How Much Control Should Political Parties Exert Over Their Representative Members?


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The Republican Party, both at state and national levels, has picked up a habit of censuring members whose actions it disapproves of.

The Republican Party, both at state and national levels, has picked up a habit of censuring members whose actions it disapproves of.

In recent weeks, internal GOP displeasure has been directed mostly at party members who have been critical of former-president Trump and named him culpable in the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

The GOP’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to oust Rep. Liz Cheney from party leadership made news over her vote to impeach Trump, as did the Wyoming GOP’s vote to censure her. Cheney is not the only Republican politician to face the wrath of her party. Following Sen. Richard Burr’s vote to convict Trump, the North Carolina GOP subsequently announced it would vote to censure him.

North Carolina’s GOP plans to censure Sen. Ben Sasse for his criticism of Trump. And, not to be outdone, the Arizona GOP, which once produced conservative superstar and no-holds-barred critic of his own party Barry Goldwater, recently censured several of its members over their criticism of Trump. The list includes Gov. Doug Ducey, former Senator Jeff Flake, and Cindy McCain.

Circling the wagon around the GOP’s embattled former president unequivocally sends the message that dissent will not be tolerated from the party rank-and-file.

And, while that’s disappointing as the party has tried to brand itself a “big-tent” home to many shades of right-wing thought, it’s hardly surprising.

The GOP has had a pluralism problem for a while. Nearly a decade ago, when grassroots Tea Party activists were grumbling about establishment leadership figures who routinely failed to deliver conservative policy victories, GOP leadership, afraid deferring to the ideological base would tank their chances of electoral success, did everything they could to denigrate the movement. Nor were personal attacks beyond the pale: memorably, Sens. Lindsay Graham and John McCain called their Tea Party colleagues “wacko birds” on more than one occasion.

From this tension was born the House Freedom Caucus. Originally a bastion for representatives who wanted fiscally-responsible, small-government policies pursued at all costs, a strange twist of fate saw it become the home of Trump’s strongest legislative support. Once the home of those who ignored the wisdom of a set of party leaders who held them in contempt, its members are now ironically in lockstep with those calling for Trump’s detractors in the party to be censured.

So, is this the GOP’s own version of cancel culture, or are Republicans just following Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of thy fellow Republican?

That depends on whether the GOP wants to live up to its branding. On the one hand, pluralism requires internal debate. Big tent parties need to provide members the space to disagree, not just when they’re candidates arguing over what the future of the party should be, but when they’re in office, too. Ben Sasse and others who voted to convict Trump aren’t just Republicans in Congress. They’re members of the legislative branch and as such they have loyalties that go beyond party. Antipathy between branches of government is built into the American structure. This antipathy isn’t personal; it’s a reflection of how jealously members of one branch need to guard their Constitutionally-derived power against corruption and attempts by other branches to erode it.

Parties need to recognize the first duty of elected officials is to the Constitution. They also need to realize that pluralism is not compatible with squelching criticism of fellow party members.

The GOP has shown time and time again that it will choose pragmatism over ideology every time. And that’s fine: political parties make calculated decisions about messaging in order to make them competitive in elections. And the vast majority of voters are not influenced by ideology when casting their ballots.

But the GOP has also made the calculated decision to brand itself as a “big tent party” because it does not want to run the risk of splitting its voters. If conservatives were to splinter off from the GOP and form their own party, it’s likely they’d take quite a few voters with them. Because the GOP doesn’t want to face this, it’s emphasized coalition-building: it welcomes candidates and voters of disparate right-wing ideologies because, united, its mathematical chances of winning elections is higher. 

This is simple town hall mathematics: With five candidates, you need 20.1% of the vote to win. But you only have a 20% chance of securing every vote. With two candidates, you need 50.1% of the vote to win, but you have a 50% chance of securing every vote. It’s easier to build majorities when you have a higher percentage of winning every vote. This is why first-past-the-post systems tend to reward coalition-building between parties with relatively similar worldviews and policy goals.

However, those coalitions fall apart when party leadership runs things with too heavy a hand and it starts to erase any incentive minority-members of the coalition might have in helping it make up the numbers and be competitive. And that’s the risk the GOP runs. In censuring members who feel Trump shouldn’t be immune to criticism, it is sending the message to some that there’s no longer room for conservatism’s traditional skepticism towards government power in the party. If, as is being discussed, conservatives break off and start a third party, they may take enough votes to tank the GOP’s electoral viability for the next few years.

The GOP should be alarmed by this and rethink how its decision to censure dissent affects its claim to being a big-tent party. But that doesn’t mean there’s no defense to what it’s doing. 

Political parties have a vested interest in controlling their identity. The strongest argument for political parties lies in their ability to sort the electorate and provide shortcuts for understanding the broader political landscape. The terms “Republican” and “conservative” conjure up prototypical images of candidates and their issue positions in the minds of most voters. This is useful: it cuts down on the amount of outreach parties have to do and allows them to focus on making higher-level arguments for their ideas.

When candidates go off message, they threaten not just success in the district they’re running to represent, but they can alter public perception of the party as a whole.

Parties do have a vested interest in reigning in their members. And as far as tools available for doing so go, censures probably aren’t the worst. Censures don’t carry any real repercussions; they’re a statement of verbal dissatisfaction.

It’s possible the disapprobation of the party might mean a candidate will receive fewer resources the next time he or she is up for re-election, but they’re hardly entitled to those resources.

As with anything in politics, political parties have to manage tradeoffs between competing interests. Parties need voters and candidates in order to wield any real political power. And voters and candidates need parties, which help provide resources for those interested in running for office and sort the electorate in a meaningful way that facilitates political debate. 

If parties are going to remain viable, they have an interest in holding accountable candidates who threaten to diverge from party messaging and damage electoral credibility. But doing this with too heavy a hand threatens to alienate potential voters and future party leaders and threatens to undermine the coalitions upon which so much of modern parties’ strategies are built.

The GOP’s recent action shows it currently values central party control over messaging above everything else. In practice, it clearly isn’t very interested in big-tent openness towards competing versions of right-wing thought. This is no doubt disappointing for members of dissident  groups. But it doesn’t change the fact that the GOP has the political authority to censure its members.

Whether this heavy-handed control, which abrogates members’ ability to behave not as partisans but as members of Congress with an interest in addressing governments’ misdeeds, is a good strategy for the GOP in the long-term remains to be seen. Only success in subsequent elections will reveal whether this was a wise move.

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