Political scientist Clinton Rossiter concluded his 1960 work Parties and Politics in America with the following formula: “No America without democracy, no democracy without politics, no politics without parties, no parties without compromise and moderation.” In the case of a conservative political party, I would suggest an addendum to that formula: “No conservatism without tradition, no tradition without authority.”
Conservatives, as Russell Kirk wrote, are guided by the “historical continuity of experience” — in other words, by tradition. But tradition does not maintain itself; rather, it has to be actively maintained by institutions that can speak authoritatively about the history and meaning of that tradition. Families, local communities, educators, business leaders, and religious organizations all have had — and should have — a role to play in maintaining the traditions of representative democracy. A political party that defines itself as conservative should be one of those authoritative voices as well, but the structure of the Republican Party from the 1970s onward has left it with a garbled voice. The end result has been the party’s drift from conservatism to populism under the sway of Donald Trump.
The potential for that drift arose in 1976, when the Republican Party adopted a presidential nomination process designed, ironically, by the left wing of the Democratic Party. Prior to the 1970s, local and state conventions had the most say in selecting both parties’ nominees, but the new process gave greater weight to the popular vote through primary elections.
The Democrats devised this system in order to secure the nomination of an anti-war candidate in ’72, which got them George McGovern. The Republicans followed suit four years later, which got them Gerald Ford. Even though neither initial test case succeeded in producing a candidate who could win a general election, each party nevertheless has continued to nominate their candidates this way. As I argued in a previous piece for The American Spectator, selecting presidential nominees via a process intended to push short-term factional agendas has damaged our country’s political system as a whole.
The first Republican nominee to come out of the primaries and win a general election was of course Ronald Reagan, whose personality continued to guide both the party and the conservative movement long after the end of his second term. Although the primary system was designed to favor faction over consensus and strategic victories over tactical ones, establishment figures from the Reagan-Bush era still managed to hold the party together and translate success at the ballot box into long-term policy goals. Members of the Reagan administration shepherded the party until the 2008 election, by which time most of them had passed away or retired from public life.
The 2010 mid-term elections saw the rise of the Tea Party, electing candidates (especially in the House of Representatives) who had no prior political experience and thus no grooming from party insiders. Mitt Romney, like George W. Bush before him, asked Republicans to pin their presidential hopes onto an established political dynasty, but unlike Bush, failed to win a majority of either the Electoral College or the popular vote. Once the Reagan-Bush establishment had faded away, the party had no model for leadership aside from personality, leaving it open to the rise of a celebrity candidate who has mastered the use of social media to reach primary voters.
Trump’s hubristic declaration at the Republican National Convention that “[he] alone can fix” the country’s problems should be the clearest indication yet (if one were still needed) that his will not be a conservative administration. The nominee’s obsession with poll numbers suggests that polls will guide his policy even more than they have under previous administrations. Our contemporary political parties, now bereft of any connection to the more consensus-based convention system, are built to achieve electoral victory by turnout, but not to govern. This election will likely decide not only the fate of conservatism in America, but also the future of our two-party system.
If Trump wins in November, the Republican Party is his for the foreseeable future. If Trump loses narrowly, he can still maintain control of the party by channeling the widespread antipathy toward Hillary Clinton into doubts over her legitimacy as president. In either of these cases, the Republican Party will become the party of Trump, organized around a charismatic leader, with dynasticism as its only fallback. We have already seen this happen with the Democrats.
In the above scenarios, the Republican shift from conservatism to populism will likely be permanent. A conservative third party could then emerge, recalling the third-party origins of the GOP itself in the 1850s. In order to stand out from the prevailing charismatic-dynastic parties, it will need a nominating process that sets principle above whim and immunizes the party against celebrities and dynasties.
If Trump loses by a landslide, Republican leaders will hopefully see that they need to restructure the party in order to guide it back to core conservative principles. In the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, the so-called “Republican autopsy” largely advocated changing the party’s message rather than its structure, losing sight of the simple fact that any organization’s structure will necessarily determine its message. The current structure of the Republican Party means that its message will no longer be reliably conservative. So where can conservatism go from here?
Jeffrey H. Anderson and Jay Cost drew a road map in a 2013 issue of National Affairs. Taking the 1787 Constitutional Convention as their model, they propose a two-step process by which local conventions of rank-and-file party members nominate a handful of candidates for the primaries. Their plan would shorten the primary season, reducing the influence of donor money and media coverage on the outcome. It would also prevent crossover voters from tipping the nomination, while still ensuring that a broad spectrum of voices from within the party is heard.
Anderson and Cost’s model represents a judicious compromise between the pre-1976 convention system and the modern primary system. It operates along conservative principles, fostering a variety of viewpoints within the grassroots, instead of channeling those principles and viewpoints through the current maladapted process borrowed from the Democrats. Whether it is adopted by the Republicans or by an incipient third party, it has the potential to find an authoritative voice for the small-“r” republican tradition increasingly silent in American politics.
J.E. Blanton is a researcher and writer in Washington, DC. He blogs at PostWestphalian.com.