The GOP’s Non-Platform Represents the New Political Reality: Who You Are Against Matters More than What You Are For
It was in the 1932 comedy Horse Feathers that Groucho Marx introduced the political anthem for our generation: “Whatever it is, I’m Against It.” Nothing could more effectively explain the political moment that we are now living through. Being for things has always been a tough sell, but, in most political campaigns of my lifetime, there have been a few issues hidden in the rhetoric.
I would be hard-pressed, however, to name a single issue that is at stake in the coming presidential election. Nor do I know very many people who are actually voting for something — a candidate, an idea, or an ideology. But I do know a lot of people who are voting against something. Donald Trump, of course, tops the list. His presidency has been so polarizing, and reactions against it so extreme, that Joe Biden is currently about as far ahead of Trump as a dead rabbit or a dill pickle would be if they were the only thing standing between Trump and a second term.
The Republican non-platform is a stark, but honest acknowledgment of an overwhelming political reality: issues are becoming irrelevant, and tribal identity is all that matters.
But the Republican National Convention has now doubled down on the ideology of againstness. Rather than issuing a platform, or a documentation of the things that they are for, the RNC has issued a one-page resolution about why they don’t need a platform. The closest thing to a policy agenda in the resolution is contained in the following four paragraphs
WHEREAS, The RNC, had the Platform Committee been able to convene in 2020, would have undoubtedly unanimously agreed to reassert the Party’s strong support for President Donald Trump and his Administration;
WHEREAS, The media has outrageously misrepresented the implications of the RNC not adopting a new platform in 2020 and continues to engage in misleading advocacy for the failed policies of the Obama-Biden Administration, rather than providing the public with unbiased reporting of facts; and
WHEREAS, The RNC enthusiastically supports President Trump and continues to reject the policy positions of the Obama-Biden Administration, as well as those espoused by the Democratic National Committee today; therefore, be it
RESOLVED, That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda;
So, you see, the Republican Party is for Trump. And why is the party for Trump? It has nothing to do with any policies that Trump advocates or supports. They are for Trump because they reject “the policy positions of the Obama-Biden Administration as well as those espoused by the Democratic National Committee today.”
It is tempting to read this as a sort of cult-of-personality endorsement of a fascist leader who can do no wrong — like the horse in Animal Farm who lives by the motto, “Napoleon is always right.” But that isn’t really what is going on here. Right and wrong are the sorts of questions that matter when there are issues involved. The Republican non-platform is a stark but honest acknowledgment of an overwhelming political reality: issues are becoming irrelevant, and tribal identity is all that matters.
Or, to put it another way, the Republican non-platform of 2020 is a document that comes out of negative partisanship — or a political climate in which being against someone is more important than being for something.
This is, of course, the way that Trump became president in the first place. Polling from 2016 is very clear about that. Over the summer of 2016, a Pew Research Center study asked voters whether in the November election they anticipated voting primarily for a candidate they preferred or against a candidate they opposed. Among those who intended to vote for Donald Trump, 53 percent reported that they would be voting primarily against Hillary Clinton, compared to 44 percent who planned to vote for Trump. Among those planning to vote for Clinton, 46 percent said that they would be voting primarily against Trump, and 53 percent would be voting for Clinton.
If these results held true in the general election, then 2016 was the year that Americans crossed the line from being a nation of liberals and conservatives to a nation of anti-liberals and conservative-haters. Some level of negative partisanship always occurs in a two-party system, where the best way to vote against one candidate will always be to vote for the most credible alternative. But when this stops being a rule of thumb and becomes a political epistemology, we get some major shifts in the way our government works. And they are not things that most people want.
One result of negative partisanship is that those who win elections become much less accountable to the people who voted for them. If a majority of the people who vote for President Smith do so because he is not Candidate Jones — and not because they find Smith trustworthy or competent or because they agree with any of his policy positions — then President Smith will not lose the support of his voters by demonstrating untrustworthiness or incompetence or by taking unpopular policy positions. He just has to keep not being Jones, which is about as low as the bar for success can ever get.
Negative partisanship also leads to much more extreme candidates than its positive counterpart. This happens because of the way that party nominations work. When the main object of a general election is to get more people to vote for your candidate than the other candidate, then the best way to win is to nominate someone who will attract voters from the other party and appeal to independents. When the primary purpose of an election is to rouse your own voters to hate and fear the other candidate, then the incentive for moderation disappears.
But negative partisanship is perhaps most dangerous because it eventually weakens the important political norm of mutual tolerance. Wanting to defeat the other party is not the same as wanting to vanquish it. Confusing the two throws us back to the mind-set of the Federalists and the Republicans in 1800: we refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of our opponents, and we imagine that if we could just get rid of them once and for all, the country could get back to the normal business of democracy. This is a fantasy. The other side is not going away. The people we disagree with aren’t going to simply vanish. And figuring out how to share the country with people we profoundly disagree with is precisely the normal business of democracy.
The fatal shift in our understanding occurs not when we want our own side to win or even when we just want the other side to lose. It occurs when we conceive of the other side as threatening to our well-being by its mere existence. When this happens, the guiding logic of our political culture shifts from the logic of the marketplace, where every transaction has the potential to enrich both the buyer and the seller, to the logic of the Hunger Games, where everybody is ultimately the enemy and every interaction is a zero-sum game.
As with most things that our scared-little-mammal brains cling to, negative partisanship persists because it is easy, because it is comfortable, and because it feels good. A large part of our brain actually likes hating people, and resentment works like a drug — we experience it and get high on it and have to keep experiencing it so we don’t come crashing down. If outrage were not fun, it would not be part of the daily recreational habits of such a large number of people.
It is a lot easier to be against things than to be for them. Being for things is a lot of work, and arguing effectively about what we are for requires us to suppress millions of years of evolution — but it might actually save our civilization. Knowing where you want to go, and being able to articulate a coherent direction to other people, is a prerequisite to going places. If all we can do is explain what we are against, then the best we can ever hope to get is nothing, and the best place we can ever go is nowhere.