Bryan Caplan  

Some Questions About Partisan Expulsion

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Suppose you're an embarrassment to your political party.  In many countries, your party can formally expel you.  This serves three functions. 

First, damage control.  The fact that your party expelled the embarrassment mitigates your guilt-by-association. 

Second, prevention.  After you're expelled, your future behavior will bring little further shame to your former associates. 

Third, deterrence.  The fact that parties can expel embarrassments gives members an incentive to watch their mouths and control their behavior.

As far as I can tell, however, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have the power to expel members.  Which raises some questions.

1. Is it strictly true that Democrats and Republicans cannot expel party members?  Or are there procedures they never (or almost never) use?

2. If expulsion were an option, who would the Democrats expel?  Who would the Republicans expel?

3. How would this change the style of American politics?

4. Would it have any effect on actual policy?

Please show your work.

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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Duncan Earley writes:

In Australia the two main parties can expel members. We have the Labour party (left wing) and Liberal party (right wing). Both parties vote as a block and any members that don't get kicked out. There is very little negotiation between parties so whoever has a majority gets their policies enacted. So based on what its like in Oz I would expect:

Democrats would over time become filled will more union bosses or people linked to unions. They would move more to the left on workers rights and more to the right on immigration and the environment.

Republicans would move to center because that is the only way they could win majorities. They basically would spend their time in power reversing out what ever the Democrats did while they had control.

You would also expect to see third parties that focus on particular issues (The Green party in Oz) as well as independents win seats, particularly in the senate.

Brent writes:

Eric Cantor?

Kurtis writes:

It would seem that the parties would have to adhere to more stringent membership requirements before considering expulsion. One can be a very liberal Republican, or, a conservative Democrat.
If the criteria is embarrassment, that too, would tie into credentials, or lack thereof. Few people in politics lose their jobs for grievous errors, with the possible exception of Chuck Hagel (R) who was not liked within his own party and often voted with the opposition, (I might comment that he was prone to say foolish things, but that hardly made him unique.) He was expelled by process of elevation. That seems to be the way in the American political process.

jure writes:

The most striking difference between american and our european party model is that party members in europe have much more aligned and uniform views. Non-conformity is quickly met with expulsion or marginalisation. Case: previous german PM Schroeder moderately liberalized labour market- he was and is totally marginalized by fellow socialists. Clinton for example is far more liberal-in real sense, but he is still a democratic hero. That explains us thtat american dual party system has longer party tradition because democrats and reps are so flexible and attract many different political views, that there is simply no demand for newer parties. Democrat in us can be for capitalism or against it, can be for or anti immigration, can be bluedog democrat, conservative democrat etc. And rep can be rockeffeler bloomberg republican, ron paul rep or mike huckabee rep.

Expulsions in us would result in plural party instead of dual party domination.

Tracy W writes:

I remember the story of a US senator, having come across the British parliament's term of "conscience votes", asking "well what do they vote with the rest of the time?"

Shane L writes:

In Ireland a number of politicians were expelled from the largest party, Fine Gael, last year. They had mostly voted against a bill on abortion that was backed by Fine Gael. I gather members of parliament usually conform to the party whip, however, and such rebellion is pretty rare.

Handle writes:

There are lots of ways parties can impose discipline on members. One way to is to ensure you never get a cosponsor for a bill, and never get a nice position of subcommittee.

Another way is that a lack of respect and friendly influence amongst your peers will cause your future job prospects in the politically-connected / lobbying industries to dry up. Why would I hire you as a lobbyist if you were disliked / shunned and have no pull?

But mainly, if the party refuses to support you financially, either directly through their national committees or indirectly by convincing major PACs and donors to withhold support, or even to help opponents, then you are going to have a very hard time getting off the ground, or going past one term even in the rare circumstance like Brat barely unseating Cantor during a perfect storm of illegal immigration news.

Tom West writes:

Of course, expelling members with extreme views has to be tempered with the fact that supporters of fringe views are often the ones that do the most work for a party.

The median voter is barely likely to care enough to vote, let alone volunteer, and those voters who are passionate enough to volunteer time and money are likely to either attribute extreme views of the opposition party (best case) or hold extreme views themselves.

I see politics is often the balancing of your mainstream public views with enough hints to placate your more extreme supporters who are doing much of the work.

Paul Bogle writes:

In much of the world individuals are obliged to pay membership fees or dues to their party in return for formal membership. Since membership is transactional it can be revoked. In the USA party affiliation seems to be nothing more than a matter of self-identification.

Josiah writes:

You can't be formally expelled from the Republican or Democratic parties in the contemporary United States because nominees are selected through contested primaries.

In many countries, the decision about who is nominated for a particular office is made by the party itself. In PR systems, for example, people are elected based on their place on a party list. Even in Westminster style systems it's typically the local party that selects its candidate.

By contrast, in the U.S. anyone can run for the nomination to be the candidate of a party for a particular office, and if they win then they are the candidate. During the recent Texas primary, for example, one of the candidates for U.S. Senate in the Democratic primary was a self-described "LaRouche Democrat" who claimed that if elected she would impeach President Obama for his "genocidal crimes." Clearly this is the sort of person the Democrats would expel if they could. Yet she made it into the run-off, and if she had won, she would've been the Democratic nominee, and there would be little the party could've done about it.

Back in the 19th century, when parties had more control over who was nominated, you did see the parties expel people. President John Tyler, for example, was expelled from the Whig party for opposing a national bank.

Maximum Liberty writes:


My unvalidated belief is that the Congressional Republicans tend to push out members with ethical problems more readily than the Congressional Democrats do.


Jay writes:

@Maximum Liberty

I think that is less anything inherent to the party and more because the Rep's have to due to media coverage. Not crying bias, but it is hard to argue the media doesn't concentrate on Rep's more for ethical scandals than Dem's (recent example, see coverage of Bridge-gate versus Bengazi or IRS).

CWuestefeld writes:

I think that the procedural rules in the US, relating to the way majority parties control the agenda, and seniority applies to committees, and so on, make party size in office extremely important.

So in order to maintain power in the House or Senate, a party would be willing to put up with a lot of nonsense rather than expel a member and lose a body, or his seniority.

Maximum Liberty writes:


You could be exactly right. As I think through possible explanations, several come to time, all of which might be susceptible to some level of proof or disproof.

a. Republicans push out unethical Congressmen faster because Republicans are just better people than Democrats. [Conflicts with my priors about all politicians, so probably worth testing, but I can't see how to.]
b. Republicans push out unethical Congressmen faster because they run more frequently on character issued. [More consistent with my priors than (a) is. Tough to test.]
c. Republicans push out unethical Congressmen faster because the media is harder on them. [Somewhat consistent with my priors. Should be pretty easy to test.]
d. Republicans push out unethical Congressmen faster because they falsely but genuinely believe that the media will be harder on them. [Consistent with my priors. Difficult to disentangle from (c).]
e. Republicans push out unethical Congressmen faster because of some odd historically created institutional factor. [I don't know what this would be, but I can see a field in which I'm probably woefully ignorant. Suppose that the Republican House caucus vets its members somehow. I don't know enough to say whether this would be testable.]
f. My observation is just wrong and Republicans don't actually push out unethical Congressmen faster. [Certainly could be true.]


Carl writes:

The Arlington county Democratic Party expelled Libby Garvey for opposing a Democrat in a recent special election.

Anonymous writes:
1. Is it strictly true that Democrats and Republicans cannot expel party members? Or are there procedures they never (or almost never) use?

I don't think they can expel members. I know there was a Supreme Court case where the Court applied the equal protection clause to the Democratic Party, (at the time the party was trying to exclude black people from voting in primaries). If the 14th Amendment applies to political parties, so should the 1st, which would effectively ban viewpoint discrimination by political parties.

2. If expulsion were an option, who would the Democrats expel? Who would the Republicans expel?

Short answer, anyone who would make the party less appealing to the median voter. Todd Akin would have been expelled if the Republican Party had the chance. Same for Goldwater in 64.

3. How would this change the style of American politics?

Politicians need to run to the political extreme during the primary, and to the center during the general election. If the major parties could control who was allowed to run, the parties would ensure that only moderate politicians were allowed to run for office.

4. Would it have any effect on actual policy?

Yes, but it would be hard to know how in advance. Generally, I would expect less gridlock and more bipartisan cooperation between moderates.

~FR writes:

David Duke.

He ran as both a Democrat and Republican. He was 'repudiated' and denounced by both parties.

I think that in some states anyone may run in a primary for either party if they get enough signatures to get on the ballot.

So the answer to no.1 is a qualified yes; the National Parties cannot prevent someone from running in a primary in states where party 'machines' cannot block them. If they win (or force a runoff) drama ensues.

Adam Casey writes:

The question is what effect would withdrawing the whip have on sitting politicians (from your town council to a senator), and what effect would public expulsion have on non-elected members of the party (ie the voters in closed primaries).

The first case: Withdrawing the whip means that in that session the member has lots more freedom, but much less influence. For those looking for re-election it's much more dramatic. You go from being a party member with all the party behind you to being bared from the primary and having to run as an independent.

This would be very rarely used in practice. But the outcome would be so awful that it should be powerful. If there's a much more clear way for the party to tell the naughty boys off then suddenly the party is able to have a much more clear definition of what a naughty boy is. Ie you'd expect an actual party position rather than just a bunch of different people's views. Or at least you would on issues where any one position could command a good fraction of the electorate.

The second case could be really very dramatic in some smaller contests. What happens if the Springfield republican party kick out all the tea party members before a primary for a local election? You'd either kill the tea party then and there or force it to register as a legitimate third party. And once there's a Spingfield branch and a Greenville branch and a .... suddenly the parties dont look so monolithic.

To stop this you'd need much stronger central party control over the local branches to "keep it all in the family".

In sum I expect the result would be more consistency and centralisation of the parties. (Which as a brit: is not a part of our system you should be too keen to emulate. That way lies executive capture of the legislature.)

Jake Witmer writes:

Interestingly, the LP has a "litmus test" that allows it to plausibly claim post-media-frenzy expulsion of its members. For example: Timothy McVeigh joined the LP. Then, he let his membership lapse. But when he joined, he signed a pledge that indicated that he didn't "support the use of force to achieve political ends."

Therefore, when he (allegedly by himself) blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma,
1) Plausibly: "He was no longer a libertarian the second he began pursuing violence to achieve his political ends."
2) His membership had lapsed, therefore, he was no longer a member (and presumably no longer the same idealistic believer in electoral politics that he was when he was a card-carrying Libertarian).

Neverminding the problem with these flimsy defenses, the LP has at least some method for "damage control" or "expulsion." (The media bought the LP's explanation that McVeigh wasn't really a Libertarian due to his violation of "the pledge.")

(As for "flimsy defenses": Is defending one's own life with violence acceptable? Is warfare ever acceptable to defend one's individual rights? Do Americans legitimately have more to fear from the ATF, say, burning up a local church full of innocent people, or do they have more to fear from foreign terrorists? If so, then the "realistic threat of force" is the ATF insignia on their uniforms, and McVeigh was simply retaliating, albeit sloppily and without much careful or politically-savvy targeting of the actual guilty parties. However, what do we say of our own military that targets terrorists sloppily causing accidental murder / "collateral damage"? We applaud them. So, the standards of the media and the LP are flimsy and self-contradictory, as are most human-conformist status quo "ideas.")

In any event, the Ds and Rs have no such mechanism, but they have procedural mechanisms for de-facto expelling candidates:
1) Making participation in primaries difficult for those who are not status quo
2) Raising the barrier to entry to those who lack spare money (and the corresponding lack of ability to purchase organizational savvy / sophistication)

The only principle this prevents is embarrassment, since those with power are respected, and emulated, and hence, not an embarrassment: even if their politics are identical to Joseph Stalin's.

The Ds and Rs are structured to succeed at surviving, and they survive by preying mercilessly upon the ignorant, uninvolved, and apathetic. So, they really have no need of kicking anyone out. Also, they rarely need to kick anyone out, because sociopaths have an interest in "covering for each other" so long as nobody threatens their game. Since the Ds and Rs are the same team, in reality, this means that they have little to fear in terms of actual opposition. (The ballot access restrictions are designed to set the bar too high for incremental success to overcome it. For example, it's 5 times harder to put the state slate of the IL LP on the ballot than it is to put the state slate of the Ds and Rs on the ballot in IL. However, it's 10 times harder to put a "new party" candidate on the ballot for congress in IL, than it is to put a D or R candidate on the ballot for congress.)

As for true monsters of Ds and Rs? ...You get kicked out by default, if you don't help the cause of parasitism: you starve. You lose primaries. People give you the cold shoulder, and don't attend your fundraising parties.

Since the D and R parties serve no principle other than "maximize theft" there is also no reason to kick anyone out. Nothing is embarrassing, except failure. Failure tends to kick itself out, and every other kind of shameless behavior is tolerated and even championed. Those who get caught screwing kids, or doing something too embarrassing for ongoing political survival are "demoted" and socially ostracized for costing the parties money, but there is no mechanism for kicking them out, per se, other than the criminal sanction that disallows someone from being registered as a voter (or otherwise participating).

Party affiliation determines ballot access in several states, and one's "party affiliation as a registered voter" is a matter of state record, in Arizona and Alaska, for example.

Interestingly, this indicates a strategy whereby the Libertarian Party could dominate the other parties, simply by obeying the laws of network organization, and playing on incremental success in recruitment.

Too bad they're too stupid to follow that path.

...But I digress.

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