Category Archives: Parties

congressional republicans trump

Republicans: It’s Okay to Oppose Trump

Really.  You Can Do It.

Congressional Republicans have, throughout Donald Trump’s norm-destroying presidential campaign and four-month presidential tenure, managed to stand by his side, offering weak defenses for his petty, dangerous, and abusive actions.  They stick with talking points Trump himself dispels in tweets or interviews.  They run from reporters when reporters question them about the most recent Trump scandal.  They bend over backwards to protect and defend a man best understand as a low-information voter.

But why?  Why do congressional Republicans continue to shield Trump?

Trump, of course, has no interest in the Republican party.  He has no interest in conservative policies, save slashing taxes on the wealthy so he and his children can further avoid paying their civic dues.  There’s no doubt that Trump is indifferent to the very real plight of many Americans.  It’s easy to understand Trump’s desire: Self-enrichment.

Unlike his predecessors, Trump refused to release his tax returns.  Nor did he divest from his business interests (and neither has Ivanka, a handbag designer who finds herself tasked with overseeing foreign policies that affect countries – namely, China – in which she has extensive business interests), resulting in doubtless foreign and domestic emoluments clause violations.

Trump visits his own properties every three days in an effort to drive up their value and membership costs as members would have the chance to see and speak with the President of the United States.

Why defend this behavior?  Why demean yourself to protect a man acting out of self-interest?

Republicans, are you scared of Trump’s bite?  I assure you, his teeth are weak and while his bark may be loud, those who fail to speak softly rarely carry a big stick.

Take, for instance, his attitude towards the House Freedom Caucus.  After his firth healthcare bill failed, he angrily took to Twitter and viciously attacked HFC members.  But just a few weeks later, he directed Paul Ryan and other legislative leaders to give the HFC everything it wanted in the healthcare bill.  Trump entirely conceded, despite his vitriol.  There were no repercussions – they got everything they wanted.

Do you fear being primary challenged?  You shouldn’t.  Trump only received 42 percent of the competitive primary vote and no congressional candidates who contort themselves to fit his mold have succeeded.

It must not be forgot that while Trump may now be popular with Republicans, he barely skated by in the primary, receiving only a plurality of the votes and not topping 50 percent in states until his competitors dropped out.  He’s not popular when given another conservative choice.

This is further proved by Trump-esque congressional candidates all failing to win.  A Trump wannabe primary-challenged Paul Ryan and though he earned the ardent support of Breitbart and alt-right members everywhere, Ryan utterly vanquished him in the primary.  Kansas Republicans had an opportunity to choose a Trumpian candidate to run for a recently vacated House seat, yet they demurred.  The Trump wing of the party may have seized the presidential nomination, but it is unable to overthrow sitting representatives and senators.  You have nothing to fear.

The Constitution Matters.

It’s time to put the Constitution above your party.  Trump has abused his power by firing the man leading an investigation against his campaign because that man refused to swear loyalty to the president.  He endangered US sources and future intelligence acquirement by sharing highly classified information with a foreign adversary – an adversary that meddled in our election to boost Donald Trump!  He routinely breaks norms and undermines faith in democratic institutions by, for instance, comparing our intelligence agencies to Nazi Germany, accusing (with no evidence or semblance of credibility) his predecessor of illegal wiretaps, and diminishing the very necessary free press by referring to it as “fake news,” rhetoric which serves only to promote willful ignorance among his base.

Our Republic depends on congressional Republicans checking Trump’s power.  Why let him abuse and consolidate power; right now, all that’s stopping Trump from fundamentally challenging our system is his easy distractibility and fundamental incompetence.  But why rely on that?  Why not proactively work to defend the government created by the Founding Fathers?

You swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States.  So do so.  Don’t let a chauvinist brought to politics only by hobby and hopes of boosting himself undermine the very document you claim to treasure and have promised to defend and protect.

It’s okay.  You can do it.

democratic demagoguery

The Road to Democratic Demagoguery

Anti-party reforms welcome demagogues

Our Constitution’s intricate separation of power, its checks and balances both between governing branches and between the government and the people, and republican emphasis emerged from the Founding Fathers’ fear of direct democracy and majoritarian temptations.  They purposefully designed a Republic and left its maintaining to posterity (“a Republic, if you can keep it”).  On that front, we have largely failed – democratizing reforms, including the direct election of senators and primary elections to choose party nominees, redistributed political power to the masses, leaving government susceptible to flaring passions and fleeting factions.  That, by nature, encourages demagoguery.  Political aspirants need only appeal to emotions to rile and form a majority which they can ride to party nominations and, thanks to strong partisanship, general election contention.  Democratic demagoguery, then, once attained will be as dangerous as its right-winged counterpart.

The Republican Party has succumbed to demagogic temptations by nominating Donald Trump.  Democrats, though behind many of the democratization initiatives, have thus far avoided descending into the irrational throes of a malevolent actor.  But that might not always be the case.  The recent assault on DNC and party legitimacy, launched by Bernie Sanders’ quixotic 2016 presidential bid and carried on by the frothing mass of his most die-hard supporters, threatens to further democratize the party and leave it vulnerable to a presidential hopeful who stokes the redistributive and vindictive passions lit by Sanders himself.  In other words, by working to delegitimize the national party and build class-based animosity and distrust, Bernie Sanders has set the Democratic Party – an entity with which he doesn’t even affiliate – down the road to Democratic demagoguery.

That democratization invariable increases the risk of demagoguery is readily evident for as Alexander Hamilton noted in Federalist No. 1, “paying an obsequious court to the people commenc[es] demagogues and end[s in] tyrants.”  This is not surprising: Few in a fully democratic electorate have the time, will, ability, or interest to learn, in depth, about all political issues a district faces.  True following the American Revolution, such a statement is even truer today as politics competes with a near-infinite supply of other time-consumers, ranging from sports and movies to bars and books.  Add to that a seemingly ever-increasing number of issues on the ballot in the form of initiatives, referendums, candidates for offices many don’t know exist and it becomes incredibly difficult for the entire electorate to master politics.  And so they don’t, relying instead on cues from those who specialize in the field.  Unfortunately for those who eschew demagogues and the temptations of passion, relying on authority can quickly lead voters astray should the leading figure act to manipulate interests, push falsehoods, and legitimize ignorance or bigotry.

A Well-Designed System

Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats erected roadblocks – well, hurdles – that make it challenging for a demagogue to overcome the party’s interest.  Superdelegates, for one, have no obligation to vote for the delegate leader.  Fearing a demagogue or other potential nominee dangerous to the party or country, superdelegates can block a nomination, throwing it to the convention floor, or put another candidate over the top (assuming, of course, the candidate does not attain a majority of delegates).  Democratic demagoguery can thus be avoided.  There are not enough superdelegates to single-handedly decide the nominee or bolster an “establishment” candidate that simply flounders through the primary.  Supderdelegates can make a difference, but only at the end of reasonably close contests.

Secondly, Democratic caucuses and primaries are proportional.  There are no winner-take-all contests.  Plurality candidates would struggle to earn a majority of delegates – similarly, other candidates would have little incentive to drop out as an insurgent demagogue would not necessarily win the nomination prior to the convention.

Third, some states hold closed primaries or caucuses (the same is true on the Republican side).  This encourages voters to take an active political step – affiliating with a party – that increases allegiance with the organization and, through that allegiance, forms (ideally) a lasting coalition in which voters are not just mobilized by temporary arousals, but also with an eye toward the party’s long-term health, which a demagogue might endanger.  Bernie Sanders and his supporters have attacked the first and last of these procedures.

How Democratic Demagoguery Arrives

The Sanders wing of the Democratic Party hopes to further democratize presidential selection by eliminating superdelegates and opening the caucuses and primaries to the entire voting-age population.  Both ideas have the potential to imperil the Democratic Party, especially given that reform-empowered voters have already shown a willingness to embrace, with little question, far-from-center rhetoric and ideology.  Removing superdelegates vanquishes the party from its own nominating affair – no longer would party elites, workers, officeholders, and elder statesmen have a say in who represents their party atop the ballot.  Without the presumably tempering influence of such partisans, Democratic presidential nominations would be left to that which feared the Founders: Direct popular whim.  John Adams claimed that popular rule “soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.  There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”  There’s no immediate reason why this statement shouldn’t apply to parties.  The Republicans, though victorious, might have effectively killed or at least thoroughly poisoned the party with Trump’s nomination and election.  Removing superdelegates would only increase the chances that a mischievous and momentary majority within the Democratic Party could doom the entity to history’s disgraces.

Similarly, opening the primaries to those who care little about the party as whole and instead act to satisfy immediate interests without regard to the party’s long-term standing risks demagoguery.  Independents, contrary to public opinion, are not moderates; they’re closet partisans who often inhabit the ideological wings and vote for far-right or far-left candidates.  In contested open primaries, Donald Trump won 12 of 17 contests (or 71%) whereas in contested closed contests, he won ­13 of 22 contests, or 59% (data from Ballotpedia).  On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton carried self-identified Democrats by 27 points while losing independents by 31 (per FiveThirtyEight).  Open primaries allow ideological wingers – those most prone to a demagogue who legitimizes and furthers those viewpoints – to challenge and perhaps emerge victorious over the staid center.  In short, it eliminates another potential party defense against demagogues.

Don’t Encourage Demagogues

Combined, these desired changes – eliminating superdelegates and thus profound party influence in its own nominating affair as well as opening all primaries to independent voters with no attachment to the party’s long-term health and standing – erode republican institutions that, in a sense, protect voters from their primal selves.  It’s worth pointing out that these reforms arise from perceived (though non-existent) DNC corruption and unfounded belief in a “rigged” primary.  These themes themselves have been pushed by demagogues (Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders)!  Clearly, it’s a self-serving cycle: Diminish the party’s standing in order to decentralize the nominating affair and open the door to demagogic victory.

To avoid following the Republicans down the path to charlatan-led extremism, to avoid Democratic demagoguery, Democrats must recognize that while republican institutions do not fully empower they electorate, the checks on popular temptations serve the party itself and the country as a whole.  For, as Alexander Hamilton so eloquently said: “We are now forming a Republican form of government. Real Liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments. If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy, or some other form of dictatorship.”  Let the parties that control our government follow those same guidelines.

bad politics

We Have Bad Politics — Let’s Change That

Fixing Political Discourse

We have bad politics and we deserve — and certainly need — better.

We need discourse that doesn’t descend into ad hominem attacks.  We need to discuss politics like adults capable of rational thought and capable of accepting the merits of opposing sides and dissecting their arguments for elements of truth.

This is a call for politics of respectability.

As the political system has descended into party polarization not seen since the Civil War Era, loyal partisans (and voters loyal to certain candidates) refuse to accept the legitimacy of opposition.  Liberals ignore conservative arguments; conservatives immediately dismiss liberal thought.  And it’s easy to see why: both sides spend immense time, money, and political capital on attacking the other and portraying their viewpoints as “un-American” or otherwise illegitimate.

But when parties and politicians attempt solely to discredit opposition, compromise becomes impossible, gridlock ensues, and partisan strife makes its way through the nation.  Assuming the opposing side has a hostile motive premised on “undermining America” or serving only elite interests naturally makes unity impossible.  Why would you work with a party or leader who wanted to destroy America?  You wouldn’t.  But that only inhibits functioning government.  Two chambers of Congress and a president armed with a veto require that the two parties work together, especially in times of divided government control (as we have seen for much of the last decade).  Without compromise and the willingness to bridge party lines, we are left with gridlock and a neglect of governing duty.  Nothing happens.

Bad Politics Hurts the Country

Voters often take their cues from elites.  If they see elite political actors denouncing the other side and brazenly attacking them with vitriolic rhetoric, they will follow suit and grow to view opposition with nothing but ire.  This anger is directed at opposing elites and opposing partisans at all levels (right on down to their neighbors).  An angry base motivated by elite rhetoric stimulates a self-fulfilling cycle: Politicians incite voter anger; if same-party politicians begin to work across the aisle, voters respond by kicking them out of office and replacing the bipartisan lawmaker with an extremist.  That, of course, precludes any opportunity of compromise and increases the animosity between partisans (they view the other party as culpable for government’s inaction).  In that way, inciting the base damages elite interests because they lose agency.  No longer can they compromise to advance legislation closer to (but not at) their ideal points.  Doing so would earn a primary challenge (and ask the likes of Eric Cantor and Bob Bennett how that turned out for them).  Bad politics from our leaders encourages and directly leads to bad politics from voters.

The anger between the two sides permeates discourse.  Voters, with cues from elites, come to despise the other side and to decry bipartisan politicians.  They also refuse to accept the legitimacy of other ideas.  Liberal or conservative thought is dismissed out of hand.  Partisans refuse to consider any aspect of the arguments — refusing to analyze an argument’s merit weakens the marketplace of ideas as the only trading that takes place is in an ideological echo chamber where partisans read, discuss, and accept viewpoints put forth by like minded individuals or organizations.  A political system that requires compromise to overcome institutional hurdles needs partisan elites and voters to learn, accept, and debate the merits of ideas so we can reach consensus.  But by refusing to even consider opposing beliefs as legitimate, compromise becomes impossible.

We need to embrace a politics of understanding.  Elites need to tone done hostile rhetoric to give voters cues that opposition is legitimate and their ideas have merit and elements of truth.  Voters, in turn, need to consider opposing arguments and digest the data, analysis, and conclusions presented by other thinkers.  It opens our minds and helps a synthesis emerge from the liberal thesis and its conservative antithesis.

This isn’t a call to forego your ideology.  It’s a call to learn from the other side, to view it as legitimate, and to embrace opposition as an alternate view to the same end goal: Bettering America and enriching her citizens.

(Be sure to follow PoliticalEdu on Twitter and like us on Facebook!)

why we need strong political parties

We Need Strong Political Parties

In the year of the populist, endorsing strong political parties is not a popular opinion.  But I’m convinced it’s necessary for the well-being of our democracy: through strong parties, we can diminish the appeal of demagogues like Donald Trump and potentially dangerous populist policies rooted in misinformation or in reaction to economic displacement.

Democracy, of course, is a good thing, but too much democracy, especially in candidate selection, can have unintended consequences.  As Julia Azari notes, “elections can sometimes produces…illiberal outcomes” that “oppress minorities, violate religious freedom, advocate violent ends, or neglects civil liberties.”  If that sounds familiar, it’s because at various points in this election, Trump has embraced many of these notions — from calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country to condoning violence at his rallies and a stated willingness to punish women who get abortions (which, regardless of opinion on the issue, is a civil right).  The solution to demagogues like Trump is strong political parties.

Since the Progressive Era, parties have been losing legitimacy.  Progressives endorsed an expansion of democracy, including the continued pseudo-democratization of the presidency (to borrow Robert Dahl’s phrase).  But the pseudo-democratization of the presidency and especially presidential selection leads to problems.  There’s a reason we want party officials to have a strong say in candidate selection: they have skin in the game.  Party elites and elected officials rise and fall with the party; a popular party leaders lifts their position while an unpopular candidate atop the ticket could cause them to lose their office.  As such, their decisions are premised not just on policy, but on electoral livelihood.  In other words, they will support a candidate who both matches their ideological beliefs and will give the party the best opportunity at winning the general election (and thus boosting the party’s standing).  We should want those individuals to have a strong say in primaries — they know politics best.

That’s just to defend superdelegates.  Closed primaries are also necessary for a party’s well-being.  Nominations are inherently partisan affairs — there’s a reason it’s called the “Democratic presidential nomination” or the “Republican presidential nomination.”  Parties are selecting a nominee.  And that nominee should reflect the wants of loyal partisans, those who have registered and affiliate with the party.  This disenfranchises no one.  In fact, it encourages voters to register with a party, thereby strengthening partisan loyalties and unifying a large number of voters around a single identification: a party.  We can create strong political parties by encouraging people to register and affiliate with a party in order to participate in the primaries.  (That said, barriers to joining parties and participating in these elections should be low.  No states should require partisan affiliation months before the primary election).

Superdelegates and loyal partisans will elect a candidate best for the party.  Usually, if not always, what’s best for the party will be what’s best for the country.  Strong political parties want to win the general election; they want to take the presidency and control Congress.  As such, its national representative should be an individual who appeals to swing voters and who can lead the party to a strong showing on election day.

Independent voters are not beholden to such wants.  Independents — and they are not true independents, but rather closet partisans perhaps with ideologies further to the left or to the right of the two major parties — have no affiliation to a party and thus care little about the party’s electoral viability.  They care about ideology and will infiltrate a party to back an insurgent candidate whose ideology closely aligns with their own; they don’t want strong political parties because parties would block a demagogic and altogether dangerous candidate who would hurt down-ticket races across the nation.

Take Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  Trump rode a mischievous faction of partisan and independent voters to his plurality victory in the Republican nomination.  Party elites decried his efforts and his policies — they realize he spells electoral disaster in November.  But because the GOP is in a weak state trying to balance an increasing number of factions, because the field winnowed too late to produce a credible alternative to Trump, and because independent voters flooded the Republican primaries, a dangerous demagogue — the likes of which our Founders feared — emerged.  Needless to say, a more controlled partisan process would not have resulted in Trump’s nomination.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is a far-left candidate relying on populist support.  He is not a demagogue like Trump, but his candidacy does thrive on a faction of far-left independents corrupting a partisan affair.  He trails huge with superdelegates — the party insiders who best understand politics and understand the electorate better than all but (perhaps) political scientists.  Of course, should he emerge with a pledged delegate lead, the supers will follow, but their initial support (and blue-dog Democrat fears that Sanders will hurt down-ticket races) attest to Sanders’ electoral viability (or lack thereof).  It’s also worth noting that while supers by and large backed Hillary Clinton in 2008, Barack Obama was urged to run by high-ranking Democratic senators.  He was never considered a threat to Democratic victory.  Sanders does not prove a threat to liberal democracy, but his ability to influence Democratic affairs through an independent coalition premised on ideological affiliation and not partisan loyalty (hence #BernieOrBust) shows that he and his supporters care not about the electoral and long-term viability of the Democratic Party.

Strengthening partisan structures through closed primaries and superdelegates result in candidates viable at the national scale and who boost party chances across the ballot.  Strong parties prevent demagogues and populist infiltration.  They reflect the wants, desires, and beliefs of political experts whose livelihood depends, in part, on nominating outcomes.

We should embrace strong political parties, not run from them.