Update: I wrote this three weeks ago. It looks like the NY-23 congressional race bears this out.
(Originally published 10/09/09)
Every politician desires to have the ability to influence other people. For the most part, that desire helps define what a politician does. The politician's ability to influence others allows them to hold sway with the political machinery that affords them the opportunity to run for elective office. Once elected, that same desire manifests itself in the ability to get other politicians to follow you as you drive legislative initiatives into law, a payback to those whose "chits" you redeemed or still hold.
Politicians build an inventory of "chits" that they can use at critical times during a run for office. Political machinery is steeped in the tradition of trading "chits". It has helped build the foundational culture behind both major political parties. This culture helped create a structure that enabled our two major political parties to build national organizations. Unfortunately, this political structure does not always operate in a manner that has the best interests of the electorate in mind.
Now, consider the concept of groupthink. Groupthink gained prominence in light of the Kennedy administration's disastrous policy toward Cuba, culminating the the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Wikipedia defines it as follows:
Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group. During groupthink, members of the group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking. A variety of motives for this may exist such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group. Groupthink may cause groups to make hasty, irrational decisions, where individual doubts are set aside, for fear of upsetting the group’s balance. The term is frequently used pejoratively, with hindsight.
Now that you have a basic understanding of groupthink, let's re-examine the structure of national political parties. They are, in essence, a fraternity of politicians schooled in the principles of the structure. This structure supports the apparatus used to achieve political goals. It does not necessarily exist along ideological lines since those ideologies can change over time. It must, however, adapt to these changing ideologies and continue to work toward the party's electoral victories.
I believe that the Republican Party is wallowing in structural groupthink. The political machinery is driven by the age-old process of trading "chits" and no longer knows how to adapt to the ideology of its party members, much less the electorate. How else do you explain the disdain shown toward such up-and-coming politicians like Sarah Palin? Sarah Palin has done nothing to warrant such treatment by her own political party. What she has done is challenge the status quo of the party machinery by her appeal to the party base.
The Republican Party does not know what to do with a candidate that has such an appeal at the grassroots level. It didn't know what to do with the appeal of Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan's strength was his ability to speak directly to the party base and, ultimately, build a broad majority among the electorate in general. The Republican Party did very little to elect Ronald Reagan. It was forced to finally get out of his way as he built up an organization that "trumped" the party bosses.
Nothing has changed in the Republican Party since the days preceding Reagan. The party is again being driven by the party bosses and their respective fiefdoms, all rolled together to form the Republican party leadership. The process of trading "chits" has re-established itself to the same result, one that maintains the structure at the expense of its members.
Sarah Palin must travel the same road as Reagan and she has precious little time to build an organization. She must counter the groupthink that lives in the Republican Party. She already has an ideology that appeals to the party base, as did Reagan, and I believe that we have not heard the end of her self-proclaimed "common-sense conservatism". If only the Republican Party could recognize its groupthink and see its salvation in a common-sense candidate from Alaska.