Do individuals have the unequivocal right to express their opinion through the voting booth or do competing loyalties bind them to the interests of political and social organizations?
In a pre-2016 America, rabid individualism seemingly would have led most citizens to assert their self-sovereignty by exercising conscience in the voting booth, but amidst the other disruptions to “politics as usual” which the turbulence of the 2016 presidential race has created is the question of the role of loyalty in electoral politics.
Among the earliest controversies of the Republican primary was Donald Trump’s refusal to pledge to support the eventual nominee in the event he did not win. His objections were grounded, quite rightly, in the idea that party membership was not a yoke on free thought, more evocative of Soviet party loyalty oaths, but an association between like-minded individuals united in the fight for a particular political vision. Yet, after winning the nomination, he relentlessly attacked members of the GOP who did not immediately support him.
The idea of party dissidents as traitors has continued to play a central role in the GOP throughout the election with the emergence of the conservative Never Trump movement which exists both within the electorate and among the officials, adding an extra dimension of uncertainty to the question of just how far party loyalty extends.
Most recently, an interview Reince Priebus, chairman of the RNC, gave in which he stated that party members who do not support Trump may not receive party resources for re-election have drawn further attention to the role party loyalty plays in how votes will be cast come November., as did reports that George H. W. Bush will vote for Hillary Clinton.
Implicit in all these news items is the omnipotent frame of social duty, which modern life has made a constant and all-reaching mediator. Speech, regardless of whether it be literal or symbolic, is not simply a matter of individual conscience. New media may have risen as a symbol for completely freeing individual expression, but it also comes with strings attached. Speech and action do not exist in a vacuum; they have purpose and directionality, meaning they must act through and upon something exterior to the self. Modern discourse is not unlike social contract theory. There are natural rights which each man possesses, but these are separate from the ability to exercise them equitably in the civic sphere. The omnipresent mediation which modern discourse requires is like a digital version of natural law.
But, since the individual, wishing to participate in public discourse, cannot extricate himself from the web of cause and effect, one must act how this impacts voting behavior.
Does the vote belong to the individual or to the individual as a member of a self-selected voting bloc? Parties do provide services, both for their constituents, whose interests they lobby for, and for their members, whom they aid during elections. It is quite reasonable, then, for parties to expect loyalty and support in return. But where is the line between a unity which promotes the foundational values of party membership and one which simply promotes the prestige and power of the party for its own sake? This is not a matter of irrelevance, as that line represents legitimate dissent.
Some might argue that this issue is nothing more than the inevitable end of the “mischiefs of faction” which James Madison and George Washington augured against. And it would be hard to blame them for holding this view, seeing how completely this election has upended the established order.
However, while Madison may have had a distaste for politicking, he saw only two ways to eradicate it- either to stifle liberty or to create a society of uniform opinion. Both he ultimately rejected, but the latter in particular he reviled, writing in Federalist 10, “The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.”
Opinion, therefore, must first and foremost be seen as intellectual property, the most intimate and private of possessions a man can have. Parties which men join of volition may attempt to regulate how opinions are expressed, but they cannot dictate the ability of men to think freely. This is a distinction which is missing from the current debate raging within the GOP over whether party members have a right of conscience in terms of voting for or against a nominee they find distasteful. But it is of the utmost importance.