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The Way of the Whig Party

10/14/2013 08:42 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Will Republicans go the way of the Whig Party? Well, we're not really going to answer that question in any meaningful way today, we're going to instead focus on the question itself. Because this question isn't really all that apt a parallel to draw in the first place. Most people today just use "go the way of the Whig Party" as an amusing way to say "disappear as a national political party." But a truer parallel to history would be to ask the question: "Will today's Republicans revert back to being the Whig Party?" Or, perhaps: "Will the Tea Party eventually go the way of the Whig Party?"

Whigs were born from political hatred, with a major conspiracy theory to help things along. One of the precursors to the Whig Party was the Anti-Mason Party of the 1820s. They were a one-issue bunch, organized against the conspiracy of Masons which they believed were running the United States government. To be fair to them, most of the leaders of the day (from all political beliefs) were indeed Masons. The Anti-Mason Party's first presidential candidate was even an ex-Mason -- showing how tough it was to find anyone in politics who was pure in their anti-Mason credentials.

But the unifying concept of the Whig Party of the 1830s was even more simple: an overriding hatred of President Andrew Jackson. Jackson, for all his flaws, was a strong and popular president, whose White House campaigns ushered in not just a new way of campaigning in American politics, but the second age of national political parties. Before Jackson won, there was only really a single party, as the Federalists had disappeared entirely by 1820. During the 1824 and 1828 elections, the factions were known by their leaders' names: both "pro-Jackson" and "pro-Adams" (John Quincy, that is).

After Jackson was elected, he was portrayed by his opponents (led by Henry Clay and, later, Daniel Webster) as an imperial president -- one anti-Jackson flyer called him "King Andrew I." This led his opponents to begin calling themselves "Whigs" (the earlier Whigs in America had been the anti-royalists, so the party name itself was an anti-Jackson joke or insult). The party didn't agree on much, but they did agree that pretty much everything Jackson did as president was wrong. This was the glue which kept a large number of very different factions together, in fact. Sound familiar? The defeat of Henry Clay in 1832 (when Jackson was re-elected) signified the real birth of the Whig Party.

The Whigs only lasted roughly two decades, though. Being anti-Jackson was fine for the 1830s, even after Jackson was replaced by his vice president Martin Van Buren. But once Whigs started actually winning office in the 1840s, the divisions within their ranks became too big to ignore. William Henry Harrison was the first Whig president, followed into office one month later (after his untimely death) by John Tyler -- who promptly vetoed the entire Whig economic plan. After losing the White House in the next election, in 1848 the Whigs again won with Zachary Taylor. But he was a war hero, and the Whigs had been anti-war (with Mexico) up to that point. Bad luck struck again when Taylor died in 1850, to be replaced by Millard Fillmore. Fillmore pushed the Compromise of 1850 through, which wound up destroying the Whig Party over the issue of slavery, among other things (the deaths of Clay and Webster in 1852 were also large factors). There was a brief period where the factions left over all formed their own parties (including the one-issue anti-immigrant "Know Nothings"), until the Republican Party would rise from the ashes, led by ex-Whig Abraham Lincoln.

Of course, it's easy to pick and choose when drawing historical metaphors. While there are similarities to today, the situation was quite different and the parallels are in no way perfect. The Whig/Democrat two-party system was preceded by a single-party system. The Whigs were not a faction of the Republicans, the Republicans started off as the northern faction of the Whigs. And the Democratic Party was also split asunder by the question of slavery at the same time, with Northern and Southern wings. At least at the beginning, the Whigs were no more than another personality-based party like the pro-Adams faction which preceded it, and might have been known today as the "pro-Clay" party if someone hadn't come up with the "Whig" joke. The Tea Party of today didn't form around one dominant person, although since then, several have had some degree of success at appearing to take its reins (Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Marco Rubio, and of course Ted Cruz all spring to mind, among others).

But similarities remain. The Tea Party has one thing that they all agree upon, almost religiously: everything Barack Obama does or stands for is wrong. This was the same motivating force behind the Whigs, except with Andrew Jackson's name in there instead. But instead of Tea Party factions disagreeing when they achieve power, we've got a different dynamic today. The Tea Party is the faction, and the Republican Party existed before they arrived. The question that anyone who uses the phrase "go the way of the Whigs" today is asking is who will remain in the future?

Will the Tea Party complete their takeover of the Republican Party? Will moderate Republican officeholders start fleeing to form a third party, become Independents, or even join the Democratic Party as a new "conservative Democrats" wing? Right now, the Tea Party seems to be riding high. They've got John Boehner dancing like a puppet, and are definitely pulling his strings backstage. They've got many of the older Republican politicians terrified of them (of being "primaried" by a Tea Party purist). Finally some older-school Republicans are speaking out against the Tea Party extremists, but it's been a timid sort of pushback so far.

The Tea Party doesn't have the numbers to dominate the Republican Party in Congress, but they are dominating them ideologically nonetheless. The tail is indeed wagging the dog, for all to see. But I can't help but wonder if the Tea Party's greatest triumph will lead to its downfall. If they complete their purge of the Republican Party and truly do get elected in numbers greater than the "establishment Republicans," then they may wind up in total control of the Republican Party, but it may be a much smaller party. Of course, as I said, I'm not going to predict the actual chances of this happening, but the possibility is worth exploring for the sake of argument.

There are other scenarios, of course. The Tea Party could lose so much support from the voters that "being primaried" no longer becomes a threat to sitting Republican politicians. If the extremism and single-mindedness of the Tea Party begins to be repudiated by the public -- so much so that politicians stop being proud of being called a "Tea Partier," say -- then perhaps the historical parallel will fit, but then the correct application will be: "The Tea Party went the way of the Whigs."

But if the ultimate Tea Party-domination of the Republicans does happen, the Tea Partiers would be in full control of the "Republican" brand, and it'll be a decidedly smaller tent than it was previously. As Tea Party extremism is shown in all its glory to the American voters, the Tea Partiers don't seem to care that they're turning a lot of people away from voting Republican. That's what purges are all about. The purity of the cause trumps all else -- up to and including actually getting elected.

But as a direct result of the Tea Party staking out ever-more-extreme positions, Democrats could start picking up seats in Congress. Old-school Republicans may give up on the GOP and attempt their own third-party or Independent group, which could split the vote in some very conservative districts and allow Democrats to win a general election. The Tea Party, freshly purged and pure as the driven snow, would likely be just as happy to be a vocal opposition in Congress rather than having all the problems which running a house brings. It's always easier to be in the minority than to govern, after all. You just have to be against stuff. Which the Tea Party excels at, of course.

This is why it is amusing when people say "the Republican Party could go the way of the Whigs." Because they're being more accurate than they know. Rather than just signifying the generic death of an American political brand, it also would signify a movement which is exactly the opposite of what happened in the 1800s. Rather than a party with an abiding hatred of the president being driven to its death by factionalism, only to see a much stronger national party with a solid platform emerge, what would happen today shuffles the deck in a different way. If the Tea Party captures the "Republican Party" brand completely, then we will see a strong national party with a solid platform be consumed by a faction of purists with not much more tying them together than an abiding hatred of the president. So, yes, the cycle will be complete, but not quite in the way people usually mean. The Republican Party will "go the way" of the Whigs, by becoming modern-day Whigs -- a party united in their opposition to what they see as an imperial president. It's a pretty sure bet that they'll be able transfer this hatred to President Hillary Clinton without much trouble, too.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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