Saturday, January 13, 2018

Parties are defined by their presidents

I could make a comment here about the GOP being defined by Trump paying hush money a porn star named "Stormy Daniels," but the irony is that there is so much going on that Trump's hush payments are minor news.  Let that sink in.  Anyway...

Party structures in the US are relatively amorphous, compared to those in other countries.  What makes you a Democrat or a Republican?  In survey research, we simply ask about how people think of themselves, but what peoples' responses mean is something of an open debate.  Is it a matter of personal identity, a retrospective summary of past voting behavior, a running tally of the parties' governing records, or... I'm just going to stop now because if I keep going, this becomes a totally different post.  "Party-in-electorate," as good, ole' Valdimir called it.  That's V.O. Key, by the way.  What's next?  There's the "party as organization."  We have the DNC and the RNC, and affiliated groups at the state and local levels.  These days, though, if we want to understand the party organizations, we need to look beyond the official party structures.  Can you really hope to understand the Republican Party without paying attention to Fox News?  No, because Fox News is a part of the Republican Party informal structure.  Can you hope to understand the Democratic Party without paying attention to the AFL-CIO and other labor unions?  No.  Same deal.

And finally, there's what Key called the party-in-government.  If your party holds the presidency, your top person is the president.  In fact, the official head of your party-- formally the head of your party organizationally-- is the president.  And there is good reason for the party-in-electorate to focus on the president.  He is the most visible figure.

He defines the party in a way that nothing else can.  Platforms are basically bullshit in the US political system.  The Democratic and Republican Parties each have platforms, and there are stupid, little fights at the conventions each year about the drafting of the platforms, but they are not, in any way, binding for anyone.  In stronger party systems (like the proportional representation systems that most other democracies use), those platforms are more meaningful and informative, but here?  You can largely ignore them, particularly if you have the option of paying attention, instead to a party's president.  Nothing binds a president to his party's platform.

Where is the locus of power?  That changes over time.  In a period when Congress does not defer to the president, it would be inappropriate for people to treat the president as a stand-in for the party.  When Congress defers fully to the president, yeah, go ahead and treat the president as the party.  It isn't just a nice heuristic-- it's correct.

Right now, the Republican Party defers fully and completely to Donald Trump.  In the lead-up to his presidency, I compared him to Jimmy Carter, based on his lack of experience in national politics and poor relations with his own party, based on the process by which he won the nomination.  National Democrats didn't defer to Carter, and I expected a lot of problems between Trump and his own party.  I'm going to return to this in more detail soon, but it's time for me to say that I was kind of wrong on this.  The Republican Party, party-in-government using Key's terminology, has subjugated itself completely to Donald Trump.  As such, he defines the party.

Right now, the "scandal" is Trump once again demonstrating his bald-faced racism.  This time, it was by saying that we should stop letting people into the US if they come from Africa or Haiti, and let them in if they come from countries like Norway.  Gee....  Hmmm... Lemme think about that....  What do Africans and Haitians have in common, and what is different about Norwegians?  Hmmmm....  Nope.  Can't figure it out!  I guess I'm not a very stable genius!  Note how indifferent I am to the use of the word, "shithole."

Anyway, last summer, Trump... oh, fuck it.  If I told you, you wouldn't remember.  He says so much despicable shit that any one incident just fades into the din.  Trump made a misogynistic comment about Mika Brzezinski.  It doesn't matter what.  He was just being Trump.  He's a loathsome thing, and everyone with a conscience knows it.  A couple of Republicans decided to criticize him.  I criticized those Republicans for their feckless, empty gestures.  I pointed out that Trump enjoyed the fact that he was dominating his own party by getting away with everything, and that he was enjoying the fact that the criticism amounted to nothing.

Where are we now?  Most Republicans don't even bother with criticizing him anymore when he says vile, racist stuff.  Trump denies saying what we know he said, but Trump is the most shameless liar in political history.  And several Republican Senators in the "shithole" meeting are saying they don't even remember Trump said it!

One such Senator is Tom Cotton.  Does that name ring a bell?  Remember when James Comey testified before the Senate?  Cotton was the man to whom I gave the "Trump Shill Award."  Should you be surprised that Trump Shill-extraordinaire, Tom Cotton is covering for Trump?  Nope.

My point is that the Republican Party, party-in-government, doesn't even bother with the feckless criticism that it used to muster when Trump says vile, racist things now.  Cotton is just the most extreme case, but the entire party has been brought to heel.  It is therefore appropriately defined by Trump.

And Donald Trump is as racist as any public figure in modern American history.

The Republican Party has a problem with racism.  It is a problem that has been building for a long time.  If you ask a Republican official or a loyal Republican about the topic of race, you will probably get the following line:  Lincoln!

Yeah, that was a century and a half ago.  How about this?  I'll let you define your party with a 19th century figure if you agree to use only 19th century medicine.  What?  No?!  Are you saying that things can change in 150 years?  Really?  Well, OK then.  Moving on.

Next, you'll get a discussion of southern Democrats and segregation.

You know, southern Democrats!  Like... oh, what's his name?  Strom... somethingorother.  Thurmond!  That guy!  What ever happened to him?  Oh, riiiiight.  He switched to the Republican Party in 1964 because Lyndon Johnson was running on a pro-civil rights platform and Barry Goldwater, the icon of pure conservatism and proto-Reagan, opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Yeah.  Strom Thurmond.  Total indictment of the Democratic Party on racism.

Maybe Trent Lott could give us some history lessons on that guy... (Obscure zing!)

Right now, though, the Republican Party is defined by Trump, and Trump is defined by racism.  In order to not have that racism define the party for a long time, a lot of other actors in the GOP need to start working very hard.  Against someone they have been too cowardly to oppose.

Note that I haven't even bothered to describe how Trump's dishonesty, corruption, misogyny, stupidity, psychological instability, or anything else might define the Republican Party.  The racism here has been building for 50 years, since Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond started switching parties.

Now for the warning, though.  This is the point at which over-exuberant Democrats talk about the increasingly diverse population of the US, and how the Republican Party will have trouble winning elections if they are exclusively the party of white people.

Yeah, we've been hearing this one for a long time.  The GOP keeps winning, though.  Why?  The short answer is to think about how racial polarization works.  If the proportion of the population that is non-white increases over time, the GOP can keep winning as the party of white people if white people are increasingly Republican.  I'll come back to this one too.


  1. By "Trent Lott," are you referring to the former Democratic aide who switched to the Republican Party?


    1. Whaaaaa?! A racist southern Democrat who wound up a Republican? Huh... Weird... I wonder what would happen if someone stuck a microphone in front of him and asked him to muse on Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign...