The success of Donald Trump – until recently, a non-Republican – has caused panic in Republican Party ranks. Many are even wondering whether the Republican Party will survive. It may seem extraordinary that anyone could seriously entertain the notion of the Grand Old Party passing away. After all, since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Republicans have gained 69 seats in the House, 13 seats in the Senate, 12 governorships, and over 900 state legislature seats. Yet the possible death of the Party has become a popular topic among pundits.
History provides ample precedent for third parties dying or fading away. Ross Perot’s Reform Party, the Progressives, the Prohibitionists, the Socialists, the Know-Nothings—all enjoyed their moment in the electoral sun, amassing impressive vote tallies and influencing the major parties’ platforms, before disappearing or dissolving into irrelevancy.
But examples of a major party — one capable of electing presidents – dying are very rare.
The last one to do so was the Whig Party.
The Whig Party was organized to compete in the congressional elections of 1834, not so much to advance an agenda as to thwart one. The Whigs opposed the policies and politics of President Andrew Jackson. They dubbed him “King Andrew I.” They saw themselves as the anti-establishment party of the time, and called themselves “Whigs” to invoke the English party which traditionally strove to limit the power of the King.
The Whigs were an odd amalgam of interest groups. They included remnants of the defunct Federalist Party, states-rights Democrats, Northern manufacturers, and Southern planters. The Whigs nominated not one, not two, but three candidates in 1836, in the hope that the resulting split in the vote would somehow prevent Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, from retaining the White House. Just as the only common theme among the candidates at the Republican debates of this election season has been an abiding aversion to Barack Obama, the only common theme among the component parts of the Whig Party was hostility to Andrew Jackson.
The Whigs lost the presidential election in 1836, but they developed new tactics which enabled them to win the next two out of three presidential elections. In 1840 and 1848, they nominated war heroes, men with outsized reputations but little or no political experience: William Henry Harrison (known as “Old Tippecanoe”) and Zachary Taylor (“Old Rough and Ready”). Unfortunately for the Whig Party, and for the men themselves, Harrison and Taylor both died early in office. Their Vice Presidents, who had been selected solely for their electoral value rather than for their positions on any issues, were shunned by the Party and accomplished nothing of note.
The Whigs lost in 1852, and their fortunes rapidly declined thereafter. The main reason was the rise of a new party, a party that actually stood for something. That party was the Republican Party, and the issue on which it was founded was opposition to slavery. Whigs opposed to slavery joined the Republicans; most others gravitated back to the Democrats.
The Republicans fielded their first presidential candidate in 1856. He lost, but their next candidate, an Illinois lawyer and one-term Congressman named Lincoln, won. His victory marked the the beginning of the most remarkable winning streak in American political history. In the course of 72 years, the Republicans occupied the White House for 56 years, winning 14 of the next 18 elections.
Now that same Republican Party might do well to consider the experience of the Whigs.
Parties capable of electing presidents rarely expire, but it has happened, as it did to the Whigs. It can happen again. The main reason for the demise of the Whig Party was that it never stood for anything clear or definable. The Party was skilled at generating noise. It achieved political victories when it nominated celebrity war heroes. But its successes were never based on any solid platform of ideas. They were spectacular but ephemeral.
History suggests that the Republican Party will probably survive Donald Trump’s candidacy. But political survival is not a given. If nothing else, the experience of the Whig Party cautions that there is danger in foregoing ideology for animosity, and substance for bombast.