The Hollowed-out Party
The platform decision is emblematic of a Trump-led party.
We are the hollow men-T S Elliot, The Hollow Men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Let me start with two important facts that provide context for the following discussion. First, party conventions are a combination of pep rallies for the faithful and infomercials that hope to motivate supporters and maybe influence some undecided voters. They are PR events that will hopefully influence the news cycle. This has been true since at least the post-1972 reform to the role of primaries/caucuses in the nomination process.
Second, party platforms are not, in and of themselves, especially important. They bind no one, let alone the party’s presidential nominee. As I have repeatedly noted, candidates acquire usage of the party’s label via the primary process. No one has to read the platform to be the Republican or Democratic nominee of anything, from the most trivial of local offices to the presidency of the United States, let alone pass any kind of purity test based on its contents.
The function that party platforms perform is that of trying to cement the bonds of the various factions of a given party. They do so by giving different groups within the party the chance to have their say on taxes, foreign policy, abortion, health care, etc. It is a way to make these factions feel listened to. To be honest, while I understand the potential usefulness of this activity, I also have long thought it to be symbolic at best. Given the nature of the party system and our institutional structures, it has long made sense to me that the party platform for a presidential election cycle might as well just be the policy positions of the party’s nominee.
Now, certainly, policy wonks who want electoral politics to be about competing ideas about what government can do like to think that platforms matter (or should). But, not only do voters not really choose candidates on the basis of a rational weighing of policy proposals, but the reality is that given the nature of separation of powers parties are severely limited in their ability to pursue clear policy agendas (unfortunately).
All of that is to say that the RNC’s choice to simply endorse the 2016 platform without revision is not the deal some have made it out to be. Too much focus has been on these passages from the resolution:
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 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;
This is meant to prove that the party is now, dare I use the word, a cult. But really what it illustrates is that the nominee runs the RNC. The purpose of either party convention, especially when an incumbent is running for re-election is to “reassert the Party’s strong support” of its nominees and to “enthusiastically support” him/her.
The resolution is basically a fancy way of saying we are just using the same platform at 2016 (which is lazy and makes for targets for ridicule, but that is par for the course for this admin–after all, the 2016 platform criticizes “the president” for failures, since it is aimed at Obama).
To me, this choice illustrates a point I have repeatedly tried to make: the nature of the nomination system for the major parties puts the presidential nominee in the driver’s seat. The party largely becomes whatever that person wants it to be and the ostensible “members” of that party have to go along for the ride (e.g., Lindsay Graham) or push the ejector button (e.g., the Lincoln Project). And since political power often requires adhering to party labels, most politicians fall in line.
Moreover, when a party nominates someone like Trump, i.e., an egotistical amateur who hires mostly hacks, it is no surprise that the convention is going to turn into a reality show, including stunts, rather than an event that would follow traditional norms, like having a platform committee meeting (especially in the context of the pandemic).
After all, this is a party convention focused heavily on Trump and his family. It is a convention without any past presidents or party nominees participating. It is the Trump Show because as the party’s leader he has made the party as deficient as he is.
It is hardly a surprise that a man who is known for not wanting to read anything save the briefest of documents wouldn’t care about the party platform.
Call them the HOP, the Hollowed-Out Party instead of the GOP, as their convention was largely devoid of content beyond the simplism that is the Trump administration (with a huge side dish of the Trump family).