Trump and American Political Parties
Trump illustrates the weak nature of our parties.
I have been meaning to write a series of posts on what political science can tell us about Donald Trump. Time has constrained this goal, although I have made some passing comments on polling and Trump in the last several weeks. One of the factors that I think is interesting about the Trump candidacy is that it illustrates the candidate-centered nature of our political parties and especially underscores the weakness of those parties in terms of candidate selection. I do not, by the way, use the term weakness to make a negative assessment of the situation, per se (although one might normatively decide that the weakness in question is problematic, especially in this case or, depending on your views of Trump, one might think the situation to be perfectly awesome). Rather, the weakness in question is simply an empirical assessment of the institutional capacities of our parties to control their labels i.e., control who calls themselves a Republican or a Democrat—something I have written about before: All Republicans are RINOs (and all Democrats are DINOs).
In our system the parties do not control the labels. Anyone can be a candidate for nomination under a given party and any candidate can, a la Trump during the first debate, hold out the possibility of running as an independent (or on a third party ticket). Further, the official conferral of the label for the purpose of being on the ballot belongs to primary voters, not party bosses.*
My time to go into this in great detail remains limited, but one of the great things about the internet is that if one waits around long enough, someone else is likely to write about the topic one lacks the time to address. As such, I recommend Boris Heersink’s post at the Monkey Cage: How does the Republican Party solve a problem like Donald Trump? wherein he concludes:
Trump’s candidacy has perfectly exposed the inherent weaknesses in the design of modern American political parties. In earlier times, party bosses would have easily been able to sidetrack Trump at the national convention. But these bosses are long gone. The RNC, while it is more active now than was in the age of the party bosses, does not have the formal powers to exclude candidates from the party; it can only try to persuade Trump to tone it down. And party elites, while usually able to signal which candidates are acceptable and which are to be ignored, do not have the tools to constrain Trump.
A party system managed by relatively weak gatekeepers can be a good thing. After all, it means that voters have the freedom to select the representativesthey want, even if their party’s leadership disagrees. But such weakness comes with inherent risks for the party: once in a while, you can end up getting Trumped.
Note that the answer to the headline question is: nothing without radically restructuring its candidate selection process.
(I do still think, however, that time solves that problem).
The whole piece is worth a read and makes a number of points worth pondering.
*This is wholly true for all partisan offices save the presidency. For the presidency the technical conferral is via party convention, although the power to control the convention rests in the caucus and primary voters.