Now that Donald Trump is really going to be the GOP presidential nominee, the popular thesis that party elites decide the nomination through endorsements and money appears to have been undermined. Nobody in the party establishment wanted Trump. How then did he become the nominee?
One take is that the party failed to decide because it was too weak institutionally. If this is correct, this would suggest that stronger parties with less public participation would prevent future Trumps.
I think it's precisely the opposite. Trump arose because the Republican Party was institutionally too strong for too long, which made it too easy for elites to decide among themselves and take their voters for granted. The "party decides" thesis was exactly right. And Trump is the inevitable backlash.
Republican leaders ignored their voters
Looking back, it's increasingly clear that over the past several decades, Republican leaders have increasingly ignored economic concerns of their voters.
Instead, they've spent most of their energy worrying about the economic concerns of their donors. They pushed for lower and lower taxes for "job creators," for more global trade trade, more immigration, and for less public spending, including cuts to entitlements.
But none of these policies ever had much support among most Republican voters, especially those working-class whites whose economic fortunes failed to improve as promised.
To elide this gap, Republican Party cynical leaders fanned the flames of identity politics, channeling voters' anxieties into anti-Obama rage, into hatred of "big government," and into a story about how Washington elites (i.e., Democrats) had betrayed America. They made big promises of fundamental change they could never deliver (like repealing Obamacare and dramatically slashing government spending). And then they made even bigger promises.
The Republican Party could only pull off this formula because it was strong. As Thomas E. Mann and Anthony Corrado concluded in a recent Brookings paper, "Parties today are strong in the electorate, strong in their vast organizational networks, and strong in government." The party had resources and message discipline that allowed it to maintain a certain orthodoxy, or at least variants on a certain orthodoxy.
But the longer Republicans pulled this off, the harder this high-wire act became to maintain. The out-of-control cycle of overpromising and angry disappointment is as disastrous in politics as it is in relationships. And identity politics are like fire.
At some point, the contradictions were bound to collapse. And collapse they did, when Trump came along as the tribune of that anger and identity politics, but now with the populist economic policies that Republican voters actually wanted all along.
A more open, responsive party might have prevented Trump
Arguably, had the party establishment been weaker and more dependent on their actual voters, party leaders would have been forced to acknowledge sooner that their voters were not with them on a number of core economic issues. But as long as the party leaders could successfully decide and tell their voters whom to support, the party establishment didn't have to worry.
And so in 2012, the party successfully decided on Mitt Romney, who embodied all that the wealthy establishment wanted in a candidate, rather than, say, Rick Santorum, who had some populist leanings and did surprisingly well among voters, coming in second with voters but far behind in elite endorsements and donations.
Meanwhile, Republicans' success in winning back the House in 2010, and then the Senate in 2014, allowed Republican elites to convince themselves that what the voters actually wanted were conservative policies because these candidates ran as conservatives. In retrospect, it appears that voters were responding to the identity part of the messaging far more than the ideology part. Trump supporters are unmoved by the protestations that Trump is not a "true conservative." Probably because neither are they.
Still, Republican leaders and elites also were able to delude themselves into thinking it was economic policies that voters were responding to because this was what the wealthy donors who they hung around with told them. And such a delusion was in everyone's short-term self-interest.
And so, going into 2016, Republican elites were convinced that they could do it again. Yes, there was anger out there. But Jeb Bush was going to raise gazillions of dollars from Washington insiders to convince voters he was a Washington outsider. And why not? His brother had done the same thing in 2000. And if not Jeb, then Marco Rubio could serve as the more cheerful energetic delivery device for the elite Republican policy consensus.
The old consensus is dead. Stronger parties can't bring it back.
Obviously this didn't work out as the party elites planned. So now what?
One option would be to attempt to wrest control back from the voters and force a better candidate on them next time around. As Seth Masket, for example, has pointedly argued:
I'd like to suggest that this year, more than any other in recent memory, is the time to make an affirmative case for undemocratic political parties. This is because this year, more than any other in recent memory, is demonstrating the downside of letting the people decide.
The other option is to acknowledge the reality. As Julia Azari has written:
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.
On this point, I agree with Azari. There's no going back to the old consensus. And the more Republican leaders delude themselves into thinking that the solution to their woes is to centralize more power into fewer hands, the more they court an even angrier backlash in the future.