to Burke, parties were much more temporary and transitory entities. They built up around an individual as they rose to power and then dissolved once he fell from power.
Burke believed that parties should be more permanent institutions built around principles rather than any one individual. As such, he defined political parties as
a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.
A party built around principles could survive beyond any of its individual members and act as a counterweight to the individual nature of monarchists and other tyrants. When in power the party could govern according to its common principles; when not in power it would continue to exist and to make the case for those principles.
In Burke’s conception, political parties were vessels containing the common goals, beliefs, aspirations, and principles of its members. Through the hard work of finding and refining those commonalities, the party became distinct from any of its members.
In 2020, the Republican Party has completely failed to do the hard work of forming and fashioning any common principles. It is, therefore, no longer a political party. In fact, it has done precisely the opposite of what Burke believed a party should do and be. Instead of stating a platform, it has formed itself around one single individual: Donald J. Trump. In doing so, the Republican Party has not only rejected Burke’s conception of what a political party is: it has reverted to the pre-Burkean conception of political parties.
Like all mortals, Donald J. Trump will not last forever. He will inevitably either fall from power or die. When that day comes, the Republican Party will find that it has built itself on the sandy foundation of a man rather than on the firm foundation of principle. The party will then realize that it is no party at all. What happens after that realization may be far more significant than the past few years have been.