Think about the Democrats in Congress. The Democrats are in an odd place. They have a small plurality in both houses of Congress. The Republicans are terribly divided. It would seem like the Democrats in the Congress should be able to win all the time. The truth is that the Republican divisions are real but that those divisions don’t really help the Democrats. Those divisions among the Republican members are a predictable product of the primaries that we discussed last time.

First, a little history: If we go back to, say 1910, the districts electing people to Congress were roughly the same size that they are today but the population was much smaller. The men who voted in those party elections were dues paying, meeting attending party members. Most of them probably knew each other.

In the early days, the parties printed ballots, picked the dates, and ran the party elections themselves. Party leaders (read party bosses) quickly got back into the game by manipulating the primaries to pick the candidate winners that they wanted. So then, as a reform of the reform, many states stepped in and created election laws which put them in charge of overseeing the primaries. One result was that the primaries went through a period of consolidation. In order to keep the cost of each state’s involvement down it was simply more efficient to have primaries for all parties the same place at the same time.

By the beginning of the nineteen sixties new problems developed. Local party organizations began a long period of declining membership. At this point the vast majority of people identifying with each party don’t formally join them. The parties, working through some of the states, have responded by allowing voters to register before a primary for one party or the other. Or, in some states they simply ask arriving voters which party’s ballot they wish to take (they can only vote for one party’s candidates).

The state party organizations certainly want people to vote in the primaries. They know that a person who votes for one of their candidates in the August primary is more apt to vote for their party’s candidates in the general election in November (Note that although in the primaries voters are restricted to voting for the candidates of one party, in the general election they are free to vote for any candidate of either party.).

Now for the real flaw: Despite the encouragement by states and by parties, the number who vote in the primaries is small. The primaries for all political candidates except those for the presidency are usually held in August when people are thinking more about sunny backyard barbecues or buying school clothes than they are about standing in line to vote. So, the small number of people who do vote are the most motivated. And the most motivated are the most ideological (think Donald Trump’s disciples).

And, therein lies the Republican candidate’s problem. By next summer it will be a little clearer about the role that will be played by the Pied Piper of Mar-A-Lago. Donald Trump may by then be so bound up in court appearances and business problems that all his efforts to dominate the Republican Party may seem like old news. Whether he is, at that point, trying to control who runs for Congress may not matter. He will still have a huge number of followers out there for whom he continues to be a symbolic leader.

Those people are going to swarm the primaries in many areas and vote for someone they view as one of the faithful. And, they also may be in a mood to punish any candidate that they think is not true to the glorious cause. In some areas the voting sites may be patrolled by Proud Boy look-alikes who will attempt to intimidate the waiting voters.

Members of Congress have assumed that they could walk freely and safely through acres of marble. The events of January 6th shattered that illusion. What they view as their narrow escape did concentrate their minds. The idea of running as a Trump non-supporter must seem fraught with menace. And the menace will be amplified if they find themselves facing a Trump backed candidate in their own primary. Republicans with high seniority may find it liberating to simply retire and enjoy their generous pensions.

Even though many in the American public do not understand the primary system, members of Congress in both houses certainly do. Many would probably love to work with the Biden Administration to arrive at functional compromise versions of his programs. They dare not do it. Any show of cooperation is going to mean threatening phone calls in the night. Doing the right thing may put their families in danger.

Those Republicans who have allowed themselves to be drawn into the Trump orbit probably know that they are living a lie. But, having started they have to keep going. Any movement toward traditional functioning in the House or the Senate will result in more abuse. And, they may lose to a more cultish candidate who will win and make them leave all that marble for good.

So, the Republicans in both Houses of Congress are divided. A minority whose hold on their home voters is unusually great can afford to hint at dismay with the role being played by Donald Trump. The others, already committed to Trump, are locked into sounding supportive. Neither group can afford to really cooperate with Joseph Biden in his efforts to defeat the pandemic that Donald Trump was too weak to face.

In any normal year, many Biden programs would arouse some Republican opposition. This year that opposition is not a choice. For too many Republicans, it must seem like a matter of life or death. It also means that whatever the new President and the Democrats do, they must do alone.

H.J. Rishel


Retired political science professor of 40+ years. Educated at Olivet, UofM, MSU, Northwestern, & Harvard. Hoping to make politics a fun & exciting topic for all

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