05 August 2016

Frameworks, Pt. 1

Now that the fields have cleared, I want to try and take an objective look at the current U.S. presidential election. I will begin with an analysis of the two major parties, their candidates, and their campaign strategies. In subsequent posts, I will give my assessment of the race, that is to say my opinion. (N.B.: In this piece, I will try to steer away from actual policy discussion and focus strictly on the politics—the strategies and tactics—because I believe that a structural analysis can be especially telling this cycle.)

I begin with two observational assumptions about the two major parties. The Republican Party tends to want to nominate candidates it deems to be strong leaders. It chooses people and expects them to govern as they see fit—and in candid moments you might even catch party members using the term 'rule'. The GOP expects its candidates to adhere to conservative principles and views, and it entrusts them in office to act according to their own lights. It does not expect its elected representatives to pander slavishly to popular opinion or follow polls, but prefers them to hew to a partisan party line (see, e.g., the so-called Hastert rule).

The Democratic Party, on the other hand, expects its candidates to be sensitive to the desires of the people. Opinion polls and lobbying and opinion leaders are key aspects of this electoral pulse-taking. It wants its elected representatives to be willing to seek consensus among competing constituencies and, where appropriate, to seek compromise on issues in order to get things done.

The critical drawbacks of these two competing views are fairly obvious: Republicans tend toward a more authoritarian or bullying stance whereas Democrats are too easily seen as unprincipled, finger-to-the-wind sell-outs. Republicans, for the most part, expect their elected representatives to represent the interests and views of their base constituency and implement strictly partisan policies by whatever means; Democrats, more or less, expect their elected representatives to represent the majority of the electorate, and their policies tend to be geared toward implementing the greater good for the greatest number.

The parties are in no wise perfect exemplars of these approaches. These are pronounced, observable tendencies, however. Each party, I must assume, believes that its policies will better benefit the country as a whole—or at least their vision of what the country is. And, cynically, each most likely believes that its basic philosophy will result in electoral successes for its partisans.

[For a primer on the philosophical/ethical arguments underlying these two approaches, let me recommend Utilitarianism: For and Against by two brilliant 20th Century philosophers J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams. The shorthand synopsis locates the crux of the argument as lying between the competing claims of Consequentialism (For/Smart/Democrats) & Integrity (Against/Williams/Republicans).]

We can see this dynamic in practice this year in two key quotes from the respective convention victory speeches of the two major party candidates: Donald Trump's "I am your voice" and Hillary Clinton's "I hear you." Trump will act as he sees fit; Clinton will do what the majority wants.

(End Part 1)

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