12/25/2013 03:58 pm ET Updated Feb 24, 2014

The Republicans and the Radical Minority

As 2014 begins, the Republican party faces another year of intraparty warfare, with Tea Partiers and other conservatives, along with their wealthy backers, vowing to continue their war on moderate and establishment Republicans, who are promising to fight back aggressively. As both parties should have learned by now, these kind of intraparty fights, initiated by a radical minority, generally have more losers than winners, with the nation itself often in the loser column.

Recent examples include the Goldwater debacle in 1964 for the Republicans and the McGovern trouncing in 1972 for the Democrats. While there is an argument that these disasters -- the result of intraparty warfare -- ultimately strengthened the political parties, it can also be argued that these elections represented serious setbacks for the nation by weakening the opposition party and loosening the restraints on the majority party. And there is one overwhelmingly tragic example of intraparty warfare that was devastating for the nation and which led directly to the bloodiest conflict in American history -- the Civil War.

As the country approached the presidential election of 1860, the nation was deeply divided, but so was the Democratic party, which consisted of factions from the slaveholding South and more moderate Democrats from the Midwest and Northeast. In April, 1860, the Democrats gathered for their convention in Charleston, South Carolina, a hotbed of pro-slavery sentiment. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, a moderate Democrat who supported the Missouri Compromise, which permitted territories to choose whether they would be slave or free, was the leading contender for the nomination.

However, a sizeable pro-slavery faction rejected Douglas, proclaiming that he was not sufficiently pro-slavery. Led by Alabama Congressman William Yancey, who denounced Douglas as a "traitor," the pro-slavers drafted a party platform that endorsed the Dred Scott decision and called for legislation to protect slavery. When the moderate Democrats rejected the platform, the pro-slavery delegates walked out. This effectively shut down the convention, which later re-convened in Baltimore and nominated Douglas.

While this might have been viewed as a defeat for the pro-slavery faction, it was in fact the goal that they hoped for. Their plan was to splinter the Democratic party -- whose nominee was highly favored to win the White House -- and thus provoke the secession of the Southern states. The favored Republican nominee was New York Governor William Seward, who held strong anti-slavery views. If the Democratic party split and Seward was elected, it would boost the pro-slavery faction's hopes for secession.

As they went to their convention in May of 1860, the Republicans understood the scheme of the pro-slavery Democrats, and ended up passing over Seward and nominating the more moderate Abraham Lincoln in hopes of averting a full-scale confrontation. However, Yancey and his cohorts were in no mood to compromise, and managed to convince most Southerners that any Republican, even the moderate Lincoln, was out to destroy their way of life.

In fact, Yancey and his supporters had argued that Southern secession would be a peaceful transition. In his fine chronicle of the period, Year of the Meteors, author Douglas R. Egerton describes the optimism of the Southern secessionists, very few of whom expected war. He quotes one Southern firebrand as saying "You may slap a Yankee in the face and he'll go off and sue you, but he won't fight." They were, of course, very wrong.

While we are unlikely to face another civil war in the current climate of cultural and political warfare, it is worth bearing in mind that extreme minority factions can do serious damage to the nation as a whole when they pursue a strategy of burning down the political house in hopes of building a new one.

In another fine historical book, The Great Debate, Yuval Levin outlines the intellectual debate between Edmund Burke, who advocated a practical, middle road for social change, and Thomas Paine, who believed in more radical action for change. For Republicans especially, since they consider themselves the intellectual heirs to the Burke tradition, it is worth paying attention to the risks of succumbing to the schemes of a radical minority.