The G.O.P. Isn’t Going to Split Apart Anytime SoonHistorians in the News
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, political history, Party System
There is no rule that says American political parties can’t die, and there was a time when it was quite common.
And not just in the 19th century either. The first decades of the 20th century, for example, saw the rise and fall of the Socialist Party, with Eugene V. Debs at its head. The short-lived Progressive Party came to life as a platform for the revived presidential ambitions of Theodore Roosevelt, and the Populist Party swept through much of America in the last years of the 19th century as a vehicle for the interests of farmers and laborers.
The long list of now-defunct American political parties includes the Greenback Party, the Know-Nothing Party, the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party, the Anti-Masonic Party and the National Republican Party. And then, of course, there are the Federalist and Whig parties, which came to power and then fell into decline during the first and second generations of American democracy.
Writing in The New Yorker this week, the historian Jelani Cobb sees, in the present day Republican Party, some of the same challenges and contradictions that drove past parties, and the Federalists and Whigs in particular, to extinction:
The Federalists collapsed because they failed to expand their demographic appeal; the Whigs because of internal incoherence over what they stood for in the nation’s most crucial debate. Among the more striking dynamics of the Trump-era Republican Party is the extent to which it is afflicted by both of these failings.
There are ways in which I think this comparison works. Like the Federalists then, the Republican Party now is struggling to reorient itself to a new era of mass politics, its reinvention held back by its aging white base. Rather than broaden their appeal, many Republicans are fighting to suppress the vote out of fear of the electorate itself. And just as the Whigs struggled internally and failed to forge a cross-sectional compromise over slavery, the Republican Party does risk fracturing over its commitment to democracy itself.
There is a lot to learn from Cobb’s essay, and I recommend that you read it. But perhaps, if there is an analogy to make to the 19th century, it does not lie with the Federalists or the Whigs as much as it does the Democratic Party of the 1850s, with its structural advantage in federal elections, its ideologically aligned majority on the Supreme Court and its fervid base, whose acute grievance and bottomless paranoia pushed the party to nihilistic extremes.
Of course, when that Democratic Party finally went too far, it plunged the country into the worst, deadliest crisis of its history. Let us hope, then, that that particular resemblance is only superficial.
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