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.


Filed under Politics


  1. I think the real danger to the Republican party lies not in the candidacy of Donald Trump but in their inability (or unwillingness) to understand the will of their constituents. In my opinion, the support for Trump is less about supporting Trump and more about rejecting the “establishment” status quo. Reagan famously said that he didn’t leave the Democrats, but the Democrats left him. You rightly said that Republicans have been able to see gains in almost every category, but voters are feeling betrayed by the Republican’s reluctance to keep their promises. This, if not acknowledged and corrected by the current Republican leadership, will sound the death knell for the Republican party as we know it no matter who wins the eventual nomination.

  2. Trump has captured something. I think more than anything else he captures the frustration of many voters, not just those who identify as Republicans. His “tell it like it is” rhetoric resonates even it doesn’t with fact checkers. His only misstep has been with not re-repudiating David Duke the next day. He had done it the day before and then said a faulty earpiece led to his ambiguous response the next day. He should have re re-repudiated Duke immediately instead of doing it again the next day. Is this gotcha journalism, a masked message to racists (as some said Reagan gave when he visited Mississippi at one point in his campaign), or really do to a faulty earpiece with a tired candidate. I am tired of those who claim they are the purest conservative. Really who cares, it’s a label. Much more relevant is who has the best ideas and polices to further the country.

    Trump is sort of a master at this. Whether his policies will work or are even workable is another question. But he doesn’t disqualify ideas out of hand because they may not be “conservative.” His saying he would not fund Planned Parenthood because they fund abortions is also interesting because it is always preceded by a litany of the great work it does outside of the abortion area. One can almost see the deal in the making. Spin off the abortion component of Planned Parenthood, so Trump’s Administration can fund the non-abortion component.

    In a lot of ways, Trump is less scary than Cruz who makes a shrine of his refusal to make deals. I’m not sure how “my way or the highway” is helpful to anyone. How will anything get done? Reagan made deals. They may have had a conservative bent, but they were deals.

  3. Milton Morris

    Will Democrats become the “New Totalitarian Party”? It would seem so, judging from the direction it’s been moving.

    Plus, the name “Democrat” is connected to slavery, white supremacy, the Black Codes & Jim Crow laws, & the Ku Klux Klan.

    People felt that it was time to take the Confederate flag off the Capitol in South Carolina. Isn’t it time to do the same with the name of the “Democrat Party”? The name is a sad reminder of its filthy & immoral past.

    Wouldn’t changing the name of the Democrat Party be the decent thing to do?

  4. Stefan Stackhouse

    The US political system is predisposed to favor two major parties, but there is nothing engraved in stone that says that either the present Republican or Democratic parties must forever be those two parties. The deck could be shuffled, and perhaps it is time that it was.

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