America needs a brokered GOP convention.
A lot of pundits disagree with me on this. Some have argued that it will mean a betrayal of the GOP base by a manipulative establishment. Other pundits have argued that this will only play into Trump’s hands, giving him the justification he needs to run as a third-party candidate. And yet others have argued the process could potentially break down into violence and chaos.
However, if none of the remaining Republican presidential candidates gets a clear 50% majority of the party’s nominating delegates, I would be perfectly happy if the convention was brokered. And America should be happy about this too: the GOP, if it manages to successfully broker the convention, would give America one of the most public and forceful civics lessons in recent national history. This lesson is one America desperately needs, because a brokered convention would directly respond to the rise of populism in the United States.
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are rising to stardom as populist heroes, championing the idea of bucking elites in both political parties in favor of policies that benefit the average citizen. This populism has taken a very different form for each candidate, however: Sanders has been a staunch economic populist (and socialist), while Trump has taken a more broad approach to populism by promising to “Make America Great Again,” though the definition of “greatness” varies issue by issue.
However, with that rise of populism in recent years, we have also seen a rise in regressive policies from the political left. Progressives on college campuses have tried to suppress and deny speech rights to those they disagree with. Other public efforts by progressive and left-leaning groups have publicly shamed and destroyed major figures when they are discovered to hold opinions deemed by the masses to be “hateful” or “bigoted.”
Populists on the right–mainly Trump supporters and some religious fundamentalists–have become increasingly guilty of the same regressive tendencies as an angry reaction to the left’s attacks against the right and a desire to “win again” as Trump promises.” Trump has stated that he wants to “open up our libel laws” to go after anti-conservative journalists, further suppressing speech rights, and he has openly advocated that his supporters “rough up” protesters–and some have started doing just that.
In the words of writer and radio host Michael Graham: “The Left won’t defend free speech because they don’t believe in it. The Right won’t defend it because it’s a bat only used to beat them down.” I’d argue that, in the current race, Graham’s maxim extends to most aspects of the current political system.
The biggest problem with populism is that it can’t truly exist within our current legal system. America isn’t just a democracy, as many political speakers lazily assert, but is actually a constitutional republic. Rights and laws exist that restrain some aspects of both government and the popular will in order to protect individual rights. Further, those democratic processes we do have take the form of a representative democracy: we elect representatives to protect the interests of their constituents, and those representatives actually have to do their jobs and be effective leaders.
Simply put, populism encourages people to think that they can force the government to do whatever they want, but that runs against the rules set forward in the Constitution.
The GOP convention, in a way, is a reflection of the whole country’s political system. Like America at large, the Republican National Convention operates based on a fixed set of rules that restrict its behavior, and those rules can only be changed through a specific process. Those same rules specify how certain processes work, including the process by which brokering is conducted. This process is heavily dependent on the input of its elected delegates (much more than Democrats, whose process includes an oversized reliance on unelected superdelegates). There is room for exploitation in that framework, but it would be difficult to hide from the public–probably even more difficult than it is to hide corruption in the federal government itself–because (1) the rules are publicly known, and (2) the entire event will under a media microscope.
What does that all mean? It means that the RNC will, for one glorious event, be at the center of national attention where EVERYONE can examine the delegates’ actions and hold them morally accountable.
This forced transparency is why America needs a brokered convention: the GOP needs to put its money where its mouth is, and show the world that it is actually possible for some institutional body in this country to play by the rules.
If the GOP pulls it off, it will be the best civics lesson in recent history, reminding us that the representative democratic systems in America can–and actually do–still work. People just don’t believe in America’s current system, as evidenced by the fact that a 22% Congressional approval rating can actually be argued to be a good thing. A well-run, transparent, and rationally-brokered GOP convention would restore faith in a highly visible part of the political process, and could possibly do more to help America than any one candidate’s campaign.
Understandably, this is (to steal a Trumpism) a YUGE order. There’s a real risk that the brokering process could fail or backfire for any of the well-stated reasons outlined above. Trump could break his oath to support the party’s nominee. The establishment could try to make a power play, and bully delegates into choosing a hand-picked establishment nominee. And the brokering debates could generate a lot of anger and resentment among voters and delegates alike, especially Trump supporters of the populist bent who just couldn’t accept the possibility that Trump isn’t “winning.”
Even a failed brokering convention, however, would serve a big purpose: it would very publicly demonstrate that the American system is failing, and that, as Benjamin Franklin once ominously warned, we’ve failed to keep the Republic given to us by the Founders. This may sound extreme, but consider this: if America’s nominally conservative party fails to actually respect and obey its own rules, how can it be expected to reliably or credibly conserve anything else? Let alone the constitutional rule of law? It can’t.
At that point, the conservative movement would need to go through a massive interior reformation (one that some might argue is a long time coming) before it would have the moral authority it needed to stem the progressive and populist shift in American politics. That reformation might end up leading to the restoration of the GOP, or it might end up breaking of the party in favor of something new. We’d be in uncharted territory at that point.
But, as Jim Geraghty rightly points out, we can’t just let the whole American system burn down by letting populism win the day. If we’ve reached a point where brokering the convention is the only way to avoid that, then we should be far more willing to risk conservatism and the GOP going through the refining fire than we are letting America lose its constitutional foundation.
Whether a brokered convention succeeds or fails, it benefits America as a whole. So bring it on, GOP. Let’s broker this thing.