Let's Get This Party Started

Historically, pollsters could ask voters about their views about issues and predict with some success how they would vote. Now, voters right, left, and center have somehow found their way into a centrifuge. It’s easy to pinpoint the cause, because like everything else in this era, the reason for the chaos is … Donald Trump.


The voters

Out from one side of the centrifuge pours a mixture of conservatives and progressives, moderates and many who don’t pay much attention to politics at all.


This mix of the informed and the clueless (on both left and right) is the familiar American electorate. Many voted for President-elect Biden because of his policies or personal qualities. This mix contains some who decided against Trump because he is vile. There are some informed voters who chose Trump because they overlook his loathsomeness but like his policies.


Members of Biden’s blended family of progressives and conservatives have been in awe of where they’ve landed. It’s as if they’ve suddenly found themselves vacationing on Sesame Street happily cavorting with colorful new monsters. Political Twitter is filled with, “I can’t believe I agree with…” naming someone from the far opposite end of the political spectrum. The President-elect has promised that he’ll be a President for all Americans, whether they voted for him or not.


The sticky matter that remains inside the sealed centrifuge compartment encompasses a subset of Trump acolytes of all types: cult worshipers, crooks, racists, bigots, misogynists. And some, we assume, “are good people.” That voter group will henceforth be described as “residue” and ignored. This is the GOP’s base.


GOP, acquired

By 2020, Trump and the GOP had fused, and ownership of the party of Lincoln was officially transferred to Trump at the Republican National Convention. The Republican platform committee meeting was abandoned (likely the only GOP gathering all year that was actually canceled, under the pretext of safety). The actual adopted platform was that the committee “would have undoubtedly unanimously agreed to reassert the Party’s strong support for President Donald Trump and his Administration.” Translated: “Our platform is anything Trump wants.” The rest of the platform yelled at Democrats and the press.


During the rest of Trump’s term, with the virus raging, the GOP kept firmly to its plans of supporting Donald Trump against all reason, and working hard at its other action items, trashing Democrats and the press, and accomplishing almost nothing else.


Lindsey Graham famously suggested that Trump’s 2016 nomination would end the GOP. As we approach 2021, this prediction hasn’t materialized. There have been several high-profile defections from Trump in the form of the never-Trump movement, which began as soon as Trump rode that escalator in 2015.


Later defections have come from former politicians (who spoke up after their careers ended, or whose careers ended because Trump ended them with a well-aimed tweet). Others came from party insiders and some mid-career GOP strategists. Whether these departures are simply a referendum on one man or on the entire party won’t be clear for a while.


This does raise the question:


What is a political party for?


Political parties are valuable in our democracy, for organizing, and for putting out a worldview for debate. Those disagreements used to focus primarily on scale: how much to spend to address the climate crisis, the appropriate level for a minimum wage, how stringent the gun laws should be, the extent of needed subsidies for health care, farmers, or entrepreneurs.


Until the Trump era, all parties agreed that our voting mechanisms are delegated to the states and that elections are sacrosanct. Those earning fewer votes accept their defeats, concede, and rebuild.


That’s true now only among those of us who departed the centrifuge, including rational Trump voters. The sticky residue demurs.


These differences loom larger than the ordinary disagreements about scale. We knew this was coming from Trump. Then the GOP dove into the pool.


For the rest of us, many deep in both the left and right had already joined forces at the Lincoln Project, the Bulwark, and many grassroots organizations in the runup to the election. Those who joined hands (virtually, of course, in the age of COVID) affiliated based on existential issues, and were not a bit concerned about party identity. 


We can continue to work with all those who looked at the 2020 election and knew right away that it was fair and definitive. It’s easy to decide who is on which team. Some of them even have hats.


The never-Trump movement was generally relieved to see Joe Biden nominated. Emotional reactions to Biden’s victory speech and his subsequent press conferences have emanated from both sides of the left-right continuum.


What does it mean to be affiliated with a political party, or to leave it? Tim Miller, once in communications roles in the Jeb Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee, came very close to suggesting that a significant chunk of those who left the GOP should unite behind Joe Biden’s center-left agenda. Miller points out that most of Biden’s wish list is already embraced by conservatives looking for “unyielding commitment to the equality and liberty of all, and then to facts, reason and knowledge” and “recognize immigration as a vital national asset and universal access to quality health care, public and private, a national obligation”.


Disaffected Republican voters swung densely-populated suburbs to Biden. That landslide of popular votes? Wins in Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania? Without those commanding swings in formerly-reliable red districts, frivolous lawsuits might have oozed Trump into a second term. In the end, there were just too many states to overturn. Governing happens in the center. So does winning.


Parties aren’t teams. They aren’t gangs. They don’t deserve loyalty or reverence against our consciences or our democracies. They’re a vessel for achieving goals that can’t be achieved by individuals. Parties should work for democracy, not for candidates. While we’re at it, candidates and political figures aren’t deities or rock stars, and we should stop dressing up dolls to look like them. Our political representatives are our employees. When they fail, it’s because we’ve been remiss at hiring or supervising them.


What people can do

We can begin where we agree on goals. Then we can discuss means. To prepare for that, some New Year’s resolutions might help.


  • Let’s discern the difference between news and political talk. News describes events that happen, without editing to create a narrative. Political talk comprises valuable analysis, unfounded predictions, gossip, and snark. Most of the content on all-news channels is not actual news. Healthy adults know how to allocate nutrition versus dessert. Figure it out.
  • Let’s stop assuming we know the motivations of good-faith political opponents. That crosses the line between news and snark. When we agree about America, the rest is negotiation.
  • We can work together with people with whom we disagree and make progress on some cooler policies before we delve into the hot wedge issues. Let’s support that and focus less on whatever we’re not getting.
  • Let’s try to move the center a few degrees leftward of where it is now.


Good-faith left and right voters are not as far apart as news-channel provocateurs contend. They are also not identical, as fringe voters contend. Left and right elected a center-left President. This means that we can find common ground.


What parties can do

In a better political environment, the party should act as a sponsor, not a servant. Parties shouldn’t decide among nominees, but they could create some rules before candidates are printed on their primary ballots. Like home buyers who can walk away from their offers after inspections, political parties should not be forced to accept all candidates. Time will tell if the GOP wonders whether it should have created a rule or two in 2015.


An obvious potential rule: require personal tax returns for release to primary voters and the press. Virtually all candidates do this voluntarily now. It’s not an undue burden to prove that your priority will be the people you represent. If parties won’t do this, states could take up the slack within legal bounds.


Another possibility: limit the number of candidates on the party primary ballot. Parties already limit the candidates who qualify for debates. It’s possible that the large number of conventional Republican primary candidates in 2016 — senators and governors — split the mainstream vote, leaving only a few fringe candidates to consolidate the rest.


What voters can do

Blue advocates should be happy to offer our hospitality to principled conservatives until a constructive opposition party is built or repaired. Democrats and Republicans can be grateful that the guardrails of our democracy withstood the tsunami this time, because we were lucky. It couldn’t be clearer that we need better guardrails.


In the long term, mandating transparency in election funding would be a good place to start. The former head of the Republican Party has endorsed many of the structural reforms initiated by Democrats and non-partisan groups.


Democrats have allies among the never-Trump voters, a group that still wants to help Democrats remove all of Trumpism and Trump enablers currently in office. These are temporary workers in the Democratic camp, and progressives would be wise to embrace their support. It will be too soon that they use their well-honed campaigning tactics against Democrats when the odor of the Trump era dissipates.


The most important action is for voters to become knowledgeable enough to vote in every single race. This might mean an occasional vote for the opposition party’s candidate. It will almost never mean a vote for a third-party nominee.


What to do right away

So, Georgia, it’s time for you to speak up. The legendary Georgia bark is healing. We need your bark and your bite. Vote by January 5 for Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock. If you’re not a Georgia voter, you can donate or help the two campaigns in other ways


Permanent change comes from down the ballot

Presidential elections get a lot of deserved attention, but other contests create fundamental, long-lasting changes. The House of Representatives and Senate write the laws, and they don’t even need a president to sign a good one. The Senate confirms federal judges, including Supreme Court justices. These judges decide whether the congressional laws are constitutional, so their appointments matter nearly as much as the legislators who write the bills.


A president without a Senate majority needs to select more moderate court nominees to get a confirmation, but a one-term president with an obliging Senate can remake the entire federal judiciary lasting a long time.


In the 2020 election, local lawmakers limited voting as far as their local courts would allow. They intentionally created delays in vote counting, knowing that this would simmer on right-wing media to build a false fraud narrative. They nearly succeeded in getting their legislatures to override valid election results. The culprits were always Republicans in 2020, but the pendulum could swing back and put dangerous Democrats in office.


We voters delegate our democracy to others that we hire through elections. Our future depends on the choices we make today. Get informed. Get out and vote. We can make a government that makes us all proud. Let’s get this party started.