It’s Time to Make the Case for Even Stronger Political Parties

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Donald Trump is what happens when parties get out of the way and defer to the people.

By Seth Masket

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Donald Trump at a campaign rally on October 21, 2015, in Burlington, Iowa. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

We’re at the point in both parties’ presidential nomination cycles where people are starting to notice the anti-democratic aspects of the system. Bernie Sanders’ backers are furious about superdelegates and closed primaries. Donald Trump’s supporters are angry that state party leaders can award delegates to Ted Cruz without voters’ approval. Do we need to fix this system? Or do we need to make an affirmative case for its merits?

In a recent post at Mischiefs of Faction, Julia Azari argued that we need to re-think the way we talk about parties. Political scientists have been arguing for generations that parties serve a important public good and that party leaders should be afforded some deference in picking good nominees. The public, meanwhile, has largely bought into the Progressive Era narrative that parties are, at best, a necessary evil and that they need to be run democratically. They feel that the people should be in charge of deciding whom parties nominate. As Azari notes, scholars are not winning this debate. Maybe we should stop hitting our heads against the same wall over and over again and think about this in a new way.

To which I say, possibly. However, I’d like to suggest that this year, more than any other in recent memory, is the time to make an affirmative case for undemocratic political parties. This is because this year, more than any other in recent memory, is demonstrating the downside of letting the people decide.

The Republican Party is on the verge of nominating a candidate who appears hostile to many of the party’s longstanding beliefs and to many of the country’s basic principles.

Some political observers like to spin out dramatic scenarios in which under-appreciated elites essentially get to save the people from themselves. Jeff Greenfield famously wrote a novel about a faithless elector saving the country from a bad president-elect. Others have pined extensively for things like brokered conventions, in which the masses’ input is simply no longer relevant, and party leaders have to hash out solutions in smoke-filled rooms.

Guess what? We’re there. The Republican Party is actually facing one of those crises that almost never happen in real life. It is on the verge of nominating a candidate who appears hostile to many of the party’s longstanding beliefs and to many of the country’s basic principles, and who demonstrates no serious understanding of government or politics. This would make a great trashy novel if it weren’t actually happening. Why is the party doing this? Because it has thus far failed to do its job this year.

The parties have long histories of quietly saving the republic. In any given election, there’s often some half-crazed demagogue who thinks he’d make a good president and who makes populist appeals to gin up support. The parties are usually quite skilled at keeping that person off the ballot, even if they think they could win with him. They use their control of party machinery, money, endorsements, campaign expertise, and other key resources to steer voters away from such candidates and toward people whom they view as good for the party and the country. This mostly occurs behind the scenes; by the time voters notice what’s going on, the election has boiled down to just a handful of candidates.

The Republican Party very much failed this task in 2016. By being unwilling or unable to concentrate its support behind a champion, it allowed a wealthy populist with little fealty to party principles to put together a winning campaign. The party has remained divided in its opposition to Trump, essentially allowing a factional candidate to cruise to victory.

This is a hugely important moment for advocates of strong parties, in that it shows the costs of party weakness. Trump is what happens when parties get out of the way and defer to the people.

At its July convention in Cleveland, the Republican Party may face a pivotal moment if Trump walks in with a plurality, but not a majority, of pledged delegates (a reasonably likely outcome). Leaders could give into democratic principles and say, “Look, he won the most states, voters, and delegates, so let’s just grant him the nomination.” Or they could take their roles as party leaders seriously and say, “We are under no legal or moral obligation to nominate the man whom the plurality of our voters seem to like. Trump would be bad for our party and bad for the country, so we’re going to nominate someone else, as is our right.”

Either situation will be harmful to the party, at least in the short run. But choosing the latter path might be less damaging to the party’s interests in subsequent elections. And it will also give party scholars, political observers, and voters in general a chance to see a national party at work in an unusually public manner. America will tune in to watch party leaders saving their party, and their country, from itself.

It would definitely not be a democratic outcome. And it would definitely not be universally praised. But it would be a useful reminder that parties and governments are not the same thing, and that an undemocratic version of the former can be vital to the health of a democratic version of the latter.

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