This week, Christians across the world observed Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, a time to prepare for Christ’s death and resurrection by recognizing and reflecting upon our own sinful natures and mortality. The ashes typically applied to our foreheads in the sign of the cross are a physical reminder of this, and of the solemn admonition from the Bible’s first book that we are dust — and to dust we shall return.
If I may venture downwards, from the sacred to the secular, this Lenten solemnity seems apposite when considering the future of the Republican Party, as many in the commentariat are now doing. For the GOP is in a Lenten season of its own, wallowing in the dust of a lost White House and Senate majority, sifting aimlessly through the ashes of a shriveled coalition at war with itself. Much of it might be mere wishcasting, but there is a genuine belief that the divisions within the party are so deep that there can be no reconciliation.
The Republican Party might very well be in its death throes.
I, for one, doubt it. Yes, Trump is the first president to lose Congress and the White House for his party within one term since Herbert Hoover. And yes, it takes a lot of mind-altering drugs to imagine the likes of Matt Gaetz and Ben Sasse coexisting in the same coalition together long-term. But let us not forget that Republicans actually gained down-ballot in 2020, and are certainly far better off than they were after Watergate or the 2008 election — the last two times the GOP was declared to be on the verge of extinction. Never mind the fact that the opposition party is determined to perform its best Marie Antoinette impression in the environmentally-pointless, job-killing closing of the Keystone pipeline project. (“Let them find other jobs!”)
Nevertheless, there is something rotten in the state of Denmark here, as Andrew Egger puts succinctly:
Over the past 167 years, the party has withstood the Civil War, rapidly shifting coalitions, and decades of Democratic control of Congress in the mid-20th century… But there’s a deep divide within the Republican Party — one that’s been building for years. It’s about Donald Trump, yes, but more so about the forces that brought him to power and sustained him once he got there: anti-institutionalism, grievance politics, negative partisanship, conspiratorial thinking, lies.
This toxic state of affairs might well be too much to overcome, and the reports of the Republican Party’s demise — reports that had been so greatly exaggerated before — might actually, finally be well-founded now.
Were that to be the case, it would complete a neat little bit of historical symmetry. To date, the United States has had such an ironclad two-party system that third parties have been like the alcoholic at the end of the bar — you know, the one who assures everyone else that they’re fools for believing we actually got to the moon. But once upon a time the Republican Party was itself a third party (actually a fourth, if I’m being pedantic), born and built amidst the ashes of one of the two major parties in the “Second Party System” of the mid-nineteenth century.
The Whigs had coalesced into a major political coalition in reaction to the election of Andrew Jackson. Comprised of old-fashioned Federalists and “National Republicans,” they supported the National Bank and a system of internal infrastructure improvement. What really defined them though — what served as their one, true unifying principle — was their opposition to the program and personality of Jackson.
Once “Old Hickory” left office, the Whigs were able to win majorities in congress — and even a few presidential elections — in the decades that followed, but most of those victories were more about the personality and popularity of those on the ticket than any coherent platform or program. Like the country at large, the party had no consensus whatsoever on the major issue of the day: slavery. Without Jackson around to keep them united in opposition, America’s “peculiar institution” tore the party apart at a slightly-more accelerated pace than it was tearing apart the country at large.
To fill the void, former-Whigs in the north and west began to organize in the 1850’s to establish a new coalition founded in stronger, more coherent antislavery principles. From this came the Republican Party, who, as Dan McLaughlin describes, “championed two complementary causes: opposing the expansion of slavery, and promoting the sale of land on the cheap to settlers in the West.”
This newfound set of clear first principles catapulted the party, and within a few short years positioned it to benefit from the Democrats’ own divisions on slavery and win the presidential election of 1860.
Immediately after that… Well, you know. (Hopefully…)
Over a century and a half later, the Republican Party is beginning to look a lot like the one it replaced when it was in its death throes. Whereas the Whigs of old were a reverse personality cult built in opposition to America’s seventh president, the Republicans of today have atrophied into a perverse personality cult built around America’s forty-fifth.
Extending the congruity further, with no core beliefs to bind them, and with Jackson leaving the scene, the Whigs had been steadily torn apart by the issue of slavery — just as the Republican Party is now at war with itself, also in the absence of its unifying personality, over the issue of whether it should deny reality or not about the 2020 election.
In the end, the Whigs were never able to pick up the pieces and rebuild a viable party. The Republicans of today…?
It’s a cliche to say that history repeats itself, as it is to say that history doesn’t repeat itself — it just rhymes. But it’s hard to deny, and I certainly don’t here, that there is at least a faint echo of historical rhythm between the decline and fall of the Whig Party circa 1850 and the Republican Party circa 2021.
I don’t think the Republican Party is going the way of the Whigs, but I could be wrong — it’s no longer implausible, just improbable. If they do join the them in the ashes of history, historians will be forgiven for looking back upon the demise of both and declaring that it was just a matter of history repeating itself.