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, 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.
But there are limits as well. The demise of the Federalist Party had as much to do with contingent events as it did with its failure to adjust to a new world of mass politics. Federalist opposition to the War of 1812 against Britain, for example, might have paid political dividends if not for Gen. Andrew Jackson’s victory in the Battle of New Orleans, which made him a war hero and gave President James Madison political capital to spare. Even the favorable end of a popular war might not have been so disastrous for the party had New England Federalists not tried to secede from the union.
The Federalists also faced important structural obstacles, chief among them the three-fifths compromise, which gave partial representation to enslaved Americans. And as the number of slaves increased in the South, so too did the region’s weight in the Electoral College. The party that won the South would likely win the presidency, and so it was with the Democratic-Republicans, who beginning with Thomas Jefferson would win six straight elections, knocking the Federalist Party out of national political competition by 1820, when James Monroe ran for reelection unopposed.
The Republican Party does not have that structural disadvantage. Just the opposite: Its rural and exurban character gives it a powerful asset in an electoral system in which the geography of partisanship plays a huge part in the party makeup of Congress. Republicans can win total control of Washington without ever winning a majority of votes, an advantage that the Federalists, for example, would have killed for.
There are limits to the Whig analogy as well. It wasn’t slavery alone, but slavery in tandem with other pressures and weaknesses that pulled the party apart. In the face of Catholic immigration from Germany and Ireland, for example, northern Whigs played to the nativist sentiments of their Protestant constituents, pushing foreign-born and Catholic Americans into the Democratic Party and closing an important avenue for growth in a closely divided electorate.
As the Whig coalition deteriorated in the 1840s under stress from election defeats, sectional conflict and the growth of third parties like the Know-Nothings, it turned to charismatic figures like Zachary Taylor. A veteran of the Mexican-American War, which many Whigs opposed, Gen. Taylor would lead the party to victory in the 1848 presidential election. But as a cipher with no previous political experience, his win only papered over the fierce, factional disputes that would explode in the wake of his death in office in the summer of 1850.
As much as you can see some of these dynamics within the present-day Republican Party, there’s also nothing comparable to the division and factionalism that tore the Whigs apart. A rump faction of the discontented notwithstanding, the official Republican Party is united behind Donald Trump and his anti-voting agenda.
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.