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Primaries Are Over: Time to Unify?

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Raymond Scheele, Professor Emeritus
Ball State University

The two “presumptive nominees” for President are settled and attention now turns to the effort to “unify” the political parties. This effort of trying to bring people together peacefully has been identified and discussed for centuries. In 1787, James Madison wrote the famous “Federalist No. 10” in which he defined “factions” as “…a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Madison cited two solutions to the problem of “curing” these factions: “The one, by removing its causes; the other by controlling its effects.” He discarded the notion of “removing its causes” for that would destroy liberty by forcing citizens to have the same opinions and the same interests. Madison then contended that since the causes of faction cannot be removed, relief is to be found in “controlling its effects.”

The two great political parties are now facing the problem of “controlling the effects” of factions within their own organizations.

Donald Trump won 35 of the GOP primaries and caucuses. As the presumptive nominee, he inherits the problem of “unifying” the diverse opinions (i.e., factions) within the party. Hillary Clinton inherits the same problem in the Democratic Party, having won 26 states.

Political Scientists have long identified the process by which conflicting opinions and views of party members are mediated. The approach is to provide a wide range of consensus that allows the unsuccessful candidates to concur on major issues, even if the specific policy solutions are somewhat vague. The task is to arrange a “range of permissive consensus,” in the words of Harvard political scientists V.O. Key, Jr. This range provides room for differing viewpoints while thrashing out more specific approaches on issues that can be transmitted to the citizens for their consideration.

In the case of the Democratic Party, it is highly likely that this approach will succeed. The primary candidates–Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders–never reached the red-hot personal name calling that prevailed in the Republican contests. Permitting Senator Sanders to summarize his range of issues and positions at the Democratic national convention, and seeking his support during the November campaign, will allow him to operate within that wide range of consensus. Clearly, the Democratic Party is in a good position to bring together their political leaders and voters.

The Republicans have a much larger problem. Donald Trump has never held a political office, either within the party structure or in government. His comments during the primary season alienated a wide swath of Republican leaders; and, when he backtracked, he never indicated that his positions could be modified. In short, he has narrowed the range of permissive consensus that is essential in cultivating political unity. In turn, a gulf remains in the distance between Trump and the establishment party officials on whom he must depend for support going forward.

The candidates and party leaders may move toward this wide range of consensus, but how do we recognize that the efforts of party elites actually promote unity with the citizenry? This question is answered only by measuring public opinion. Unity does not require 100% acceptance, and public opinion surveys can detect if the citizens are accepting the positions and issues promoted by their candidates and party leaders. Close attention to the issues and positions is of major importance in determining if the Republican or Democratic Party—or both—have unified and are following Madison’s prescription of “controlling the effects” of factions.