Party Loyalty After Trump

From ‘Never Trump’ To ‘Vote Your Conscience’ To ‘Endorsing The Nominee’

By Professor Simon Keller (University of Victoria, Wellington)

January 15, 2017         Picture: Gary Cameron/Reuters.

This article is part of The Critique’s January/February 2017 Issue “Stick It To The Man: A Year Of Anglo-American Populist Revolt Against A Changing Culture & An Obtuse Political Establishment.”

 1. Crises of Loyalty

At the beginning of the first Republican candidates’ debate, in August 2015, Donald Trump made it clear that he would not be running as just another Republican. Alone among the ten candidates on the stage and to the gasps of the members of the audience, he refused to guarantee that he would support the winner of the Republican primaries and he refused to foreswear a possible third-party candidacy. Later in the campaign, he apparently relented, meeting with the chairman of the Republican National Committee and signing a “loyalty pledge.” Still later, he revoked the pledge.[1]

From one point of view, Trump’s reluctance to guarantee support for the party’s nominee makes perfect sense. Why would you promise to support a presidential candidate before knowing who it is, and before knowing what the candidate may say and do between now and the election? John Kasich and Jeb Bush were each on the stage at that first debate, and they each took the loyalty pledge, and they each came to have reason to regret it; they found that they could not support the Republican candidate once they learned whom it would be. Ted Cruz also took the loyalty pledge at the first debate and then famously declined to endorse Trump in his speech at the Republican National Convention, though he did give Trump his support eventually. Senior Republican politicians like Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham, along with self-styled Republican thinkers like Mark Helprin and George Will, formed the “Never Trump” movement, saying that Trump was one candidate they could not support, Republican or not.[2] Surely, we might say, refusing to support their party’s candidate was their right, perhaps even their duty, given their doubts about his ability to be a good president. Whom you support in a presidential election is a matter of conscience, and you surrender your conscience – it would seem – when you pledge to support a party’s nominee no matter what.

From another point of view, however, Trump’s refusal to pledge support to the party’s eventual nominee should have disqualified him from the contest immediately. The Republican Party was convening to choose its leader for the coming election. Why would it consider a candidate who is not prepared first to make a commitment to the party? If you were choosing a general to lead you into battle, you would not choose the person who says that she only wants your side to do well for as long as she is in charge, or who says that if she is not chosen as general then she might fight for someone else instead. Other Republicans took their loyalty to the party seriously. Mike Huckabee cited the loyalty pledge as his reason for supporting Trump, and he admonished as promise-breakers the candidates who withheld their support.[3] Paul Ryan, leader of the House Republicans, evinced great reluctance about Trump’s candidacy during the campaign, but when the election arrived he assured fellow Republicans that he voted for “our entire Republican ticket.”[4] A minimum requirement for running to be a party’s candidate, we might well say, is a commitment to the party. A pledge of loyalty to party, from this point of view, is less an abrogation of conscience than a condition of entry.

The Democratic Party, too, had to grapple with the value of party loyalty during its nomination process, and is doing so again in the election’s aftermath. Bernie Sanders has made his political career as an independent, without any formal commitment or responsibility to the Democratic Party, yet he ran a strong campaign for the Democratic nomination. Now Sanders, only recently registered as a Democrat, is attempting to guide the party’s post-election transformation.[5] And Robert Reich, a prominent Democratic intellectual and former Democratic governor, has threatened to start a new party if the Democrats do not make the reforms to the party that he thinks necessary.[6]

It is not only among the candidates and party leaders that the 2016 election, in all its weirdness, has challenged assumptions about party loyalty. Trump won the primaries because so many Republican voters abandoned the establishment wing of the party, with its small-government and pro-trade agenda, and chose instead to support an outsider. His win in the general election depended on the support of working-class voters in the Midwest who were previously considered reliable Democrats. For the parties, the 2016 election raises new questions about identity and membership: what does each party stand for, and whom does it represent? For the Democratic Party in particular, it raises the question of how to build a new and expanded constituency – of how to define and create Democrats. And for voters, especially those dismayed by Trump’s victory, it raises the question of whether to move forward by committing to one or other of the major parties, by supporting a third party, by withholding judgment, or by staying out of the process entirely.


    2. Should I Be Loyal to a Party?

Political parties demand loyalty, but you cannot be loyal to a political party in the way that you can be loyal to a person; a political partisan is not much like a loyal friend, say, or a loyal child. You can be a loyal child to your father even while thinking that he is a pretty awful person; for all his faults, you might think, he is still your father and you still love him. As a loyal friend, you might be prepared to go beyond your normal moral boundaries for the sake of your friend. “A friend will help you move house, but a good friend will help you move a body”: that might be an exaggeration, but the point is there. A good friend will support you when you mess up, will help cover your tracks, will give you the benefit of the doubt, will be there for you even when you do not deserve it. The bonds between friends, between romantic partners, and within families are largely emotional and not always answerable to good judgment. When you love someone, you will sometimes do something for her just because it’s her.

A political party is a social institution built on shared values and interests. It is an open ongoing question whether a particular party best represents your values and interests, and an open ongoing question whether the party deserves your support. You should not support a party while judging that it is corrupt or deeply misguided. You should not be prepared to do wrong for the sake of a party. You should not assume the best of a political party or give it the benefit of the doubt. Falling in love with a political party is generally a terrible idea. A political party is not a family and should not be treated like one.

John Kasich made this point – perhaps – when he said repeatedly during his presidential run that the Republican Party is his vehicle, not his master.[7] To treat a party as a vehicle is to value it for its usefulness. If you care about universal healthcare, then you might support the party only for as long you believe that doing so is a good way to bring about universal healthcare. If you care about getting elected, then you might associate yourself with the party only to the extent that doing so helps you get elected.

If you were to treat your friends merely as vehicles, then you would not be a loyal friend. There is no loyalty in sticking by a friend only when you find her useful. Similarly, there is no loyalty in supporting a party just because it gets you what you want. Perhaps the right conclusion, then, is that because political parties (unlike friends) are mere vehicles, they are not the sorts of things towards which we should be loyal. Perhaps loyalty to party is always a mistake. Support a party when it does the right thing, sure, but do not give it your loyalty.

Things look different, however, when we compare a political party with another kind of social institution, also based on shared values and interests: a union. A union too is a vehicle; the point of a union, we might say, is to serve its members’ interests and promote just working conditions. But a union gains all of its strength from its unity and the solidarity of its members. Without the allegiance of its members, it cannot do anything. There is no point in a union’s trying to make decisions and form strategies unless it has loyal members who will stand by them. A good union member is prepared to follow the union’s decision to reject or accept a pay deal, or to take industrial action, even when she thinks that the decision is incorrect, because a good union member knows that a fractured union is no good to anyone.

You might join a union because you think that doing so will serve your interests or will help promote outcomes you value. But you might also join because, independently of those considerations, you want a group of workers to have a voice and to have power. The two kinds of motive are connected – you may recognize that it is only if the workers have a voice that you will be able to get what you want and to promote the outcomes you value – but still, they are distinct. Insofar as you want the members of a union to have a voice, you have a reason to give the union your loyalty. As a loyal union member, you may commit yourself first to the union, and second to the particular goals and values that you would like the union to pursue. That is why it can make sense for you to follow union decisions and strategies even when you think them mistaken.

The same sorts of things can be said of the major political parties in the US, especially when it comes to presidential politics. A presidential election is winner-takes-all; in the US, there is no such thing as a coalition government. Each voter can record only his first choice for president; your vote cannot be transferred to another candidate if your most preferred candidate is eliminated. These features of the system raise the stakes for party unity. Under other systems, you can vote for a minor party hoping that it will become part of a governing coalition or knowing that your vote will go eventually to your least-disliked major party. Major parties under other systems can tolerate and even benefit from minor party votes. For the major US parties, in contrast, to splinter into smaller parties is to lose any chance of success. That is one reason why the major US parties will always be sprawling and ideologically chaotic. Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, you will need to share your party with at least some people with whom you disagree about almost everything, if your party is to have any chance of winning government.

The high stakes for party unity give an extra incentive to the parties to remain united, and also extra power to sections of the party that threaten to break away. Anyone who can make a credible threat to run an alternative candidate, and to take with them even a small proportion of a major party’s voters, can claim a great deal of leverage in negotiating with others in the party. At the same time, of course, the high stakes for party unity make it more difficult to make a credible threat to leave, because any such threat can look like a suicide strategy. You might destroy the major party’s chances of success, but you probably won’t do any better yourself.

Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, your relationship with your party will probably be ambivalent and antagonistic. In some ways the relationship will look like a dysfunctional marriage. You will share the party with many people with whom you disagree and some whom you find unspeakable. At crucial times – like now, as the parties realign to cope with changed political conditions – an effective strategy for getting what you want from the party is to threaten to leave while knowing you won’t. In order to support the party, you may need wilfully to overlook its faults and to defend it in public while resenting it in private. That you would have such a fraught relationship with a major political party is predictable, even healthy, considering the nature and purpose of the parties and the system within which they operate.

Against this background, there is good reason for the major parties to seek loyalty in voters and demand it of their candidates. The loyalty you show to a party, again, will not be the same kind of loyalty that you would give a friend or a loved one; it is not a loyalty grounded in love. And your loyalty to the party will surely not be unconditional; you should be ready to abandon the party if it proves corrupt or irredeemably misguided.

Instead, the loyalty that it makes sense to show to a party, and the loyalty that a party can legitimately seek, is a commitment to the party’s existence and success, driven by a conviction that the party’s existence and success are necessary if certain people and ideas are to have a voice. You might hope that your party will pursue certain policies, and support the party insofar as it does, but loyalty to the party will take you further. Loyalty can involve identity; you might identify as a Democrat or a Republican. You might donate time and money to the party and vote for its candidates, as expressions of your loyalty, because the party makes it possible (at least) that people like you and the things you care about will have influence upon the way the country is run. Even where you disapprove of the party, you might, as a loyal party member, commit yourself to improving it from within.

The commitment of loyalty to a party is a commitment to cooperate. You and I might have quite different reasons for valuing the party and quite different views about what the party should be, yet as loyal party members we need to find ways to work together. As a loyal party member, I may make a commitment to establishing fair procedures within the party and to respecting their outcomes even when my side loses, and I may make the effort to support the party and its candidates even when doing so advances your vision for the party and the country, not mine. I may make that commitment because I trust that you make it too, and because each of us needs the party, and hence needs to cooperate, in order to have any chance of achieving our respective goals. That kind of loyalty to party is defensible, even essential, among party candidates and operatives, and may also sensibly be shown by ordinary voters.


     3. Giving and Seeking Loyalty to Party

When the Republican candidates were asked to pledge support to the winner of the primaries, yes and no were both bad answers. The question was misplaced, not because there is no place for loyalty to party, but because the loyalty that a candidate can fairly be asked to give to her party should not include a promise to support the party’s candidate whatever happens.

If you were one of the candidates on the stage, what you should have said is that you are prepared to support the party’s nominee even if you disagree with her and even if supporting her is not in your own best interests, because that is the kind of support that you will want and need from the other candidates if you yourself turn out to be the nominee. But you should add that you retain the right to exercise your conscience, and that you will not support a candidate whose conduct or views are so far from being acceptable that you cannot think of yourself and her as members of the same team. Yes, you could say, you promise to be loyal to your party, but your loyalty to party is consistent with your deciding that sometimes, under certain circumstances and under certain leadership, you cannot give the party your support. (I am not saying that this answer would have played well on television.)

As a voter, rather than a candidate, you have a different relationship with the party, because you are not seeking its endorsement and because you have the option of not participating at all. You could justifiably follow a strategy of considering each voting choice as it arises, deciding whether to vote for the candidate of one or the other major parties, or a third party candidate, or not at all, depending on what will best advance your values and interests in the circumstances.

But you could instead choose to be loyal to a party, and to vote for it even when you are not sure that there is anything in it for you. That strategy makes sense if you see the party as the one that gives people like you a voice – even if that voice is not always the loudest one in the party – or if you think that you need the party if your values and interests are to be advanced by government – even if those values and interests do not always determine the party’s direction. The voice you want heard, and the values and interests you want advanced, could be expressed positively, but they could also be largely negative. You might give your loyalty to the Democratic Party, for example, not because you think that the Democrats’ values match your own, but instead because you think that a strong Democratic Party represents the best chance of minimizing the damage to be caused by the Republicans.

Accordingly, there is a difference between the strategies that a political party ought to follow when it is looking for votes (now), and when it is trying to win voters’ loyalty. A party might win your vote by giving you something you want. To win your loyalty, in contrast, the party must give you reason to think of the party as your party, even when it does not give you what you want. You must feel that you are, directly or indirectly, part of the team. The way for a party to earn your loyalty is to give you reason to believe that the party gives a voice to people like you, or to your interests and values, without pretending that the party speaks only for people like you or that all the voices within the party are always in harmony with yours. And again, the voices to which the party gives expression may sometimes be negative, while still grounding loyalty to the party. The party might attract your loyalty by proving itself the only party that can avert disaster, or the only party that can stop the other side from winning.


     4. Disloyalty to Party

If a political party can be an object of loyalty, then it might also, sometimes, be a victim of disloyalty. The 2016 election offers several examples of failures to give support to a party where support might have been expected. Whether a failure to support a party counts as a form of disloyalty, and whether any disloyalty involved is justified, depend largely on how the decision not to support the party is motivated.

It is difficult to know exactly what motivated Donald Trump when he refused, at various points, to guarantee support for the Republican Party and its candidates. There is good reason to believe, however, that he was driven largely by considerations of his own needs and political ambitions, and was hence guilty of (what we might call) the disloyalty of selfishness. Whether he was willing to endorse the party and its processes appeared to depend mostly on whether he thought that the party and its processes were likely to give him what he wanted. He later took the same attitude, after all, towards the prospective results of the general election, saying that he could guarantee that he would accept the election results, but only if he won.[8]

If Trump’s involvement with the Republican Party was indeed driven by his own interests, then he, more than anyone, treated the party as his vehicle, and he was guilty of a wrongful kind of disloyalty. He needed the party to get him where he wanted to go, but did not make a commitment to cooperate with others who had their own different reasons for working within the party. He benefited from the party’s existence without contributing to the unity that makes its existence possible. To that extent, other party members can fairly feel that Trump exploited the party, and that he thereby treated them wrongly. For all his ultimate success as a leader of the Republican Party, Trump was disloyal to the Republican Party.

Members of the “Never Trump” movement, in contrast, appeared to be driven mostly by a conviction that Trump would be an awful president. They displayed (what we can call) the disloyalty of conscience. Republicans like Bush and Kasich and Romney and Graham, and conservative writers like Will and Helprin, have a history of supporting the party even when it does not do exactly what they would like it to do. Their motivations were presumably various and complex, but it seems clear that the main reason why they did not support Trump, even as their party’s nominee, is that they did not want to make it more likely that he would inflict harm upon the country.

The Republican “Never Trumpers” are people who have benefited from the party and its processes in the past, so their failure to support the party’s nominee might be counted as a kind of disloyalty to the party. Insofar as it is grounded in conscience, however, it is difficult to fault. (Personally, I think that the Never Trumpers could have shown a little more shame, acknowledging that their own past actions as Republicans helped make Trump’s success possible, but I suppose that that is a different issue.) Loyalty to party becomes pathological when it is unconditional, and disloyalty of conscience, unlike disloyalty of selfishness, is always an acceptable response to a judgment that the party has truly lost its way. So it is a kind of disloyalty that can be justifiable, even morally required.

Between the disloyalty of selfishness and the disloyalty of conscience is an attitude that is much more difficult to assess: this is (what we can call) the disloyalty of purity. You may fail to support your party’s candidate, and fail to accept the outcome of your party’s processes, because you feel that doing so would besmirch your own moral character. This is different from the disloyalty of conscience, because it is self-directed. When you refuse to support a candidate out of concern with your own purity, your driving motive is not to save the country from the candidate but rather to save yourself from association with the candidate. But the disloyalty of purity is not selfish either. It arises from a concern with right and wrong, not simply with what benefits you.

A luxury of being an independent is that you do not need to associate yourself with people or policies you find disagreeable. But someone who takes that attitude within a party can thereby fail to cooperate with others in the party, by placing her own moral purity above party processes and party unity. If you refuse to be associated with the party unless it conforms to your own ideology, or if you threaten to leave the party whenever you see your own (perfectly sincere) values get defeated within the party, then you can fairly be accused of failing to do your bit for the party. You refuse to make a compromise – a compromise of your own ideological purity – that people need to make if a party is to stay together. This is perhaps the kind of disloyalty of which some of Bernie Sanders’ delegates – the “Bernie or bust” delegates – were guilty when they disrupted the Democratic Convention and undermined the party’s unity after their candidate lost the primaries. It is also, arguably, a kind of disloyalty that can be found in Robert Reich’s threat to leave the Democratic Party if it does not make the specific reforms that he favors.

At its best, a concern with purity can be a crucial moral reference point. Perhaps the time to leave a political party is when you look at its actions and are compelled to say, “Not in my name!” At its worst, however, a concern with purity can be sanctimonious, and in the context of a cooperative enterprise like a political party it can be divisive and destructive. To go too far in compromising your own purity is to compromise your integrity, and to give in to cynicism. To guard your purity too closely is to rule out any possibility of contributing constructively to a political party. When evaluating those who withdraw support from a party out of a concern for their own purity, I am not sure that there is anything more informative to say than that. Party loyalty is necessary, but it is not pretty. One of the biggest costs of party loyalty is that it requires you to accept people and support policies that you would much prefer to avoid.

Footnotes & References

[1] For a timeline that documents Trump’s relationship with the loyalty pledge, see (accessed December 1, 2016).

[2] For a list of Republican figures who supported and declined to support Trump, see (accessed December 1, 2016). Several conservative writers, including Mark Helprin, make their “case against Trump” in an issue of National Review published on January 21, 2016. George Will attacks Trump in several opinion pieces in major newspapers, including ‘Donald Trump is the GOP’s chemotherapy,’ Washington Post October 10, 2016.

[3] (accessed December 1, 2016).

[4] (accessed December 1, 2016).

[5] (accessed December 1, 2016).

[6] Reich tweeted on November 12, 2016, “Either the Democratic Party cleans house, or we start a third party.” Since then he has taken back the threat to form a third party, preferring strategies that would force a change in the Democratic Party. See (Accessed 1 December, 2016.)

[7] (accessed December 1, 2016).

[8] (accessed 1 December 2016).

Simon Keller
Simon Keller
Simon Keller is a Professor of Philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington. He has published widely on topics in ethics and political philosophy, with a focus on the moral issues raised by relationships of love and loyalty. He has also published on topics in metaphysics and the history of philosophy. He is the author of The Limits of Loyalty (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Partiality (Princeton University Press, 2013), and a co-author of The Ethics of Patriotism: A Debate (Wiley Blackwell, 2015).

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

Lee McIntyre

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