Political scientist Julia Azari has written the single most important sentence for understanding both Trump’s rise and this dangerous era in American politics: “The defining characteristic of our moment is that parties are weak while partisanship is strong.”
Here is the problem, in short: Parties, and particularly the Republican Party, can no longer control whom they nominate. But once they nominate someone — once they nominate anyone — that person is guaranteed the support of both the party’s elites and its voters. Unlike in McGovern’s day, when ticket splitting was common, any candidate able to win his party’s presidential primaries can now count on his party’s support, and so has a damn good chance of winning the presidency.
Political parties, and political party primaries, were traditionally bulwarks against demagogues rising in American politics — they were controlled by gatekeepers who acted as checks against charismatic demagogues. Donald Trump would never have made it through the convention horse-trading that used to drive nominations; he would never have survived a process that required support from party officials.
But in recent decades, we have slowly destroyed the ability of party officials to drive party primaries. What’s more, we have come to see party officials exercising influence as fundamentally illegitimate.
“Political scientists think of parties as the fundamental building blocks of democracy, and people think of them as the impediment to democracy,” says Hans Noel, a political scientist at Georgetown University. “In other systems, you wouldn’t even have primaries — the whole thing would happen at a party convention. But here, when the DNC makes choices that influence the outcome of a primary, that looks undemocratic.”
The results have been stark. The reigning political science theory of primaries going into this election was known as “The Party Decides,” and it stated, basically, that party elites controlled primary outcomes by driving money, media attention, and endorsements.
No single idea has been as decisively wrecked by 2016 as that one. And when you examine the reasons for its failure, you see they are unlikely to end with Trump.
Ezra Klein, “Donald Trump’s success reveals a frightening weakness in American democracy”, Vox (7 November 2016) [http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/7/13532178/donald-trump-american-democracy-weakness]