There’s a Fix to the Party Primary Madness: Membership

Ideas and Issues National Politics

primaryNew Orleans    It’s hard not to enjoy all of the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth by the Republican Party “establishment” and even sometimes their counterparts on the Democratic side of the line.  The gates have been stormed.  Their castles are being overrun by hoi polloi.  The unwashed and vulgar masses are everywhere around them and demanding to be heard.  They’re white, right, and ready to fight.  They’re young, passionate, and feeling the burn.  Columnists and commentators are having a field day mourning the death of the party they loved or tying to rally the troops for one more desperate fight at the Alamo, or prattling that they told each other so and brought their own house down upon themselves.  One white head after another is fiddling with their worry beads and asking, “What’s to be done?” 

            It’s interesting to me how few in the establishment are asking the question, “Who put you in charge anyway?”  Getting invited to another panel at another hotel conference or making the rounds of the cocktail circuit in Washington DC with folks who think and look exactly like the ones they saw yesterday, today, and tomorrow might make someone a living, but doesn’t mean they could lead anyone anywhere.  As every organizer knows, your base defines whether or not you are a leader, and if your base is simply other supplicants just like you, that doesn’t convert in the political world where votes are eventually the coin of all realms.

            But even before they get to the election, the so-called “establishment” has to confront the problem of the “party.”  A party is an organization.  After countless years of eviscerating their own political organizations by allowing candidates to self-certify and money to determine who is viable, the parties have largely taken themselves out of the mainstream of the political fight. 

            It wasn’t always so in the United States.  It’s absolutely not so around the world where parliamentary systems and multi-party politics prevail.  Yes, at the end of the day they still have to face the people and win an election, but the candidates, who are the leaders of the parties, are determined almost invariably by the membership of the party.  The uproar in Britain over the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party came down to the fact that his candidacy excited segments of the British population enough that they paid a couple of quid and joined the party to have a chance to vote for him.  The Labour “establishment” of course thinks this is a disaster because they believe he can’t lead the party to an election that would allow him to be Prime Minister, but they have a clear path for all of their moaning and groaning:  organize better, enroll more members. 

            Parties have become so weak and nebulous in the United States that many primaries allow independents and members of the other party to come vote in their primary.  That’s a party without membership or even an invitation initiation procedure so much beloved by the establishment.  This is come-as-you-are, anyone can show up.  In real life it’s just a matter of time before the cops come at those kinds of parties, and that’s what the Republicans are living through now.  Trump is expanding the Republican base, but of course without any threshold, that base has just cause and grievance, but no loyalty to anything elephantine. 

            This is part of the reason that Trump is getting beaten to a pulp in caucus states by Cruz.  He has no organization, while Cruz does.  Hillary is having much the same problem in many caucus states where her machine is bending to greater enthusiasm of Sanders supportors.  Caucus states are often still states that require some minimal membership to be part of the party and participate in determining their leader.  Where that doesn’t exist, it’s still all push-and-shove but even that is different from the free-for-all of an open primary election.

            For those crying about the death of parties, the answer seems to be that the wake is past due.  Most of the establishment already buried the parties years ago in favor of their own prerogatives, money and media domination, and the hope of grabbing brass rings that they could keep out of the reach of others.  Want to do something different, then build real parties with real membership that presents a program and platform to the people, and lets them decide.  The election will still be wild and wooly, but at least the choices will be clear and consistent.