Jay Cost is right to say that America needs stronger political parties. He is wrong to suggest that our existing parties should have done more to block outsiders like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Our problem is not that our parties are too open. Our problem is that both of our major parties are too narrow, too clubby, too narcissistic, and too extreme.
Cost writes, “Only the parties can possibly hope to rope in a broad swath of factions in society, channel their diverse interests into clear policy choices, then hold elected officials to account.”
Would that this were the case in today’s America. The Republicans offer no choice to the 89 percent of their own voters who oppose expanded immigration, and instead take every opportunity to expand low-skill guest-worker programs. They offer nothing to those Republican-leaners who see the contradiction in the argument that we need entitlement cuts because we are broke and tax cuts for high-earners in order to grow the economy.
Equally unrepresented are Democrat-leaners who think that unauthorized immigrants who are members of gangs should be deported, and that taking down Confederate monuments is a string best left unpulled. (By the reasoning of elite Democrats, the 30 percent of African-American Virginians who oppose taking down the Confederate monuments either do not exist or are highly confused white supremacists.)
Here is where Trump and Sanders come in: Neither of them are “real” members of their political parties, so they are somewhat less beholden to the vices and resentments of their parties’ activist groups. Trump could acknowledge the absurdity of telling the roofer and retail clerk to work a couple more years to collect Social Security, while constantly weaseling to cut the top marginal income tax rate. Sanders spoke of working-class whites as equal citizens with legitimate interests, and not as oppressive deplorables who needed to be taken down a peg by wealthy, white politicians with Ivy League degrees.
That rules could protect the parties from their own unpopular positions was the hope of Democratic party leaders in the early 1980s. As Sidney Blumenthal wrote, “party insiders set about creating special privileges for themselves in the presidential nominating process, privileges that would exempt them from the unsettling fluctuation of popular opinion.” The result of this attempt to fix the Democratic primaries was the hapless Walter Mondale campaign, which gave the Republican incumbent his ideal opponent.
Today, we have two such hapless parties. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats can admit their terrible errors in Iraq. It is left to a con artist to say that we never should have invaded, and that having invaded, we should not have withdrawn so precipitously. What was true in 1984 is even more true today. As Blumenthal wrote, “the capital elite’s independence led to isolation, [and] its haughtiness and presumption led to political ineptitude.”
The true weakness of the parties is not the fact that the favored candidates of the lobbyist classes lose primaries. It is that both of our parties’ leaderships are addicted to what Josh Barro called “no-choice politics.” This is Barro’s term for forcing voters to pick between “the unpalatable and the absurd.”
You don’t want expanded low-skill immigration programs? Well, you have no choice. All the respectable, well-spoken, well-scrubbed Republicans with high-class business consultant jobs on their resumes say America needs more low-skill workers. What are you going to do? Vote for whatever clown Steve Bannon digs up?
The model of the current Republican leadership is force voters to choose between the policies they prefer and the candidates they find respectable. It turns out that many voters find respectability to be overrated. Then, when no-choice politics blows up in their faces, our political classes whine that the voters ever got a say in the first place.
The answer to the problems of our elitist parties is not more elitism. The solution to no-choice politics is not more no-choice politics. One party’s economic agenda is dominated by business lobbies, but the policy proposals that come out of the Chamber of Commerce–GOP nexus are so unpopular that they are stillborn in Congress as soon as the hideous opinion poll results are known.
The Democrats are dominated by a power-hungry and vengeful upper-middle-class liberalism that is more intent on injuring (or even just seeking to injure) their cultural rivals than on winning elections. They would rather rant impotently about banning guns than go back to the 2006 strategy of running culturally moderate economic populists, because they would rather draw rhetorical blood than govern the country.
Cost says he wants our parties to channel our diverse interests into clear choices. That is exactly what our parties are not doing. America’s diverse interests are not defined by the twin fanaticisms of the Wall Street Journal and Evergreen State College. The shared interests of those two political cults do not constitute moderation. If our political parties want to be worthy of America, they should seek to represent more of America.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.