Two Cheers for Partisanship

(Photo of Donald Trump by Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images. Photo of Bernie by Alex Wong/Getty Images. )

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (who hates the attention) has announced that she is leaving the Democratic Party and becoming an independent who will caucus with the Democrats. We already have two of those: Bernie Sanders, famously, who came within spittin’ distance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination in spite of not being a member of that party (nothing like that has ever happened to Republicans, ho ho!), and Sen. Angus King of Maine.

Her statement on the decision was … exactly the sort of mushy, stale baloney you’d expect. And it is, to some degree, simply wrong on the substance: “There’s a disconnect between what everyday Americans want and deserve from our politics, and what political parties are offering,” Sinema writes in the Arizona Republic. But that isn’t quite true: If the parties had the power to impose their agendas—and their will—on American politics, American politics would look radically different. 

My colleague Jonah Goldberg has been talking about this a lot in recent months—I disagree with him on one point, which I’ll get to below—but it is worth really chewing over the fact that the two most important developments in American politics (which are, from one point of view, the same development) have happened over the sometimes frenzied objections of the two major political parties. I mean here the election of Donald Trump following his emergence as Republican standard-bearer and the analogous rise of professing socialists such as Sanders among Democrats. Because Sanders is not the kind of celebrity Trump is, the personality cult that developed around him was relatively minor, whereas Trump’s is a political megachurch. But the two phenomena are similar: On one side, there are angry, generally ignorant populists who insist that those who are not quite as rage-addled as they are must be in the pocket of donors or some corporate interest, who believe that the key to victory is more extremism and more bumptiousness, who are ensorcelled by conspiracy fairytales, etc. On the other side, there are figures such as Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham, men of flexible principle who will go along with the mob to whatever extent they calculate doing so to be in their interest. There isn’t really an “establishment” that is opposed to the populist interests, though there are a smattering of sensible and/or decent figures who will tell the truth when doing so is not popular. But the idea that Mitt Romney or former President George W. Bush, or sundry factota operating in the shadows on their behalf, are calling the shots in the Republican Party is nonsensical. The problem with the two big political parties isn’t that there is somebody secretly pulling the strings from behind the scenes—the problem is that there isn’t. 

As Jonah Goldberg and Jonathan Rauch discuss in their recent Remnant conversation, the political parties have been neutered by a number of factors, including a primary process that rewards imbecilic posturing and punishes compromise and moderation, the emergence of small-dollar fund-raising that has made candidates independent of party financial power, and social media. In 1940, the political parties had the power to simply strangle the political career of a dangerous crank such as Charles Lindbergh before it took off, and in 1992 billionaire Ross Perot was obliged to run his amateur-hour campaign on his own steam. In 2016, Donald Trump essentially ran the Perot campaign—with its paranoia, its clabbered xenophobia, its “run the government like a business” idiocy—inside a Republican Party that was too weak to resist the infection. 

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