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The limits of party politics

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It seems fitting as Donald Trump takes his political science–defying place as the GOP nominee and Sanders claims a victory in Indiana to write yet another post about democracy within parties. A few weeks ago, I conceded that the way political scientists conceive of strong parties is unlikely to persuade many people or to conform to contemporary norms about how parties should make decisions.

Writing for Pacific Standard, my fellow Mischief Seth Masket responded with the idea that now, more than ever, the case for strong parties is evident. His argument is best summarized with this passage: "[The GOP] is on the verge of nominating a candidate who appears hostile to many of the party's longstanding beliefs and to many of the country's basic principles, and who demonstrates no serious understanding of government or politics. This would make a great trashy novel if it weren't actually happening. Why is the party doing this? Because it has thus far failed to do its job this year."

Masket's case, in other words, is that our institutions should have protected us from this undesirable outcome. Brendan Nyhan also raised this point a while back in a series of tweets.

But I think it's time to interrogate whether this is really true. Can we really design institutions that protect us from anti-democratic ideas?

In order to answer this question, we need to confront two uncomfortable, seemingly incompatible truths.

First, Donald Trump has won the nomination by the rules of the primary process, a set of rules that have been redesigned over time to be more open to voter input. A process in which the rules were, if not clear, known in advance and put in place by party leaders who were, in turn, chosen by the processes of their state and local parties.

Second, Donald Trump has used and will probably continue to use rhetoric and appeals that challenge some of the substantive beliefs that we associate with modern democracy: tolerance, nondiscrimination, equality, solving problems through nonviolent means. His apparent lack of knowledge and qualifications in the areas of foreign and domestic policy has also been pointed out as a problem. But I submit that it's a different kind of problem.

We've long known that democracy sometimes allows for the selection of less qualified individuals for office. This cuts both ways — plenty of people couldn't believe that George W. Bush tied with Al Gore and beat John Kerry when both seemed to have better intellectual credentials. You could say the same thing about how the less experienced Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton and then John McCain.

This might be less than ideal, but it's not anti-democratic.

Observing elections in other countries should have told us this by now, but elections can sometimes produce what political scientists call illiberal outcomes. These are outcomes that (to explain jargon with more jargon) don't meet the requirements of substantive democracy: They oppress minorities, violate religious freedom, advocate violent ends, or neglect civil liberties.

One of the reasons advocates for human rights and other freedoms tend to also favor open political processes is that we assume good institutions will choose leaders who will protect freedom and justice. Open elections are certainly better in this regard. But they're not a guarantee that parties and candidates who rely on bigoted appeals or talk about curtailing freedoms won't win sometimes.

This is especially important when we talk about American institutions in historical context. I've often criticized the anti-partyism and incomplete notions of democracy that have shaped 20th-century party reform in the US. The old convention system, with its brokers and geographic organization, was more pluralistic — it was easier, under the pre-reform convention system, to ensure that a party nominee was acceptable to most factions within a party. As we are now learning, the current primary system allows a candidate to be nominated with a plurality of voters if no strong opponent emerges.

But here's the thing: While these old institutions were far better at avoiding a conundrum in which a party nominates a candidate that many of its members don't really like, they were hardly a bulwark against failures of substantive democracy. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with American history can point to at least a few instances of racism, sexism, and xenophobia.

The pluralistic structure of old-school nominations — especially in the Democratic side, where a rule stipulating that nominees had to win two-thirds of delegates held up for 100 years — protected the veto power of the states that became the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South. It wasn't until after the elimination of the two-thirds rule that the Democratic Party began to take up the issue of civil rights.

The issue here is, I think, less a matter of whether institutions have failed. Instead, the lesson of the 2016 nomination season is that procedural democracy cannot be counted on to protect substantive democratic values at all times. Leaders and ordinary citizens have to actually face up to the difficult questions about race, gender, and other forms of inequality, about the human tendency to form groups and be awful to each other, and about the history of doing so that lurks beneath the surface of so many democracies.

It's not obvious to me at the moment that we definitely are in crisis — I think there are some serious problems and sources of instability in American democracy, and I also think it's possible that we'll recalibrate just fine. But it is worth mentioning that at times of serious crisis in American politics, the party system has been helpful but ultimately ambivalent.

Leading up to the Civil War, the parties splintered, unable to use process to get around the moral confrontation over slavery. As president, Lincoln's initial vision of the crisis was leaden with process and compromise — but it ultimately became a stealthily compelling vision of emancipation and union. Lincoln was a great president. That we got him at that time was pretty much an accident. The party machinery that survived him got us Grant and Hayes, the abrupt end of a flawed Reconstruction, and a racial struggle that shapes our society still.

And it's this stuff that we still need to confront. We can call the Trump phenomenon "populism," or we can call it voters fed up with elites. We can talk about norms, and we can talk about delegate allocation formulas. And it's true, a different process probably would have forestalled Trump's nomination. But the evidence is mounting that his supporters are concerned about a changing America, they think Obama is a Muslim and they don't mean that as a compliment, and some of them are okay with violent solutions to political disagreements.

Different institutions could have prevented this nominee this year. But the deeper problems have a way of surfacing, and parties, as useful as they are, can only work around them for so long.