The last three weeks have seen some startling events occur in American politics–specifically within the Republican Party. It began when John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives since 2011, announced he was quitting Congress. Presumably he did so because falling on his sword was the only way he could prevent the House Freedom Caucus, a group of ultra-conservative representatives, from pressing for a government shutdown, which given the history that maneuver would be suicidal for the Republicans going into 2016. But since then it’s gotten even stranger, with no clear leadership ready to step up in the House; Kevin McCarthy, the presumed successor to Boehner, abruptly withdrew his name last week. Add to this the bizarre spectacle of the GOP Presidential campaign, with reality star and non-politician politician Donald Trump leading a very large and fractious group of fringe candidates, and a picture emerges not merely of a political party in severe crisis, but perhaps–and I just say perhaps–one that’s about to exit the stage of American history.
For the last couple of years now, watching Republican politics, I’ve been wondering if a true political realignment is happening in the United States. While it may still be too early to tell for sure, the events of this fall certainly do look like it. A political realignment, historically speaking, is where one (or both) of the parties in America’s traditional two-party system either changes fundamentally or ceases to exist altogether and is replaced by a different party with a different identity. Although this is an extraordinarily rare event in American history, it has happened. The last time was in the 1850s, when divisions over slavery caused the disintegration of the Whig Party, which was replaced by the Republican Party. Our two-party system has been Republicans vs. Democrats since that time. If the Republicans really are headed for an implosion, we will be witnessing something that hasn’t happened since before Abraham Lincoln sat in the White House.
The Compromise of 1850, which failed to prevent the Civil War, was the beginning of the end for the Whig Party.
The 1850s was a tumultuous decade for American politics, and in this sense the Civil War can be seen as the break that directly followed the political crisis at the national level. The Whigs were a party which emerged in the 1830s in opposition to President Andrew Jackson, championing a free market, industrialization, modernization and infrastructure. Between 1832 and its demise in the late 1850s the party elected two Presidents, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, and two other Whigs, John Tyler and Millard Fillmore, served as Presidents after succeeding to the office on the deaths of the other two. (John Tyler was actually expelled from the Whig Party while in the White House). But by the 1850s, when slavery and its various sub-issues were tearing the country apart, the Whig Party began to falter. Like the Democrats, its opposition, the Whigs had northern and southern wings who disagreed about slavery and its expansion into new territories the United States gained as a result of the Mexican War. In 1851, at the beginning of the 32nd Congress, the Whigs held 107 House and Senate seats. A decade later, at the outbreak of the Civil War, exactly zero members of Congress were Whigs. What happened?
Well, a couple of things happened. One of them was the Compromise of 1850, a complex package of five interrelated laws that were supposed to solve the issue of slavery, especially its expansion into new territories, at least for a while. Very contentious, the Compromise set northern and southern Whigs against each other, and the untimely death of Whig President Zachary Taylor (who opposed the Compromise) was very fortunate for its supporters, because his successor, Millard Fillmore, was in favor of it. Political grudges over the Compromise led Fillmore to be denied the Presidential nomination in 1852, and the Whigs went with Winfield Scott, who was utterly wiped out at the polls by Franklin Pierce, who went on to become our drunkest President. That same year, 1852, two founding members of the Whig Party, Senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, both died. Their personalities held the party together and without them the slavery issue simply overwhelmed any sense of party cohesion. By 1854 anti-slavery Whigs, mostly northerners, bolted the party for the new Republican Party, whose chief issue was preventing slavery from spreading to the territories. Fights over the Kansas-Nebraska Act further strained the party. Another faction joined the xenophobic American Party or “Know-Nothings,” dedicated to stopping Catholic immigration. The Whigs had simply ceased to exist.
Franklin Pierce won his election to the Presidency in 1852 largely due to the weakness of the Whig Party, which was then in the early stages of collapse.
Things weren’t that much better for the other party, the Democrats. Although they scored two Presidential wins in a row–1852 with Pierce, 1856 with Buchanan–and controlled Congress for most of this period, a ticking time bomb awaited them too. The Lecompton Constitution, an issue in Kansas involving (what else?) slavery, nearly wrecked the Democratic Party. Historian and religious blogger Padre Steve wrote a wonderful article about this just a few days ago–and also drew a parallel with what’s happening to the Republicans in 2015. Although the Democrats did not cease to exist as a party as the Whigs had done, the party splintered so badly that they couldn’t agree on one Presidential nominee in 1860, running a slate of regional candidates. In the face of this disunity the Republicans won their first presidential election, with Abraham Lincoln, which sparked the final breach: the secession crisis.
An in-depth diagnosis of what’s wrong with the Republican Party today would make for an article a lot longer than this one is going to be. Suffice it to say, the extremism and radicalization of the party–and what political scientists call “asymmetrical polarization”–has made the GOP incapable of handling the machinery of democratic government. All the signs are here. Congress can’t function at all, and it’s wholly because of Republican obstruction; now any House Republican who would actually step up to keep the government’s lights on fears being destroyed by the House Freedom Caucus, as John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy have been. On the Presidential side, the responsible candidates who could actually get something done have made little traction among Republican voters; none of the top three candidates, Trump, Carson and Fiorina, have the slightest experience in politics. Republican majorities in the House and at the state level are propped up solely by artificial means like gerrymandering of voting districts and voter suppression. The party’s policies on every major issue, from the economy to LGBT rights to climate change, are grossly out of step with the opinions of a majority of Americans. The Republican Party simply does not function anymore, and we may be past the point where its dysfunction is reparable.
John Boehner was the leader of a party that obstructed anything Obama did by definition, but his departure leaves no one on the Republican side that Obama can deal with–which will probably strengthen Obama.
So what happens going forward? Is the history of the Whig crack-up of the 1850s instructive here? I really don’t know, because we may be in uncharted waters, at least politically if not historically. If a major political realignment is happening, there’s going to be considerable chaos, politically speaking, for the next few cycles. Conservative-leaning voters who don’t support the Tea Party radicalism that has become mainstream really don’t have much representation in the party right now, just as northern Whigs who opposed slavery in 1854 found that their party had largely deserted them. Perhaps these people will vote Democrat in 2016, 2018 and 2020, if the Republicans haven’t fixed themselves by then, or perhaps there will be some sort of split, as there was in the 1850s, between factions of Republicans. Perhaps the name “Republican Party” will remain but the core of the party will change, most likely after a vicious political struggle that will be mostly of temporary benefit to Democrats. Perhaps the Republican Party literally will cease to exist and those who used to be Republicans will become something else, most likely more than one something else. Or there might be some other outcome we can’t foresee yet. It’s difficult to tell.
One way to think about the two-party system and political realignments is like a game of checkers. There are always two players, one red, one black, but they’re not always the same players. Red might get up and leave the table, and someone else might sit down in his or her place and begin playing the red side. That’s a political realignment. Or, the red player might leave the table and take a break for a few turns, letting black play unopposed before returning to the table; that has happened too, most notably in the 1810s and 1820s. Recent developments have led me to believe that the Republican Party is getting up and leaving the table. Will it eventually sit down and play, or will someone else sit down in the same chair? Only future history will tell us.