The Hollowed-out Party

The platform decision is emblematic of a Trump-led party.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
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

-T S Elliot, The Hollow Men

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).

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Mister Bluster says:

    I keep looking at the title picture and keep seeing the words Hollowed Out Head…

  2. CSK says:

    @Mister Bluster:
    The thing about Trump is that every time he attempts to look stern and commanding, which he’s trying to do in this photo, he ends up looking petulant. All you can do is laugh contemptuously.

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  3. drj says:

    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).

    While this is true, it ignores the fact the fact that Trump could never have won the GOP nomination without many years of prior interplay between GOP politicians and the conservative entertainment complex.

    There was definitely a time when GOP politicians could have decided not to go along and still keep their power. The moral failure of conservative politics has been years in the making. And while weak institutions also played their part, that’s not the entire explanation.

    Somehow, Democrats managed to not let their party turn into a 1930s flashback show, while, I am sure, their intra-party institutions are at least as weak as those of the GOP.

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  4. flat earth luddite says:

    @CSK:
    But it was a nice job of using Adobe CS to tone town the bronzer to a human level.
    @Mister Bluster:
    Sorry, I want to laugh, but all that comes out is a pained sob.

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  5. CSK says:

    @flat earth luddite:
    Did you think so? All I can see is that stark line down the side of his face where his normal untinted pasty flesh begins. Someone really needs to show him how to apply make-up.

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  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    @drj:

    Chalk it up to the difference between ego and realism. Dems stopped Bernie in 2020 because, Amy, Mayor Pete, Harris et. al. realistically evaluated their chances before super tuesday and threw in with Biden. In 2016 Rubio, Cruz and others stayed in long past their sell by date thereby letting the Former Reality Show Host walk off with the nomination. Plus the FRSH had the advantage of a primary structure that included several winner take all elections.

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  7. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Sleeping Dog: While I see your point, how does one in Cruz et al.’s position decide to fall on his sword? And for the “good of the party?” C’mon, where’s the bottom line in that?

    It’s the Cold War Nuclear Arms conundrum writ small. (Very small in this case.) Disarm? Sure, you first.

    1
  8. @Sleeping Dog: Keep in mind that 2020 was held with knowledge of 2016 and the Dems, as a group, are hyper-focused on beating Trump, making coordinated actions easier.

    2
  9. Scott F. says:

    The function that party platforms perform is that of trying to cement the bonds of the various factions of a given party.

    A GOP party platform was unnecessary in 2020 as there are no factions in the Republican Party. There are only the Trumpists.

    I’ll grant that the nominee runs the party and an expectation of enthusiastic support from the party is certainly warranted regardless of whoever that nominee might be. But, the elimination of all other factions is somewhat unprecedented, is it not? A faction dominant over all others is not the same as the elimination of all other in-groups.

    I have to say this is a bit of a relief for me, as coalitions are necessary for longer term political success and Trump has forgone building the party in order to lean into the base rump. Trumpist Republicanism will have a short shelf life, then. They might continue to win elections due to the anti-majority vagaries of the US system, plus Trump’s and the GOP’s full embrace of lying, cheating, and stealing in order to retain power. But, if they don’t destroy us first, we will outlast them.

  10. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I would suspect, that if you ask those R candidates why they didn’t withdraw in order to block Trump, they would say that they didn’t expect him to win and they’d have another chance at the brass ring in 2020. Which makes what they did more pernicious.

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Good point.

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  11. Ken Lovell says:

    Surely this is too simplistic a view? Republicans in Congress have often refused to do what Trump wanted, on health care, budgets, immigration, arms sales and numerous other issues. I interpreted the RNC resolution as a way of avoiding any commitments that could be hung around Trump’s neck in his second term, as ‘repeal and replace Obamacare’ was in his first. The party has left him to unveil his absurd wishlist of target outcomes for a second term, and he alone will be responsible for failure to achieve them.

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  12. de stijl says:

    We are The Hollow Men

    And a lot of other T.S. Eliot poems apply.

    The Wasteland

    Eliot has slipped in regard. He was not a necessarily good person even in his era, but he be could crack out a good poem or two.