If you are a fan of history, you are very familiar with the famous quote by Spanish philosopher George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The more we look at the developments of the 2016 U.S. Presidential General Election, the more it is eerily reminiscent of the U.S. Presidential Election of 1852. If we are in fact repeating the 1852 General Election (and if history is any type of indicator, we may be), it could prove to be the demise of the Republican Party.
Watching the Republican primaries this year has proven them to be one of the most divisive for the GOP on record. For many people the choice for the Republican nomination came down to choosing between two options. The first option had them voting for the candidate who has the “best chance of winning” against the Democratic candidate. The second option has them voting for a candidate who identifies himself as someone who stands for ideology, values and principles. Those who support the principled candidate are seen as foolish, and accused of sacrificing the future of the nation because they quixotically refuse to compromise their principles. This impassioned division has caused many Republicans (who self-identify as Conservatives or Constitutionalists) to question their support for the Grand Old Party. These individuals include the Republican Vice-Chair for the District of Columbia (who resigned his position to join the Libertarian Party), renowned political journalist George Will, former Nevada Lieutenant Governor Sue Wagner, Conservative radio commentator Steve Deace and managing editor of the Washington Examiner Philip Klein just to name a few. If prominent figures such as this are departing the Republican tent how many of the average people are following suit?
What reasons are many of these people giving as their reason for leaving the GOP? Numerous previously self-identified Republicans cite a perception of, “No longer being able to see an ideological difference between elected Republicans and elected Democrats”. When the Republican nominee is publicly voicing support for hot button topics such as supporting Planned Parenthood, the securing of the border as being a “negotiable starting point”, supporting an increase in minimum wage, depriving American citizens of their Constitutional rights due to their religion and in general compromising the documented planks of the Republican platform, it is understandable why these individuals are having difficulty distinguishing one party from another.
It is almost as if the Republican leadership are approaching the election from the theory of, if the party move closer to the middle of the socio-political spectrum, they will be more appealing to a wider percentage of the American population and subsequently increase their chances of getting elected. Unfortunately, this theory has also caused many long-time Republican supporters to feel as though the party has abandoned many of the things the party has long stood for.
This brings us to our history lesson. If we look back at the election of 1852, we see many of the same divisions except within a different political party. During the 1852 election the two major political parties were the Democrats and the Whigs. The Democrats were the party of big government, increased legislation, higher taxes and slavery support. The Whigs had been the party of smaller government, lower taxes and abolition. One of the most famous Whig Presidents, John Quincy Adams, is considered one of America’s first truly vocal abolition champions. In 1852, much of that changed. The hot-button topic for the 1852 election was the Fugitive Slave Act and Slavery. Whig Party leadership believed if they moved closer to the middle of the socio-political spectrum it would make them more appealing to more people and increase their chances of success. In an effort to present a more “centrist” ticket for the 1852 election, the Whigs put forth an anti-slavery candidate, in the form of Winfield Scott, along with a pro-slavery platform which called for acquiescence to the Fugitive Slave Act. This caused a fundamental schism in the Whig Party. Scott’s main rival in the 1852 Whig nomination process was Millard Fillmore, who had supported the Fugitive Slave Act just two years earlier as President of the United States. Their strategy backfired in the worst possible way. This nomination caused many Whig supporters to feel as if the Whig party had completely abandoned many of the things it had long stood for. The result was an irreparable division in the party. This major split caused many traditional, non-centrist Whigs to abandon the party. Additionally, the reason the 1852 election is so significant for the Whig Party is because it was the last Presidential General Election to see a Whig candidate on the ballot.
I have no doubt many of those disenfranchised Whigs were told the same thing in 1852 that Conservatives are being told today, “If you split the vote you are ensuring the Democrat will win the White House”. So what happened to all those jaded Whig supporters? They decided their principles meant more to them than any political party. They took their principles, coordinated with like-minded people and established a new political party. A party based on ideology, values and principles, a party they named the Republican Party.
Is it possible for a major political party to be rendered to the dustbin of history? The future is a hard thing to predict. I can say this, history has proven it can happen. Can a third political party rise to prominence and replace one of the two major parties? Again, history has proven it can happen. The ball, and future existence of the Republican Party, is now in the hands of Reince Priebus and the Republican leadership. Only time will tell if their theory will prove successful. But, I would encourage them to take George Santayana’s words into consideration because history has proven the results may not be as fruitful as they are hoping.