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The zombification of political parties

Mar 19,2024 - Last updated at Mar 19,2024

PRINCETON — Among her final acts as chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel requested that her colleagues endorse the two people handpicked by Donald Trump to replace her. Following loud cheering, she announced that she would not even bother to ask if there were any “nays”. It was a telling moment: Procedures meant to ensure a democratic process within the party were entirely replaced by acclamation.


Trump is hardly the only far-right populist leader to have subjugated a political party to his will. The hijacking of a party’s machinery is a common pattern among populists and would-be autocrats and history shows that it can have truly dire consequences for a democratic political system. After all, turning your party into an autocracy is a logical first step toward turning your country into one.


True, appeals for democracy and pluralism within political parties can sound like idealism. Endless, exhausting, pedantic debates usually result in a “victory” for the most eloquent party hack, or perhaps for the person with no childcare responsibilities the next morning. Moreover, internal democracy, like primary elections in the United States, may be structurally favourable to ideological purists who prefer extreme candidates, or it may elevate people who treat politics like a hobby and prioritise the process over the results.


But internal debates do often yield better policy ideas. At a minimum, the winners will have a stronger sense of the opposing arguments and the evidence for them. They also will be more likely to respect the legitimacy of the losers in any given intraparty debate. Since fellow partisans are supposed to share the same basic political principles, their differences usually come down to how those principles are interpreted and how policies based on them should be implemented. When the losers feel that they have gotten a fair hearing, they will be less likely to quit the party.


By respecting legitimate opposition within their own party, politicians demonstrate their commitment to the basic rules of the democratic game. When internal contests are close, the winners will continue to face off against other party heavyweights, who in turn may provide a check against them if they stray too far from the party’s core commitments, not least the commitment to democracy itself. Such heavyweights have credibility with party members and must be taken seriously.


But Trump has transformed the Republican Party into something like a personality cult. Those criticising him have been cast out and vilified (and often personally threatened with violence). Rather than treating Nikki Haley as a worthy adversary in what political theorist Nancy Rosenblum calls a democratic “regulated rivalry”, Trump denied her any standing in the party. “She’s essentially a Democrat,” he said. “I think she should probably switch parties.” Never mind that Trump himself appointed Haley as the US ambassador to the United Nations during his term as president.


Equally telling, the Republican Party no longer even bothers to offer anything like a proper campaign program. Before the 2020 election, it simply reissued its 2016 program and pledged total fealty to Trump. A party with a real program can bear an election loss and simply redouble its efforts to bring voters over to its side the next time. It would have a much longer time horizon, rather than adopting the short-term perspective of an individual, a change that makes every loss seem existential.


Some politicians deal with this challenge by installing relatives as successors, thus turning a party into a quasi-dynasty or a political family business. That is what the Gandhi family did to the Indian National Congress, to the detriment of the party and Indian democracy alike. In France, Marine Le Pen leads the far-right party founded by her father; and Trump, of course, has just enthroned his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, as co-chair of the RNC, making the party also something like a family business.


Cult leaders can command their followers in ways that even the most charismatic politician cannot. A proper party would have found a way to stop Trump and his fanatical fans before the insurrection of January 6, 2021. And even after that, Republicans could have shown courage and some commitment to their own professed principles by impeaching Trump in February 2021. Instead, they have spoken out only behind closed doors or after leaving politics. As a result, the party is now dominated by a leader with deeply authoritarian instincts, who is patently unfit for office. In America’s two-party system, one of the parties is turning against democracy itself.


It is not just Trump, though. At one point while he was in office, former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro had no political party at all, and thus no check on his power from somewhat like-minded politicians. Other far-right populists do have parties, but they run them in a highly autocratic fashion. Examples range from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Jarosław Kaczynski, who had such a grip on Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) Party when it was in power that he scarcely bothered to take a government post to rule the country.


Strengthening party regulations might help. In the Netherlands, the party of far-right populist Geert Wilders has only two members: Wilders and a foundation with one member, who just so happens to be Wilders. Such one-man rule (literally) would not be legal in neighboring Germany, where the country’s Basic Law affirms that parties’ “internal organization must conform to democratic principles”.


Yes, there is a limit to internal party democracy: It can tip into factionalism, which can turn off voters; and it can provoke unproductive or esoteric debates that make parties seem overly sectarian. But the Republican Party’s transformation into an authoritarian tool shows why such risks are worth taking.


Jan-Werner Mueller, professor of Politics at Princeton University, is the author, most recently, of “Democracy Rules” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021; Allen Lane, 2021). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.

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