The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Parliamentary-Election Problem

President Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, January 30, 2018. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

David makes a good case for why conservatives should vote for Republican candidates, and I largely agree with him. I don’t much care about my vote given where I live, but I do find the constant exhortations — from liberals and anti-Trump conservatives — to vote Democrat a bit tedious and unpersuasive. The worst form of this argument isn’t about voters but elected representatives. It seems every couple days, someone will attack a Republican senator or congressman for voting “with” Donald Trump on legislation or judicial appointments. This is particularly annoying when it comes as a response to a Republican criticizing Trump. “Words are meaningless so long as you vote with Trump” goes the common refrain.

On the merits, I am at a loss as to why a conservative senator should vote down a conservative judge just to send a “message” to Trump. The Senate is a sovereign, independent branch of government, and a Republican who campaigned to do Republican things should vote that way. Imagine if the situation were reversed. How many liberals would gladly vote down a liberal judge or support pro-life legislation just to send a message to a crude or demagogic Democratic president? It wouldn’t happen.

But I also think there’s another aspect to this argument that helps put it in context. As I wrote last week, I think more and more people are looking at politics as if we live in a parliamentary system. More and more major legislation is passed on straight party lines. Every election feels “nationalized” to some extent, with Republicans in Texas running against Nancy Pelosi and Democrats everywhere running against Donald Trump.

Trump himself encourages this. He talks about the GOP as if everyone with an “R” after his or her name will and should be a loyal water-carrier for his agenda. This is hardly new. But because Trump has come to define the party for so many people — detractors and fans alike — it feels more as if a vote for a Republican is a vote for the whole Donald Trump package. Trump himself encourages this by insisting that the election is about him. Moreover, because Republicans have generally been terrible at pushing back against, or curtailing, the aspects of Trump’s presidency that drive his critics crazy, it’s understandable that people might feel like this is, in effect, a confidence vote on the head of the governing party. I mean, Ron DeSantis won the gubernatorial primary in Florida simply by promising to be a vassal to Donald Trump. And it looks like he will lose the general election precisely because he couldn’t transition to talking about how he would be an independent leader of a sovereign state.

Similarly, the fact that Congress seems so uninterested in asserting its independence and prerogatives, preferring to be a parliament of pundits, only reinforces the idea that we vote for teams rather than legislators.

The media feeds into this as well. Because everything is about Trump, political coverage is personalized around his persona. Policy and legislative issues take a back seat to the reality-showification of everything. I haven’t followed every race closely, but at the national level, the things that mostly come through are the constant promises from Republican senators and representatives to be Trump loyalists and defenders rather independent stewards of a coequal branch.

So while I still think conservatives should vote for conservative politicians, I also think the refusal or inability of legislators to stay in their lane and jealously defend their rights fuels this parliamentary thinking in our politics.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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