Could the Republican Party, like the Whigs in the 1850s, be splitting apart?
American history tells us that political parties do, on occasion, die. Today’s political drama reminds me of another party that went through a similar crisis more than 150 years ago: the Whigs.
The Whig Party was formed by Henry Clay, partly in opposition to President Andrew Jackson. The Whigs objected to Jackson’s abuses of presidential power and even called him “King Andrew”. The charge sounds kind of like today’s tea party Republicans railing against President Obama’s use of executive orders to go around Congress. And like modern Republicans, the Whigs were demonized by their opponents for supposedly supporting the interests of big business and the wealthy.
The Whigs weren’t a fringe party. They elected four presidents, and won nearly half of all gubernatorial elections in the 1840s. But it didn’t take long for internal disagreements on the issue of slavery to begin to tear the party apart. The Compromise of 1850, which addressed the expansion of slavery into new territories, infuriated abolitionist Whigs so much so that they managed to block President Millard Fillmore from getting his own party’s nomination for reelection. The split handed the presidency to Democrat Franklin Pierce.
Today, it seems like a similar thing is happening with Republicans. What, exactly, does the GOP stand for? Since Ronald Reagan, Republican rhetoric has defended free enterprise, fiscal responsibility and constitutional limits on government power. But the growing gap between Republican political rhetoric and their actual performance in office seems to have finally fractured that voting coalition. Should Republicanism be about limited government, and economic and personal liberty? Or will Donald Trump’s splenetic populism, the kind that embraces protectionism and the aggressive use of executive branch interventions into market decisions, represent a new political coalition?
There are a lot of reasons why the two major political parties are losing their ability to control the behavior of voters. Technology and social media have given voice to the real diversity of citizens’ opinions and preferences. Those differences were always there, but now the individual’s power to be different can more closely compete with the powerful tools available to party bosses. That means new political realignments can now happen at lightning speed.
This same dynamic has been roiling the Democratic Party as well, where 90’s relic Hillary Clinton continues to struggle against Bernie Sanders’ own brand of splenetic (socialist) populism. But the Democrats have always been better apparatchiks, falling into line behind the party’s nominee. Will they coalesce in 2016 against Donald Trump?
Liberty voters, the ones that once made up the core of the Grand Old Party, are now politically homeless. Will they migrate to the Libertarian Party, or will a new political platform for constitutional conservatism emerge?
Meanwhile, the Republicans whig out. As Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican President, once said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”