As a college professor, I witness the development of naive, sometimes reckless and sometimes terrified 18 year old freshman as they grow into (slightly) less naive, reckless, and terrified 22 year old college graduates on a regular basis. As a college professor who teaches a very early morning class on Monday-Wednesday-Friday (oh, and did I mentioned it is a required course for majors and minors? yes, it is the highlight of a student's semester), I also observe young adults learning to balance a fun and active social life with their rigorous academic work and often an unfulfilling but paying job or two on the side.
The lessons one learns as a college student navigating the newly discovered social freedoms of semi-adulthood and the burgeoning weight of academic and professional responsibility should be those that are carried on past graduation and into the "real" world. Looking at the way the presidential campaigns have shaped thus far, though, I am not entirely convinced everyone has learned such balance. To be direct, our political parties are behaving irresponsibly.
The responsible party model was a concept touted in the 1950s by our discipline's national organization (aptly named the American Political Science Association) to response to what they argued was the fruitless function political parties were playing in the American system. Namely, the model challenged that parties should educate voters, recruit candidates, establish distinct and clear policy platforms, and organize campaigns. With the rise of candidate-centered elections, the increasing role of social media and the 24/7 news cycle, not to mention the introduction of a primary system, some of these roles cannot be completed to the same degree in which they were from a historical perspective. The bigger question, however, remains: Are our political parties responsible?
2016 provides a perfect test case to examine the responsible party theory and particularly in terms of the democratic assumption (that parties represent the interests of their partisan base) the overwhelming answer is NO.
Look at the delegation process for the convention. For Republicans, you have many "winner-take-all" states that have allowed Donald Trump to rack up sweeping numbers of delegates with electoral results in the 30-40%. Alarmed by the voters selection of a candidate not backed by the party establishment (and very unique/controversial/interesting in his own right), some members in party have begun creating stop-gaps to try to prevent him from winning the 1237 delegates needed to claim the nomination outright. In Indiana, Politico did a breaking story over the weekend describing how the state Republicans are engineering a slate that will almost certainly vote against Trump upon a second ballot. Party: 1, Voters: 0.
Democrats are equally implicated. For their convention process, the delegates are combined with super delegates, who already serve as a mechanism to prevent a less-establishment candidate from clenching the nomination. Without the super delegates, Clinton and Sanders are remarkably close and much more so than many political pundits (myself including) thought would be the case by this point in the primary cycle. This is more overt in terms of the process relative to the intra-party workings on the other side, but it is problematic nonetheless and it is not surprising that members of the either party are feeling frustrated and upset with the process. Party: 2, Voters: 0.
Our political parties are certainly not all bad and they do provide a number of important functions in the election system. The process through which the nomination of the party's candidate is reached, however, raises some concern. For a citizenry that prides ourselves in democratic values, the way in which decisions are made up through the convention does not seem very democratic (remember, after the first ballot to which they are pledged, delegates can go rogue and choose whomever they wish). And I say this as someone who generally loves the two party system and the diversity our parties can represent. In someways, this is exactly why I think it is imperative that we reexamine the responsible party model and analyze its relationship to the 2016 presidential election. If someone like me, who otherwise feels that parties do provide a valuable function in our election system, is concerned by the potential ways in which they are circumventing the decisions of the base in favor of the party's own perceived best interest, perhaps it is time to revisit the theory and systems behind it.
I don't always challenge party systems, but when I do, it is not through an anti-party lens but rather a critical perspective that believes parties should be held to high standards and behave accordingly. Party responsibly, my friends.*
* bonus points if you got the Dos Equis reference and read this in "the-most-interesting-man-in-the-world" 's voice.