On Thursday, a group of 30 former Republican members of Congress released a letter saying they cannot vote for their party’s presidential nominee because he “makes a mockery of the principles and values” they got into politics to uphold.
Donald Trump, the signatories argue, is an incompetent lout whose election poses a serious threat to the United States and, given the immense power of the modern presidency, to the world.
And fair enough — though the former lawmakers’ critique isn’t exactly the one I’d make, they hit a number of good points and deserve credit for valuing principle and character over partisanship.
What is disappointing, though, is that one key word: “former.”
None of these are current office-holders. None of them have an inherently limited supply of political capital to spend or a hard-won seat in Congress to lose come November. Their stand against Trump (and it is a stand against Trump, not an endorsement of Hillary Clinton or any other candidate) is good, but it’s also fairly low stakes as these things go. Even the writers and pundits who got together for National Review’s big “Against Trump” issue had more skin in the game than this group of former members of Congress.
None of that is to suggest this group (the full list of which is available here) shouldn’t have done what they did — just that it’d be nice to see more sitting lawmakers do the same.
So far, that category is preciously small. Most prominent are perhaps Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake. There are a handful of other objectors in each house, but several, like New York’s Richard Hanna and Virginia’s Scott Rigell, are retiring from Congress anyway, so they’re better grouped with the letter signers. The biggest GOP names to come out against Trump are, like the letter’s authors, former officeholders like the Presidents Bush who can vote their conscience without much risk.
The reluctant endorsements Trump has collected from many current lawmakers further drives home the obvious diagnosis of this situation: partisanship.
America’s founders explained the Constitution and the system of government it created as a safeguard against political parties (or, as they called them, factions) and the partisanship that results. For instance, here’s James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” on the subject in the Federalist Papers:
Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it.
Unfortunately, that safeguard totally failed.
Instead of preventing the development of factions, our electoral system all but guarantees a two-party fight. To campaign on a national or even statewide scale in a country this size, parties are a practical necessity, and because our elections generally follow the “winner takes all” method, third parties inevitably struggle to get the funding and name recognition to get into office. The hurdle is simply too high. (More on that dynamic here.)
A two-party system might be less of an impediment to principled and practical politics, however, were it not for the expectation of unanimity and partisanship within party ranks. If the Democratic and Republican Parties allowed more internal diversity, current lawmakers on both sides of the aisle would feel more freedom to express their true opinions (and likely their constituents’ true opinions) on these two terrible candidates.
Instead, we’re left with a scenario in which most sitting members of Congress who oppose their own party’s nominee will simply keep mum.
That’s a shame on so many levels. It forces actually principled representatives to silence themselves if they want a shot at doing good in Congress in the future. It limits our range of public debate. And, though it is difficult at this point to imagine the Republican primary process turning out differently, perhaps if more members of Congress had spoken out against Trump earlier, he may not have won the nomination (Americans hate Congress in general, but typically like their own representative, so that might have had unexpected influence).
Instead, here we are. And though Trump may be unique — time will tell — the republic’s infection of partisanship won’t be cured any time soon.