In the mid-19th century, even after producing several presidents, a major American political party rose and just as quickly fell after falling out of favor. The Whig Party was a political conglomeration that was more interested in stopping the Democratic Party, often with good reason, than promoting any sort of consistent and coherent policy agenda of its own.
So you’re wondering why this matters in this second decade of the 21st century? The modern Republican Party is facing a similar fate. Indulge a moment of history here.
One major wedge issue within the party was that of abolition. Part of the party wanted to take a “moderate” approach toward the egregious evil of slavery, preferring to slow its spread while leaving the existing elements of the institution in place, rather than taking a principled stand and stamping it out altogether. In the other major wing of the party, people were promoting the outright abolishing of slavery, thus upholding the fundamental values of our free society and of natural law. The two warring views proved irreconcilable, and the party fell apart and its adherents were absorbed into two other major parties: the Democratic and the newly-formed Republican Party. The failure of a major segment of the party to stand on principle precipitated a collapse of the whole coalition.
Back to today and lessons Republican have to heed. There are two major philosophies in the present GOP, and neither is all that warm or open to the other. On the one hand, there are those establishment Republicans who are socialists light on the economy and secularists light on the culture, which aren’t all that different than the Democrats. Then, there are those who would love to move the party to an outright libertarianism that is more focused on economic policy and political purism than building a consistently conservative movement on social and economic issues. Then, in between, there are the majority of us conservatives who are neither establishment, nor outright libertarian, who make up the backbone of the conservative movement. These kinds of conservatives are what we might call “common sense” conservatives, who are worried about the run-away size of government, the breakdown of cultural values that promote healthy families and strong communities, and the abandonment of free-market economics and fiscal sanity.
This third category of the modern conservative movement, made up of full-spectrum conservatives, is the key to keeping the Republican Party from becoming the modern equivalent of the Whigs. The potential for this element to avert catastrophe will only be realized, however, if consistent conservatives reassert a clear conservative philosophy that promotes the protection of life, builds strong families and communities, and promotes free market economics to ensure prosperity for all of the American People. Only this full-spectrum of social and economic values will be able to gain the necessary support to win elections and preserve freedom for future generations.
The key take-away from the collapse of the Whig Party is that principle cannot be sacrificed in the name of political expediency. The Whigs were so determined to decimate the Democrats that they never really had an agenda all their own; their agenda was to make sure the other side didn’t win, which was one of the surest ways to ensure that they did. Moderates compromised on the core issues of their time, negating any reason why citizens would honor them with their vote. Absent any agenda of their own, other than winning an election to gain power for themselves, the Whigs became politically impotent and unnecessary.
The modern GOP similarly needs to stop compromising on core convictions like the sanctity of human life, the sanctity of natural marriage, individual liberty and the efficiency of free market economics. On some of the more minor issues, we should extend one another grace and friendship, while building a movement of unity around the fundamental, major issues that make up the conservative policy platform.
If conservatives cannot come together over essential elements of a pro-liberty policy platform, then we may one day say that the modern conservative movement went the way of the Whigs, and ceased to be a national force after it lost a clear vision of national governance. The Republican Party needs to stop fighting over control of the party, and start uniting around an opportunity agenda that can govern the country.