Major political parties have died before, and their deaths have ushered-in eras of political realignment. In the mid-19th century, even after producing numerous presidents, the Whig Party essentially imploded into irrelevance. The Whigs were a political conglomeration more interested in stopping the Democratic Party, most often with good reason, than promoting any sort of consistent and coherent policy agenda of its own. Lacking conviction beyond its opposition to Democrats, the party lost its political base.
The modern Republican Party, which essential replaced the Whigs, is facing a similar fate. Intra-party fights over core values led to the demise of the Whigs, and is leading to the collapse of the Republican. Lack of commonly held political positions is the undoing of any party, and GOP leaders need to heed the lessons of history. Slight differences are fine, but a total lack of unity in the base is fatal.
One major wedge issue within the Whig party was abolition. Part of the party wanted to take a more “moderate” approach toward ending the evil of slavery, preferring to slow its spread while leaving the existing elements of the institution in place. The more principled faction preferred taking a clear stand and stamping- out slavery altogether. The two warring factions became more and more distant to the point their differences proved irreconcilable and the party fell apart. Most of its adherents were absorbed into the newly-formed Republican Party that was founded as the new home for limited government conservatives and abolitionists. The moderates joined the Democratic Party, to which they were already sympathetic.
The parallels between the Whigs and the GOP are pretty powerful.
There are two major philosophies in the GOP as well, and neither is all that open to the other. On the one hand, there are so-called establishment Republicans who are socialists light on the economy and secularists light on the culture, which aren’t much different than the Democrats. On the other hand, most Republican voters favor limited government, free-markets, states’ rights, and personal freedom and responsibility. These Republicans are worried about the run-away national debt, the breakdown of cultural values that promote healthy families and strong communities, and the abandonment of free-market economics and fiscal sanity.
If the GOP is to avoid the fate of the party it replaced, it must draw clear contrasts with the Democratic agenda. It’s leaders must clearly and effectively pursue and enact a freedom agenda that favors individual freedom and economic opportunity, as well as a commitment to limited government and religious liberty. A tenacious and determined defense of these core values, as opposed to continually caving, is the key to the Party’s resurrection.
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 focused on regaining their majority and beating the Democrats that they never developed an agenda all their own. Party leaders compromised on the core issues of their time, undermining any reason why citizens would give them their vote. Absent any agenda other than winning an election to gain power for themselves, the Whigs became politically impotent and unnecessary. Republicans should seek to avoid a similar fate.