History doesn’t really repeat itself, at least in the sense of “re-enactment,” but there are historical cycles with striking resemblances. We really can learn from history–if we are open to pondering its lessons.
Because I think the past can illuminate the present, I found this article by a Brookings Institution scholar fascinating.
Philip Wallach looked at various pieces of evidence offered by November’s elections–the electoral dominance of the GOP, followed by dissent and disarray, and asked whether America might be on the cusp of a realignment:
A month-and-a-half into Trump’s presidency, however, the tensions are looking more overwhelming than manageable. Internecine fights between Republicans, about both the party’s biggest priorities and the president’s unprecedented persona, erupt into headlines daily. And so we find ourselves wondering: could the GOP coalition be impossible to hold together? Might we be witnessing the beginnings of a serious partisan realignment, perhaps even the end of the long era of Democrats vs. Republicans in federal politics?
Wallach proceeded to analyze this question by comparing today’s political landscape to a “neglected chapter in American history”: the downfall of the Whig Party from its peak in 1848 (the year its outsider candidate won the presidency and gave Whigs effective control of American government), to 1856, when for all intents and purposes, the party no longer existed.
That period featured surging nativism, profound uncertainty for both major parties, and a striking number of rhymes with our current political moment. Then, as now, the issues that provided the traditional lines of contestation between the two major parties were losing potency while new divisions were taking their place.
Wallach proceeds to enumerate the schisms within the GOP that might well lead to that party’s disintegration–the various factions rejecting Paul Ryan’s healthcare “reform,” similar disputes over tax policies, deep disagreement with Trump’s populist policies on trade, and concern over what Wallach delicately refers to as Trump’s “preoccupations” and “personality.” He then turns to the Democrats.
Although the GOP’s troubles are more vivid just now, Democrats are in some ways in just as serious a predicament. Insurgent populists and establishment neoliberals are deeply suspicious of each other and divided on where the party’s future lies, as was made apparent by the bitter fight over the DNC chairmanship.
What internal conflicts ultimately fractured and dissolved the Whigs? The most important was slavery, but there were also deep divisions over prohibition and the rise of anti-Catholic nativism. There had been a major influx of Catholic immigrants, especially German and Irish, and the “native” Protestant Americans, who tended to be Whig voters, accused these immigrants of “popery,” criticized their use of foreign languages, and decried their participation in “corrupt” urban political machines. (They also tended to drink demon alcohol.) A number of Whig politicians adopted virulently nativist positions as a way of energizing their base. (Sound familiar?)
Wallach identified a lack of leadership continuity as another reason the Whigs imploded:
As the party looked for a champion going into the presidential election of 1848, a majority of its members opted to put their trust in a man who had no political history in the party at all. General Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican War, seemed to be “a new Cincinnatus, a man who, like the revered Washington, stood above party.” There were even those who were enthusiastic about rebranding the party, abandoning the “Whig” label in favor of “Taylor Republicans.”
However, Taylor’s policies enraged a substantial number of Whig partisans, allowing the “Know Nothings” and others to step into the breach.
It is hard to exaggerate how rapid and widespread the expansion of Know-Nothingism was in the 1850s. Founded as the secret “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner” in 1849, Know-Nothings built up a vast hierarchical organization of lodges and established themselves as the dominant force in many parts of the country. Officeholders of both parties, but especially Whigs, found that their political fortunes depended on having themselves secretly inducted into the rapidly growing order. As long as Know-Nothings remained officially secret, they seemed to offer a kind of symbiotic relationship with the Whig Party rather than posing a direct threat. But members of the movement, active in both the North and South, soon desired a more public arm of their movement, leading to the founding of parties variously called “Native American,” “American,” or “American Union,” in 1854 and 1855.
I won’t belabor these parallels further (although I can’t resist comparing the Tea Party to the “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner”).
It may be that the American political structure–a structure that overwhelmingly privileges a two-party system– will end up saving both Republicans and Democrats in their present form, although not necessarily in their present, respective substances. But the parallels–and their implications– are worth pondering.
On the other hand, we may truly be in previously uncharted waters….