My friend Thingy objected to applying the word “charisma” to Trump, saying:

“I want to use another word for him other than charisma, because it doesn’t seem the right one for me. I always thought charisma was a positive trait, someone people turn to and smile.”

She’s not alone.  Several people to whom I’ve told my theory disagree that Trump has charisma.

So, first, I should define what I mean by “charisma”. I’m using Max Weber’s definition:

“[A] certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader […] How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the purpose of definition.”

Interestingly, Weber defined charisma as something that originated more with the followers rather than the leader. As the Wikipedia article puts it:

“In contrast to the current popular use of the term charismatic leader, Weber saw charismatic authority not so much as character traits of the charismatic leader but as a relationship between the leader and his followers. The validity of charism is founded on its “recognition” by the leader’s followers.”

That’s my first reason for arguing that Trump has charisma: he’s able to inspire devotion from his followers independent of any specific thing he says or does, but simply by being him.

Now it’s true that Trump’s appeal is definitely not even close to universal.  Many people find the mere sight of him repulsive.  That argues against the idea that he has charisma. At the very least, shouldn’t people not be repulsed by him if he’s so charismatic?

I’ll admit: part of the reason I say he’s charismatic is that otherwise, it’s hard to see what enabled him to beat not only Clinton, but also all the other Republican primary contenders.

His policies were (and are) vague and change depending on the day, he had no political experience, he had a bad temper, and he had scandals like the Trump University case hanging over him.  And all that was before the Access Hollywood tape.

He wasn’t even the most extreme conservative in the primary–that was Senator Ted Cruz. So it’s not even possible to argue that his ideological purity was what got him through.

You might argue, as Thingy does, that Trump’s appeal to racist and ethno-nationalist elements was what propelled him to victory, rather than charisma.

This is very plausible. After all, we know that racist and nationalist groups did endorse Trump. So maybe that was the key to his success.

My counter-argument is that Trump isn’t the first politician to appeal to such sentiments. In the 1990s, Patrick J. Buchanan famously ran on a nationalist platform that attracted the support of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and other such groups. Buchanan had a strong-ish primary showing, but never got close to the Republican nomination; let alone the Presidency.

(Ironic historical trivia note: Buchanan ran for and ultimately got the nomination of the Reform Party in 2000. During the Reform party primary, Buchanan was labelled a “Hitler lover” by one of his rival Reform party candidates…. Donald Trump.)

Buchanan was a veteran political operative who had previously worked for Richard Nixon.  And his nationalist message in the 1990s was very similar to Trump’s message in 2016. The major differences were that Buchanan’s policies were more detailed, and his speeches were much better-written than Trump’s.

Yet Buchanan never had the kind of electoral success that Trump did. Why not?

One possible explanation is luck.  Maybe Buchanan had stronger primary opponents; or maybe the increase in sheer number of primary opponents worked in Trump’s favor.

Let’s say that hypothesis is correct and that Trump just got lucky and drew a better hand than Buchanan did in the primaries.  It was still a one-on-one contest in the general election.

“Well, that’s easy to explain,” you say. “Trump lost the popular vote! He only won the election due to a convoluted set of rules about apportionment of Congressional seats being equal to the number of Electors. He won on a technicality.”

True, but even so, it’s kind of amazing that he could even get close enough to be able to win the Electoral College.  This is why I resort the charisma theory–because it’s the only thing that explains how he was able to win both the general election and the primaries. Plus, charisma has a strong historical track record that makes it very compelling as an explanation for an election outcome.

All that said, there are other terms that you could use besides “charisma”. “Showmanship” is one that some people have suggested to me.  “The gift of the Blarney”, as they say in The Music Man, is what I always think of.

Actually, The Music Man isn’t a bad analogue for Trump.  It’s about a con man who gets money by convincing people the youth are being corrupted, and they need to pay him to organize a band to keep them from going bad.

The concept of someone whipping people into a frenzy and profiting off of it is nothing new–this being perhaps the most remarkable example:

This is the thing about Trump (Donald, I mean; not the guy on Trackdown.): He so clearly fits this specific stock-character mold that I think at some level, it became part of his appeal.  People like to see a larger-than-life character like that, even when they sort of know he’s lying to them.

Trump may have started out as a property developer, but his real skill lies in entertainment and promotion.  He learned some things from his time as a TV star, and he knows how to put on an entertaining show for his audiences.

Call it charisma, call it showmanship–call it a cult of personality.  Ultimately, Trump’s one notable talent is his ability to make the crowd look at him.

I have yet to read the book Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, by  Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes.  It sounds promising, though–full of interviews from campaign insiders giving first-hand accounts of what went wrong.

But the common thread coming out of reviews of the book, interviews with the authors like this one, and of Clinton campaign autopsies generally, is really ringing false to me. Or, maybe not exactly false, but at least woefully incomplete.

There are two main theories that have emerged as explanations for why Clinton lost. They are:

  1. The controversy surrounding her email server
  2. Her inability to connect with people

Both of these are valid explanations.  But I have not seen anyone analyze how these two things are related; and moreover, why the mainstream political press did not realize it until after the election.

This requires further investigation.  We will start by tackling point 2 first, since it is related to my favorite subject: the importance of charisma.

I firmly believe in the theory that charisma wins elections.  And Hillary Clinton has been my go-to example of someone who does not have charisma for years now. (Note: lack of charisma is often described as “could not connect” or “was not likeable”.)

So, to that extent, I agree that Clinton lost because the voters could not connect with her the way they could with a charismatic billionaire television star who lives in a golden tower.

The problem is, everyone has known for years that Clinton doesn’t have charisma.  It is not like this is some big revelation. This doesn’t mean the press is wrong to say that is the reason she lost… it is just that until election night, the press was right there with her, convinced she would win.

When the conventional wisdom was that Clinton would win, the mainstream political press dismissed concerns about her likeability.  When Clinton suddenly lost, they picked up on this as the obvious explanation for why she did.

And maybe it is.  But if that is the case, why didn’t the press seize on it sooner?  This isn’t the first time we ever had an election–they should have some idea of what is likely to happen based on past elections.  The charisma theory holds up pretty well over the past 50+ years of Presidential elections, so you would think there would have been more talk about it beforehand.

Part of it is the old “hindsight is 2020” problem.  And another part of it is groupthink: Once a few experts started saying Clinton would win, a lot of other people assumed the experts would know, and started following them. (I myself was guilty of this–I ignored Trump’s obvious charisma advantage because so many of the major forecasters were favoring Clinton.)

There’s an even bigger problem with political journalism here, but I want to wait to examine that.  For now, we can just say that it seems probable that Clinton could not connect with voters in 2016, since that had long been a problem for her.

Now to address the theory that it was not Clinton’s anti-charisma that cost her, but rather her email server–or more specifically, the FBI’s investigation of her email server. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight has some convincing data indicating that it was FBI director Comey’s letter to Congress that swung the election to Trump.

Intuition seems to favor the “lack of charisma/could not connect” explanation; the hard data indicates that Comey’s letter was decisive.

Here is the significant thing, though: both explanations can be correct.

In truth, the letter was pretty mild.  It cast a cloud of suspicion over Clinton and enabled Trump to ramp up the number of sinister insinuations he made about her, but that’s about it.  Compared with the Access Hollywood tape which featured Trump literally admitting to a crime, it was small potatoes.

Yet the press hyped the Comey letter as though it were comparable. Why?

The answer is… charisma.  Remember, charisma is the ability to make people want to like you, irrespective of anything you do.

Trump has charisma.  That is why so many voters wanted to like him, and were willing to overlook so much to vote for him.

In contrast, Clinton does not have charisma and as a result many voters were glad to seize on any excuse to vote against her, even a trumped-up (pun not intended) one.

If the email thing had happened to Obama, he could have weathered it.  It probably would not have even been front-page news.

By the same token, if it had not happened to Clinton, there would have been some other heavily-hyped scandal the press would have touted.  Scandals make for good stories, and plenty of people wanted to read about the alleged crimes of Hillary Clinton. People were looking for an excuse to dislike Clinton.

Another key factor to remember is that charisma works on the press, too.  They try to be neutral, but they are just human beings–their personal feelings about a candidate are going to affect their coverage. So,if they are covering somebody who is uncharismatic, they are going to include that in their narrative, even if only subconsciously.

This is leading me to that bigger problem that I mentioned earlier, and it has to do with how the press covers everything.  The problem is that they need to have a simple answer for everything. They cannot say, “we do not understand what happened”.  They have to come up with some explanation, and it has to be something simple that they can explain quickly.

This does not just apply in politics, but to pretty much all mainstream press analysis of anything.  I remember, as my liberal friends and I watched the election results in mounting horror, I kept thinking inexplicably about Super Bowl XXV.

If you are unfamiliar with football history, it went like this: the heavily-favored Buffalo Bills and their record-setting offense lost by a single point to the New York Giants and their strong defense.  On the last play of the game, the Bills missed a field goal that would have given them the victory.

The “narrative” coming out of that game was that the Giants’ defense stifled the mighty Bills offense. (Then-Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick’s game plan is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame) But if the Bills had made the field goal, it would have been different–even though the Giants defensive performance would have been exactly the same.

The perception of both the Giants’ defense and the Bills’ offense was decided by the performance of neither unit, but by the Bills’ kicking game.

This does not mean that defense does not win championships, any more than the fact that Clinton winning the popular vote means charisma does not win elections.  We have enough examples of both throughout history that it is fair to say it constitutes a pattern.

But the sporting press largely did not acknowledge that prior to the game, just as the political press didn’t acknowledge charisma’s strong track record prior to the election.

In each case, it took a specific event (a missed field goal/the Comey letter) before the press were able to recognize the larger pattern.  (Defense wins championships/charisma wins elections.)

In other words, if a Clinton scandal did not exist, the press would have found it necessary to invent one.

The press does not analyze things as closely as they want you to think they do.  They generally report on what happened and then seize on anything that seems convenient to explain why it happened.

(Another area where this is especially transparent is business and financial journalism.  Most journalists have no idea what made the markets go up or down, unless there’s some major world-shattering event that makes it obvious. Most of the time they just make some guess that investors are optimistic or pessimistic based on same random bit of data that seems plausible.)

In general, the press wants their viewers to think they know what is going on.  This makes sense, because the purpose of the press is to convey information.  However, if you do not have all the information readily available, it is hard to know what is going on. This leaves journalists with two options: They can either admit they do not know what is going on, or they can spin some narrative that sounds plausible.

Option 1 is unattractive for a couple of reasons.  First, it is always hard to admit you don’t know something people expect you to know.  And second, suppose some rival press outfit does know what is going on.  Then they might gain an edge in credibility and thus increase their audience.

Option 2 looks a lot better.  If you do that, people come away thinking they learned something.

To most people, Option 2 sounds a lot like lying.  But it’s not the same thing–most journalists aren’t deliberately making up lies; they’re just saying stuff that seems like it’s probably true.  And most of the time, it is true.  If it looks like a duck, and acts like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

But sometimes it is not a duck.  Sometimes, it is a black swan. And when that happens, the press can look pretty stupid.

Trump and his campaign were so weird that it distracted the press from the fundamentals of politics.  Trump’s charisma advantage got overlooked or minimized because everything else about him was in total opposition to the normal laws of politics.

This is the ultimate problem with the political press: once a narrative gets established they tend to disregard all information that contradicts that narrative, unless it becomes impossible.

But even once a narrative has been conclusively disproved, the press still has a hard time putting the pieces together and explaining why the narrative was wrong. Notice how, in the interview linked at the top of this post, Allen keeps coming back to the “email scandal” as the deciding factor. He is not completely wrong, since the emails led to the FBI investigation, but he has trouble putting it all in context.

The correct interpretation is that Clinton lost because her lack of charisma made many voters predisposed to dislike her, and the sensational coverage of the allegations about her email server–and the FBI’s investigation into it–turned enough swing voters against her.

This is a fairly straightforward explanation: Clinton’s lack of charisma was an ongoing problem throughout her career, and the email investigation was the catalyst that ignited the anti-Clinton sentiment that was created by her lack of charisma.

I think many journalists are reluctant to put it in these terms however, since according to this interpretation, they were accessories to the loss because of how they covered the email investigation.

On CNN this morning they were talking about the fact that Trump has been golfing far more than previous Presidents.  What makes this especially ironic is that before he ran for office, he tweeted all sorts of insults at then-President Obama for how much time he spent golfing. And before that, Democrats criticized George W. Bush for this:

(Bush quit golfing shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.)

As I’ve discussed in the past, I don’t actually mind that Presidents (or other executives) play golf.  Their jobs mostly involve giving people orders, and as long as they have working communications equipment, that can be done from a golf course.

The problem with Trump’s golfing is that he plays at courses he owns, which means his company charges his government support staff for the use of equipment and facilities while they are there to provide security and other support to Trump.

This is a massive conflict of interest, but seemingly no one in government can be bothered to make Trump stop doing it and go play on a course he doesn’t own instead.  The press should focus more on that and less on the raw amount of time that Trump spends golfing.

What I expected to happen in the 2016 election was that Clinton would win, but Trump would do better than most people expected, and it would scare the political establishment into making some concessions to the nationalist movement that had propelled Trump to the nomination.

My assumption was that it would be similar to what happened in the 1990s when Ross Perot ran a highly successful campaign based on reducing the budget deficit.  He didn’t win, but his support was sufficient to convince both parties they needed to balance the budget. (At least for a while.)

I figured that the Republicans and Democrats would realize they had to do something to appease the fury Trump had awakened.

Looking back, I think this might have been a better outcome for the nationalist faction than the Trump victory has been.

Via the Associated Press:

“Over the past 48 hours, the outsider politician who pledged to upend Washington has:

— Abandoned his vow to label China a currency manipulator.

— Rethought his hands-off assessment of the Syrian conflict — and ordered a missile attack.

— Turned his warm approach toward Vladimir Putin decidedly chilly and declared U.S.-Russia relations “may be at an all-time low.”

— Decided NATO isn’t actually obsolete, as he had claimed.

— Realized the U.S. Export-Import Bank is worth keeping around.”

In the aftermath of Bannon’s fall from… well, not “grace” exactly, but you know what I mean–Trump has abandoned many of the nationalist ideas he campaigned on.

I’ve often thought that even if I supported nationalist policies, Trump is one of the last people I would want advancing the cause. As I wrote back in October:

Trump himself, the de facto nationalist candidate, has even less interest in the merits of globalism vs. nationalism.  His decision to promote nationalist policies is purely pragmatic.  He adopted it when he discovered it would enable him to win the Republican nomination. I think that the only reason he won’t abandon it now is because, for a host of reasons, only ardent nationalists will support him at this point. If he drops nationalism, he is left with nothing.

Well, things have changed since then.  Now, instead of nothing, Trump’s potential reward for abandoning nationalism is the adulation of the Washington establishment, the political press, and most of the government.

Also, it means he gets to put the most powerful military on earth to work destroying stuff on his command.

Given this, combined with everything we know about Trump’s personality, it’s easy to see why Trump now refuses to, as the expression goes, “dance with the one that brought him”.

I don’t have much time to read these days.  For this reason, I find audiobooks really convenient–I can listen to them while I’m doing something else.  It’s a real time-saver.

So it occurred to me that I’m probably not the only person who doesn’t have time to read much.  And that led me to realize maybe my readers would find it convenient to have audio versions of some of my really long posts.

While recording some of the poetry readings I’ve posted, I also recorded a reading of one of my recent posts on geopolitical and religious history. (The original post is here.)

And so now you can listen to me pontificating about various subjects while you are doing other things.  It’s like having a little Ruined Chapel RSS feed running in your mind, as if a dystopian government had placed a propaganda chip in your brain.

Uh… bad analogy.  Never mind.  Anyway, try it out if you like.

I remember an episode of The McLaughlin Group from years ago, in which John McLaughlin asked Pat Buchanan “Who won the week?”  Buchanan hesitated, and McLaughlin pressed him harder: “Come on, Pat! Someone’s got to win the week!”

Buchanan finally answered that nobody had won the week–“It was a draw,” he explained. McLaughlin let it go after that, though he didn’t seem happy about it.

McLaughlin was a pioneer in this entertaining-but-superficial style of political reporting. But as is so often the case, those who followed the trail have mimicked all of his flaws while picking up none of his entertaining virtues.

And so the political press covers everything with a fast-paced and myopic focus on which groups happen to be winning or losing at the moment.  In general, the extent of one side’s win or loss is over-hyped, giving an impression of a more permanent victory or defeat than is warranted.

For instance, remember a month ago when President Trump was winning in the headlines because the press liked his address to Congress? That seems like ancient history now, because all the headlines are about the defeat Trump suffered when his health care bill couldn’t pass the House.

It’s sort of like coverage of a sporting event, except that unlike sports analysts, political pundits tend to assume that whichever team happens to be winning at the moment will continue to do so forever, even if the lead is extremely small.

The real problem with this is not just that leads to absurdly hyperbolic analysis, or even “we have always been at war with Eastasia“-style retconning in the way journalists re-phrase narratives to make them appear consistent.

No, the real problem is that the serious stories in politics are slow-moving and gradual phenomena, and are imperceptible over the course of a week or even a year.  You have to be able to see the big picture, not just which party is winning or losing on a given day, in order to understand them.

[The video above is substantially the same as the text below.  The text has more links and a few additional notes.  The video may be more convenient for some.]

Nicholas Kristof wrote a very interesting column imagining a conversation between Jesus Christ and Speaker Paul Ryan. There will no doubt be controversy as to whether it is brilliant satire or blasphemy.

Kristof’s point is that Ryan is a hypocrite for professing to be a Christian and yet supporting a health care bill that would result in poor people losing health insurance coverage.

The theme is one that Democrats have hammered on for decades: how can the Republicans get such strong support from Christians, and vocally proclaim their own devout Christianity, while simultaneously pushing policies that appear to be in opposition to what Christ taught?

Not being a religious person, I don’t really consider myself qualified to get involved in this argument.  What I can do, though, is talk about the historical and philosophical background of this apparent hypocrisy.  As my readers know, I like to try to understand things in their historical context.

In this case, we are going to need some 2000 years of historical context to properly understand what’s going on here.

Buckle up.

(more…)

The former governor of California wrote:

“Gerrymandering has completely broken our political system and I believe my best platform to help repair it is from the outside, by campaigning for independent redistricting commissions.”

He’s right on the first part–gerrymandering has completely broken our political system. It has created a bunch of sharply divided, non-competitive districts that are designed to favor one party or the other. (Usually the Republicans, obviously) This results in extreme polarization in the Congress.

Will Schwarzenegger’s plan to fix it actually work? Not bloody likely, in my opinion.

First of all, even if somehow someone manages to create an “independent redistricting commission”, the political pressure on it will be enormous.  And any decision they reach will be immediately attacked as unfair by whichever party stands to lose seats as a result of it.  (And again: that party will be the Republicans. I know this because they benefit from the current arrangement, and so any meaningful change would have to come at their expense.)

Moreover, and for all the same reasons, it is unlikely that anyone would be able to create such a commission with any meaningful power.

The Republicans have absolutely no incentive to support such a project, and every reason to oppose it. And they control all the levers of power, so they have the means to thwart the initiative.

So, to summarize: Schwarzenegger has a nice idea. But it’s not going to happen.

What should he do instead to try to fix the problem? Well for starters, he should look into my suggestion from this post:

[T]he liberal entertainment industry… could make other cities have the same brand power as New York and L.A. [and] help to attract other Democrats.

That strategy could work not only for Democrats, but also for anti-Trump Republicans such as Schwarzenegger. It is easier to change the demographics in the existing districts than it would be to change the shape of the districts themselves.

About five years ago, I wrote about the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Andrew Breitbart. At the time, various conservative groups were suggesting he’d been assassinated by the Obama administration.

Well, now there’s a new theory, promoted by former British MP Louise Mensch, that he was assassinated by the Russian government:

Here at Ruined Chapel, we love analyzing a good conspiracy theory–and if it involves politics, so much the better! So let’s think about this.

To begin, the facts of the case: Andrew Breitbart collapsed suddenly while walking home after dinner one night. His cause of death was listed as heart failure. There was no evidence of any suspicious drugs.

It is common knowledge that journalists in Russia get killed with unusual frequency and under mysterious circumstances, especially since the year 2000, when Vladimir Putin took power. It has not been proven that Putin has ordered or otherwise had foreknowledge of any of these deaths, but the pattern is suspicious.

People are quick to suspect Putin for a couple of reasons: First, it seems like the sort of thing a former KGB agent would do, and second, the Putin regime is generally hostile to the press.

It’s worth noting that most of the reporters dying suspiciously in Russia were undoubtedly murdered.  Aside from a few suspicious poisonings and plane crashes, in most cases, nobody questions that these journalists were deliberately killed by somebody; it’s just they can’t figure out who.

And that’s on Putin’s home turf.  If he can’t have people killed using untraceable methods in Russia, it seems like it would be even harder for him to do so in the United States.

Now, there’s another element to all of this that makes it even more interesting. Mensch also tweeted this:

Additionally, the Wikipedia page for Stephen Bannon states:

“In March 2012, after founder Andrew Breitbart‘s death, Bannon became executive chair of Breitbart News LLC, the parent company of Breitbart News. Under his leadership, Breitbart took a more alt-right and nationalistic approach toward its agenda.”

If you understand Vladimir Putin’s long-term goal to be dissolving the internationalist post-World War II geopolitical order and replacing it with a system of Great Powers acting in their own national interest, the rise of Bannon and his philosophy is clearly good news for him.

Just on the basic facts, it’s hard to argue this entire episode did not turn out splendidly for Putin. I mean, look at it:

  1. Upon Breitbart’s death, Bannon takes over his operation.
  2. Bannon uses his power  at the Breitbart site to promote nationalism and undercut Putin’s main opponent, then-President Barack Obama.
  3. Bannon later uses his site to promote the Presidential candidate most favorable to Putin, Donald Trump.
  4. Trump wins, in part due to major propaganda efforts by Putin and Breitbart, and then appoints Bannon to be an advisor in his administration.

It all went spectacularly well for Putin and Bannon. Since the death of Andrew Breitbart was the first domino that started this entire chain of events, you can see why, in retrospect, Putin would have had an incentive to cause it. The results benefited Putin in a big way.

However, as compelling of a story as that may be, I have a problem with it.  Mainly, it requires Putin to have almost supernatural gifts of foresight. And if he has that, he should be ruling the world already.

Who would have ever guessed that the head of a fringe conservative news site would be able to successfully get the ear of a reality TV star-turned-Presidential-candidate, who would go on to win the election, and then appoint said site head as an advisor? So many bizarre things had to happen for all this to work that it is hard to imagine anyone consciously planning it.

Given that, it would seem insane for Putin to have carried out a high-risk assassination operation against a relatively small-time political commentator in the United States. If it failed or was otherwise exposed, the backlash against Russia would have been enormous.

Remember, in 2012, the Republicans were generally anti-Putin. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Russia was the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe”that year.  Can you imagine what the Republicans would have done in 2012 if they found out Russia killed one of their people? They would have been screaming that Obama was weak and campaigned on a very aggressive anti-Russia platform.

To me, that argues strongly against this idea.  The risk for Putin of assassinating Breitbart would have been too great–the fact that the reward would turn out to be so high would not have been knowable at the time.

nineteen_eighty-four1

We take the existence of political parties as a given.  Even dictatorships usually have one party, which is strange if you think about it–a bit like having a sports league with only one team.  Why do you need a party if it doesn’t have to compete with any other party?

Nevertheless, political parties are everywhere.  They are clearly very popular. And yet, when you think about it, there is no obvious need for parties in a functioning democracy.

To run for office, you just need to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot in relevant districts.  After that, you need to get your message out somehow–usually through press interviews, ads, campaign rallies and speeches.  And you don’t need a party to do any of that.

Once you are in office, you have even less need for a party because, well… you are in office.  Now you just need to use the office to accomplish your goals.  Periodically, you need to campaign for re-election, but as we just saw, that can be accomplished without a party.

The obvious point is that you need money in order to run for office, and parties are a convenient way of raising money and in general providing the infrastructure for a successful campaign.

But there are other ways of raising money. If you’re a really effective and charismatic speaker–a major asset in politics–that in itself can be a fundraising mechanism. And if you are already wealthy, you may be able to self-finance campaigns for some offices. The super-rich want to control politics anyway; why don’t they just cut out the middleman and do it themselves?

Also, the rise of mass media means that it’s cheaper to get the word out than it used to be. Donald Trump famously got billions of dollars worth of “free advertising” for his campaign by dominating both mainstream press and social media headlines.

So, what are political parties for?

One thing they obviously do is provide a way of associating oneself with certain goals, policies and philosophies.  If someone is a Democrat, you can generally guess where they stand on most issues. That can save a candidate a lot of time–you know you’re guaranteed a certain number votes just from your party affiliation. More on that later…

Parties also provide a framework for running campaigns.  This is also a time-saving function.  Everyone knows the Republicans and Democrats are both going to field some candidate in the race for state governor, for example.  So they have some campaign infrastructure already in place–they just need to sort out who the candidate will be.

In this respect, political parties have surreptitiously taken over the political process simply by virtue of providing candidates with credibility.

It works like this: the press knows that either the Republican or the Democrat is going to win, and so they focus their coverage on them.  Similarly, donors know the same fact, and so donate primarily to one of the two candidates.

Thus, while it’s not apparent why you need a party apparatus, it is clear that once you have one, it’s hard to get rid of it.

Politicians have tried to challenge various parties over the years, and some have succeeded in radically changing what a given party’s platform is, or even in creating an entirely new party. But to my knowledge, nobody has ever challenged the party infrastructure itself.

H. Ross Perot challenged the Republicans and the Democrats in the 1990s.  His signature issue was the national debt and deficit. To some extent, he made his point–after he gained a sizeable share of the vote, the parties cooperated to balance the budget in order to placate the Perot voters. (It didn’t last long, but still.)

Even Trump, much as he tried to play the role of Outsider Underdog taking on the Establishment Machine, didn’t truly challenge that parties from outside.  Instead, he played divide and conquer, first taking over the Republicans and turning their infrastructure to serve him in defeating the Democrats.

The core Republican party system remained (and remains) in place; Trump just took charge of it and directed how it should be used.

If you define a party–as I suggested above–as a team of people interested in accomplishing some set of goals, it makes it hard to understand how this type of takeover is possible. There was a sizeable anti-Trump faction in the party, but most of them ended up supporting Trump anyway. You would expect that parties would be more fluid if they were truly about political philosophies.

Parties are much more tribal things–akin to supporting a sports team. Being a member of a given party is more a matter of one’s cultural values and upbringing than it is any specific political agenda.  Just as someone will cheer for their team even if the players and coaches are bad, they will support their party even if the candidate is bad.

People wonder why politicians are, in general, so ineffective.  There are a couple reasons for this, but I suspect one is that they are tremendously insulated from constituent pressure thanks to the power of the party system.  Once you have support of the party machinery, the job gets a lot easier because a certain number of people will support you just because you are from their party.

People always try to fix this problem by mounting primary challenges. Which is great, except that it has only two possible outcomes:

  • The challenger loses. This is usually what happens; it’s called the incumbent advantage.
  • The challenger wins, and then enjoys all the same benefits of the party machinery that his or her predecessor did, thus turning them into another cog in the machine.

The only office that doesn’t work like this is President, because the President has more power to shape the party’s agenda.

This is yet another cause of the weakening of the Legislative branch relative to the Executive. Over the decades, the party system produces weaker and weaker legislators, until finally Congress is populated by people who are totally beholden to their party, and thus, to their party’s leader.

And this puts us hot on the trail of figuring out what a political party actually is: it is a means of simplifying the complex business of government into a more understandable form. Namely, it turns a complicated system of numerous offices into a very simple hierarchy with one ultimate executive.

This explains what a political party is and, incidentally, explains why they have them even in dictatorships.  Political parties are what produce dictators.

That sounds like a pretty wild idea, doesn’t it?  It does to me.  I was surprised when I realized it as I was thinking about this. However, some other people in history have come to the same conclusion regarding political parties. For example:

“All obstructions to the execution of the Laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities… serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests…

[…]I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”

George Washington’s Farewell Address. (1796)