March 18, 2013

Everyone thinking about the big Republican National Committee report today should head straight to party scholar Seth Masket, who explains why it’s incredibly difficult for parties to just choose to change:

[P]arties are dominated by the major issue activists and donors who get involved in party nomination contests. They won’t tolerate candidates who don’t care about the issues important to them, and they’ll find themselves a candidate who does. … The party really can’t just nominate candidates who are, for example, “agnostic on social issues.” Anti-abortion activists, gun rights activists, evangelical Christians, etc., care deeply about the sorts of candidates the GOP nominates, and a candidate who shows no interest in their priorities will not get very far in Republican politics without their money, labor, and time. Sure, you can try to talk to the leaders of some of those groups and explain to them that they should just play ball so the party can win, but … winning is not their only priority. In some cases, they’d rather see their party lose than win by betraying everything they care about.

I’d add to that three things. One is that formal party organizations such as the RNC and its Democratic counterpart are extremely unlikely to be a significant source of change. These committees just aren’t important enough within the larger party — which includes candidates, party-aligned interest groups, activists, campaign and governing professionals, and more — to be able to get their way.

The second is that Republican politicians, and Republican elites of all types, have been excessively afraid for the past several years of getting pegged with a “RINO” label. Yes, it’s hard to change a party, but it’s even harder when you’re shaking with fear. In particular, the party of the sane conservatives has been fearful of calling out the fringe of the party … or has even been joining in, at least rhetorically, with nutty conspiracy theories and extreme positions.

The third point is that important components of the party — in particular, the Republican-aligned partisan press — may have perverse electoral incentives, in which they stand to make more money if Democrats are in office. This appears to present a problem that would call for collective GOP action, but the report (understandably, I suppose) is silent about it, and at any rate it’s not really obvious what anyone could do.

In all, then: Party change is difficult; party change sparked and enforced by formal party organizations is unlikely at best; and the Republican Party really does need change. Others who care about GOP success will have to be willing to fight for it (and haven’t been to date), but even if they do, that change won’t come easy, and not without costs.