McCain to Romney to Trump to Taylor-Greene

Key Takeaways:

  • Organizations (such as political parties) often face collective action problems.
  • Modern parties in the U.S. have fewer tools to deal with these problems.
  • The result is that Republicans are failing to confront extremism in their ranks.

What happens when organizational goals conflict with individual agendas? Everyone benefits when the organization succeeds, but individuals within that organization may find that their own benefits are misaligned with organizational goals. This creates collective action problems, and handling collective action problems requires strong, decisive leadership and the capability of exerting pressure on individuals in your organization.

Consider the free rider problem: a collective action problem where the individual has little incentive to contribute to the group goal because the individual’s contribution is nonessential and he or she benefits from the group action regardless of whether or not he or she contributes.

The problem, of course, is that if every member of the group makes this calculation then no one does anything and the group fails to achieve its goal.

Following the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, Republican leaders in Congress face the free rider problem, and they are finding that they have little ability to rein in their membership. Two weeks ago, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-KY) gave a speech on the Senate floor denouncing Representative Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-GA14), but Republicans in the House all voted to let her keep her committee assignments. Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY At Large) voted to impeach Donald Trump, and a third of the Republican caucus voted to remove her from her leadership position.

The Republican Party would have been better off if Senate Republicans had voted to convict Donald Trump. Distancing themselves from Trumpism and extremism and moving toward the center would increase the likelihood of the party winning back Congress in 2022 and the presidency in 2024. But his conviction was never a real possibility and only a handful of Republicans were willing to publicly cross the ex-president.

Collectively, Republican leaders understand they would be better off without Trumpism. The problem is that individual members may calculate that the party would be better off with a more centrist reputation while they themselves do nothing to upset the party base. Mainstream Republicans still outnumber extremists, but those members lack the incentive to act.

Republicans in Congress seem concerned that confronting extremism within the party might lead to a backlash from Republican voters. They want Trump and Taylor-Greene diminished but want the benefit without the potential cost of taking action themselves.[1] Elected officials are often risk averse when it comes to their own reelection prospects, and many elected Republicans see confronting extremism as a risk.

Parties in the U.S. cannot dictate actions to their members. Members retain their positions by winning elections, regardless of whether or not party leadership likes them. Instead, parties resort to coercive, but subtle methods. They often act as legislative cartels, controlling members because they maintain a monopoly control on policy. The party can then dole out policy favors in exchange for loyalty. Parties can also provide money and expertise that can aid candidates’ re-election efforts.

So why have Republican leaders failed to address their free rider problem?

For one, party leadership in the U.S. has been weakened as candidates have found new ways to reach voters online. You don’t need help from the party if you can build your own fundraising network on social media. And the data on voters and donors that parties used to have exclusive access to are now more widely available. Eliminating earmarks, money for pet projects to go to specific legislators’ districts, also eliminated a major incentive that parties could use to keep members in line. Being in the minority in both chambers also limits the ability of Republican leaders to help members achieve policy goals.

Democrats are already preparing to paint Republicans as the party of Qanon and extremism. Moderate Senate Republicans are retiring in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio, and Republicans will be defending seats in places like Wisconsin and Iowa where the extremism label could doom incumbents. If Republicans can’t steer the conversation away from their most embarrassing members (and if Democrats pass a large relief bill that leads to a quick economic recovery) they could see their share of Congress shrink even further (and become more extreme) in the next election cycles.

Truthfully, I am not sure what I would advise Republican leaders at this point. Without the tools to control members, they cannot force their own caucus to confront extremists or demand that those extremists change. Perhaps corporations cutting off campaign donations will change the calculus and force more party members to act.

With so many incentives against it, it was genuinely surprising to see seven Republican senators vote to convict Trump in last week’s impeachment trial. It was depressing to see those senators’ state Republican parties then move to censure them.

Republicans in Congress may yet find ways to stymie the spread of extremism in their party, but it will require tough and potentially painful choices by the remaining mainstream Republican representatives. They will have to push back against their own party and perhaps even their own voters. As it stands, Republicans seem to be free-riding down a dark, and ultimately self-destructive path.


[1] Quick aside: I’ve seen it reported in enough places to believe that there really are many Republican members of Congress who think that opposing Trump or Taylor-Greene will hurt them politically. I’m skeptical that this is actually true, though. There is evidence that opposing extremism is the smarter political strategy.

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