Demands for loyalty to the leader no matter what the leader does is the demand of an authoritarian.

First published in February 2020.

Donald Trump, Jr., the son of a politician who has used his father’s status to enrich himself with business deals in foreign countries, tweeted recently that Mitt Romney should be expelled from the Republican Party, thanks to the latter’s vote that the president is guilty of abuse of power, starting a debate over who belongs in the organized right wing.


The by-laws of the party and the rules of the Senate have no provisions for forcing someone to change political affiliation over votes, but we live in an era in which such things are treated as passé, and in any case, this discussion does bring us to think about what exactly parties mean in the American system.

The greatest sin of this nation’s framers was their inability to bring slavery to an end and in many cases to accept it as the way things were meant to be. But their greatest political error — greater even than the structural snobbery of the electoral college — was their belief that a government based on the will of the people can function without political parties — combinations, to use their favorite term. Their fear was that factions would gather together to promote narrow interests based on region, class, or whim.

And because they set up a system that was supposed to function without parties, we are stuck without the tools to deal with exactly the results that they hoped for us to avoid. I say this especially while recognizing that impeachment and the electoral college were supposed to address the rise of a factional demagogue.

The failure is found in the reality that we have ended up with big-tent coalitions whose primary identity is centered on the name of the party, rather than genuine agreement. This in a way reflects America as a country. The constant flag waving, demands for English as the official language, and insistence that we are a Christian nation is unsurprising for a society that cannot claim a single ethnic group as our progenitors. Europe these days is having to deal with this question of identity as the continent takes in people from around the globe and attempts to unify itself across many national boundaries, but we Americans have lived with the debate through our whole history. And our two major parties are an expression of reductionism, a yearning for the simplicity of two teams on the field.

How this plays out is that each team seeks to score points as the core objective, and anyone who pauses a moment from following the playbook to consider things is treated as undermining the cause. This brings me back to Mitt Romney’s vote. If he were a part of a parliamentary democracy in which parties are organized around a consistent ideology and set of tactics, he might deserve to have a frank exchange of views with leadership, if not a suggestion that he finds a new party where he would be welcome — though more about this in a bit.

Trump, Jr. is not alone in saying that one’s positions determine how comfortable a person can be in a particular party. In the Our Rights, Our Courts forum held on the 8 February at the New Hampshire Technical Institute, Bernie Sanders was asked about Democrats who oppose abortion rights. His response (2:34:40) was that while there are a few such members of the party, support for a woman’s right to choose is an essential element of the platform. This is much less absolutist a statement than right-wing commentators are claiming it to be — according to The Daily Wire, for example, he wants to excommunicate pro-life Democrats who have no place in the party. But all right, accept for sake of argument that he really is saying that abortion is a litmus test not only for judges but for rank-and-file party members. And accept in the same provisional way Junior’s desire to purify the Republican side. What are we to do with this?

The Trump era has widened the divide that has been going on in our political system for decades. We live in a U-shaped curve, at least in public perception, though as Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins illustrate, there are fewer and fewer people at the bottom receiving the residues of the two upright tails. If there really remains a sizable body of Americans who are centrists — and if they value something more than compromise for its own sake — they need to organize a third party.

We are used to the dichotomy of left and right, and in sporting terms, this is natural, but a middle party is not impossible. The organization of the House and the Senate comes from majority votes within each chamber on procedural rules and leadership positions. We already see a model of how coalitions could work, since Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders are independents who caucus with the Democrats for the above purposes. A center party could do the same thing in larger numbers — and do the same thing with legislation. Voting for ordinary citizens would be easier, since we would not have to accept the eternal lesser of two evils. And since the president is not chosen by a parliamentary vote, we would not experience the structural instability of frequent changes in the executive that Israel and Italy have suffered through in their modern histories. We voters will have to take a more active role in deciding how to vote to make this work, of course.

This leaves the question of when it is appropriate to ostracize a member of one’s party, whether in a system of ideological consistency or of big tents. Consider again the two challenges issued by Sanders and Trump, Jr. Romney’s vote was for only one article of impeachment against Trump, arguing that his conscience required this of him. If he were to be shunned by the Republican Party for this, doing so would demonstrate beyond quibble that the party is nothing but an extension of Trump’s ego. Romney’s social and economic agreement with the right — his doctrinal loyalty — remains intact. By contrast, Sanders, even in the extreme interpretation of his words, said that someone who opposes abortion rights is in ideological contradiction with the large majority of the left. If these litmus tests accurately characterize the two parties, it is clear to me which side I have to be on.

Contrariness with regard to a platform may be aggravating, but they are a necessity to save us from being trapped in an echo chamber. Demands for loyalty to the leader no matter what the leader does is something else entirely. It is the demand of an authoritarian, a move away from government of and for the people to government of the one for the benefit of the few. And this is not a system that has a legitimate claim to anyone’s devotion.🔷


Check their Voting Record:

🗳️ Mitt Romney

🗳️ Bernie Sanders

🗳️ Lisa Murkowski

🗳️ Susan Collins

🗳️ Angus King

[This is an original piece, first published by the author in on 10 February 2020. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/The White House/Joyce N. Boghosian. - President Trump talks to members of the press on the South Lawn of the White House. | 7 Feb 2020. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)