Emergent Insurgents, and Why the New RNC Rules Matter

If the Republican National Committee has its way, we will see a different – shortened and streamlined – nomination process in 2016. The GOP will shorten its primary season, move its convention up, and hold fewer debates.
A fourth rule change caught a few eyes in the media recently. According to Forbes, the RNC has changed its rules about what it takes for candidates to be considered at the convention at all. In 2012, the rule was that candidate had to have a plurality of the delegates from five states in order to be put forth for nomination. Depending on whom you ask, Ron Paul either met this threshold or came close to it in 2012.

In 2016, the minimum requirements for a candidate to be considered at the convention will be higher. Instead of a plurality of delegates from five states, a candidate will need to have a majority of the delegates from eight states in order to have his or her name put before the convention. <br/>

It’s certainly possible that alteration in the rules will have little or no immediate practical impact on the party’s 2016 nomination. But the impact of changes like these can go beyond a single nomination season. First, they send a signal about what elites in the party organization think about the challenges they face. Someone thought it was important enough to make the change. Access to the convention floor has symbolic importance, and symbols matter in politics, even if their effects are difficult to measure. Furthermore, rules have the capacity to shape political conflict.

Party leaders change the rules in order to mediate among the party’s factions. This might make plenty of sense if we think of factions as fixed and based on fairly simple ideological labels, or as candidate-centered and ephemeral. Instead party factions are malleable, yet rooted in durable political ideas.

Right now, the different factions within the Republican Party are somewhat unclear. For example, Ron Paul was tried to position himself the Tea Party “favorite” in 2012 (with mixed success) and also identifies as a libertarian. But libertarians and Tea Partiers aren’t the same, although there appears to be some overlap. Nor are Tea Partiers necessarily the same as the party’s evangelical “base.” And what does “establishment” mean anyway?

Factions and alliances can shift in a party, based on perceptions of shared goals, identities, and interests. Labels like “establishment” and “insurgent” may not have intrinsic, fixed meaning, but they carry symbolic importance and have the potential to mobilize people based on their own conceptions about their needs and identities.

Based on what’s happened during their years out of (presidential and Senate) power, the Republican Party appears to have the ingredients for a major divide into insurgent and establishment factions. This isn’t the same thing as moderates vs. conservatives or social vs. economic conservatives. The moderate-conservative division probably accurately captures what was happening in 1952 or 1980, but the politics of the twenty-first century suggest something new. The elections of 2006 and 2008 were devastating for moderate and liberal New England Republican types, many of whom were replaced by Democrats. As the party has become more uniformly conservative, the infighting hasn’t necessarily declined.

Going back to the 2012 convention, it seems intuitively clear that the difference between Tea Party affiliated libertarian Ron Paul and Mitt Romney is one of kind, not degree. More broadly, political scientists also find evidence for a difference between Tea Party supporters and non-Tea Party conservatives. These differences have historical and philosophical roots. There are three basic tenets of conservatism: a preference for limited government; the idea that civilized societies have “moral orders” or social hierarchies; and a more process-based preference for slower change and elite-driven leadership. Modern conservative parties have mixed and matched these in different ways, leading to a variety of interpretations about what it means to be conservative. The moral order and limited government tenets inform the goals and views of the Tea Party/insurgent faction. But you won’t find much about incremental change and elite-driven governance.

The result is that there are qualitatively different ideas within the Republican Party that reflect not just different views on taxes or abortion, but on how America politics should work. The conflict over Ron Paul delegates at the 2012 convention illustrates how the insurgent faction operates under a different set of informal rules. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee (in 2008) were both arguably more conservative than their party’s eventually nominees (certainly, socially). But both bowed to party pressure to drop out of the race and step back at the convention, (eventually) throwing support behind the party ticket. The insurgent faction does not appear to be bound by these rules. The choice to defy party leaders wasn’t incidental; it reflects the group’s ideas about politics. These ideas date back to ideological traditions that were historically part of the Democratic Party – populism, suspicion of elites and institutions, and a desire to be left alone. In contrast, establishment Republicans draw their core ideology from traditions within their own party – neo-liberal economic policies, a strong pro-business orientation, and, historically, an orientation towards elites.

Insurgent movements in American parties are nothing new. Theodore Roosevelt’s campaign to wrestle the nomination away from William Howard Taft in 1912 used the newly instituted primary contests to challenge the power of party elites. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, liberal insurgents employed similar tactics, contesting the power of elites to control the party’s nomination processes and its policy positions. In both movements, the seeds of contemporary insurgent politics are apparent. Both staked their claims on the division between party elites and the will of the people.

But there’s an important difference. Although there were certainly policy motivations, the TR/Bull Moose movement was ultimately a personalistic one, unable to outlast Roosevelt’s candidacy. The liberal insurgency was about policy and ideology – specifically, the Democratic Party establishment’s support for the Vietnam War. Insurgency was a means to another kind of political end. Among Tea Party conservatives, insurgency itself appears to be a core value. In other words, this faction within the party seeks to challenge established power (as seen in efforts to “primary” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), and places a high value on ideological purity rather than compromise. A higher bar for inclusion in the nomination process could rally others within the party to their cause.

For adherents to this brand of conservative politics, the new rules send a signal that the party leadership isn’t very interested in their voices or concerns. It also has the potential to crystallize the insurgent-establishment division within the party, with implications for other dimensions of conflict – social issues, foreign policy, economics. While the RNC was likely trying to avoid major, visible conflict within the party in 2016, the rule may have the opposite effect. Both anti-establishment insurgents and establishment types have resonant claims about what it means to be conservative. A rule designed to shut one faction out could become a rallying point instead of a restriction.

What might the core issue positions of a such a faction look like? That’s a post for another day…

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.