Reflection on American Parties: The Problem of Purity
By Pedro Enamorado
When people ask about your politics, do you respond with “Conservative,” or “Republican?” Half a decade ago, the common answer would have been the latter, but today many will answer with the former. The William F. Buckley Program’s Sixth Annual Conference tackled the questions of the role of parties in our political system, where parties have brought us to in 2016, and where they will lead us? The conference also assessed the historical role of parties, the contemporary role of parties, and the role of parties in the future in 3 separate sessions respectively, but each panel agreed on a few important points. The first point is that by pursuing ideological purity the parties have rendered themselves unresponsive. I can personally testify to this frustrating point; I often hear about Republicans trying to pass absurdly idealistic laws to outlaw abortion in all circumstances or to repeal Obamacare just to prove their conservatism. These are not mainstream positions and repel a large amount of voters. The second point is that making the parties more democratic, such as through the introduction of direct primaries, has in fact, stripped party leaders of their ability to make parties responsive. This is something that I lamented when John Boehner resigned and poor Paul Ryan had to inherit the conglomeration of scattered interest groups that is now his party. Americans are unhappy with a party system that is gridlocked and falsely presents our political landscape as manichean.
How do we fix such a stagnant, unresponsive system? One panelist, Mr. Olsen, suggested we create a great moderate party to end all parties, as Canada has done. But the US tried that before and it did not last. Thomas Jefferson, architect of the American party machine, created the Democratic Party with the aim of ending all parties. He consolidated moderate Federalists into his Democratic-Republican Party and said, “we are all Republicans; we are all Federalists” in his inaugural address. But the party proved too complacent with Jefferson’s policy of slashing the army and bleeding its maintenance by repealing the tariffs that maintained it. The result of his “limited government” ethos was a British march through our capitol in the War of 1812 without much of a fight. Needless to say, I quite like having two parties check each other, as Adams and the Federalists would have done had they had a more present, mobilized party in Congress.
The more realistic, and less idealistic solution to the problem of unresponsive, polarized parties is to wait. To our concerns over gridlock and polarization producing the nightmare that is Mr. Trump, panelist Mr. Kristol reminded us that this is only one election. He noted that, despite the ideological purity the parties seek to achieve, they have elected more respectable center-right candidates in recent history. George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney were all reasonable candidates with proven records as Conservative statesmen. Of course, only time will tell how the Republican Party fares post-Trump. Furthermore, as a Conservative, I like establishment; I like slow legislation; and I like a Congress that’s willing to check a stubborn, impatient president. I hope we can count on the GOP evolving towards moderate reforms to re-empower elites so that they can build coalitions and make a coherent contract with America (sound familiar?). Perhaps we could introduce a superdelegate system to the GOP just to get us there sooner? After all, ideological purity is only a problem if it’s incoherent and unable to form coalitions within the party. With a modest re-empowerment of party elites, maybe establishment will stop being a dirty word and be able to get the party to toe the line again.
Pedro Enamorado is a Senior in Ezra Stiles College.