House Speaker Paul Ryan faces a choice.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg

Weighing the Cost of Loyalty to Trump

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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You're a Republican elected official, former official or behind-the-scenes operator. You think Donald Trump is a potential disaster for the party and the nation. So what do you do?

You could simply exit, throwing your support behind likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or rallying around a third-party candidate.

You could exercise your voice, although the options there are limited now that Trump has the nomination in the bag. One possibility is to endorse Trump publicly in hopes that you can influence his behavior behind the scenes. Another is to refuse to endorse him without endorsing anybody else -- a choice that falls just short of an exit.

Either of these variants may seem somewhat pointless unless you consider the workings of party loyalty. Actively abandoning the GOP might bring long-term consequences -- such as exclusion from future party deliberations -- that behind-the-scenes nudging or even passive abandonment would not.

You can find examples of all the above choices in the news these days. They also happen to be the subject of a classic little book by the late, great economist Albert O. Hirschman, which is worth reexamining in light of recent events.

Hirschman's "Exit, Voice, and Loyalty," published in 1970, has since become a touchstone for pretty much every social science except economics. As indicated by the book's subtitle, "Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States," Hirschman meant for his model to apply in lots of different contexts (some of which I have written about before). But the political party -- in Hirschman's words, "that somewhat rare bird, an organization where both exit and voice play important roles" -- was at the heart of his argument.

This argument was in part a critique of an influential economic model of political-party behavior. A 1929 paper by economist/statistician Harold Hotelling and then a 1956 book by economist Anthony Downs posited that parties were vote-maximizing machines, and that in a two-party system they would move toward the center to capture more votes. Wrote Hirschman:

The success which this elegant model has had, particularly among political scientists, is matched only by its failure to predict correctly the actual course of events.

The Republican Party's choice of sure-to-lose self-proclaimed extremist Barry Goldwater as its presidential nominee in 1964 "testified to the extreme reluctance of at least one party to conform to the Hotelling-Downs scenario," Hirschman wrote. In a follow-up paper in 1980 he said the Democrats' nomination of George McGovern in 1972 similarly did not fit the vote-maximization model.

Yes, there are times when the Hotelling-Downs model does seem to apply: the Eisenhower Republicans of the 1950s and the Clinton Democrats of the 1990s successfully moved toward the center to capture votes. Republican primary voters' choice of Trump is a move away from conservative GOP positions on trade, government spending and overseas military intervention -- although Trump's policy choices are so ill-defined that it's not really clear what it's a move toward. He's clearly not the guy party strategists would have picked to maximize their chances in November.

All of which leaves Republicans who think Trump is a terrible choice weighing the merits of exit, voice and loyalty.

Exit is what economists focus on -- if you no longer like a product you stop buying it, and if you don't like the direction of a political party you stop supporting it. Voice is the traditional realm of political scientists. Loyalty is sociology, I guess, although Hirschman never defines it quite as clearly as the other two.

All this is just a framework for thinking about things, not a prescriptive model. Hirschman was always uncomfortable with telling people what to do. But there is one passage in his book that is pretty striking, given current events:

If voice is to be at its most effective, the threat of exit must be credible, particularly when it most counts. In American presidential politics this set of conditions for maximizing the effectiveness of voice means that a group of party members should be able to stay within the party up to the nominating convention and still be able to form a third party between the end of the convention and election time.

This year's Republican National Convention ends on July 21. Many states' qualifying deadlines for the presidential ballot come before that or not long after, meaning that they discourage dissidents from forming a third party. The early concessions by Trump's primary opponents have offered a longer window of opportunity, but nobody seems to be taking advantage of it. It's a missed opportunity for exit and voice.

  1. There's a big biography of Hirschman, published in 2013, that I highly recommend.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Susan Warren at susanwarren@bloomberg.net