In the middle of the 19th century, the Whigs were one of the two major parties in American politics. Founded in 1834 as a group that opposed Democrat Andrew Jackson, they won two presidential elections and counted as their members some of the most prominent American politicians of the day.
Abraham Lincoln started his political career as a Whig. So did William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State. Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, two of the most prominent members of the United States Congress during that era, were Whigs. The slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” helped to carry Whig candidate William Henry Harrison to the presidency in the election of 1840. Another Whig, Zachary Taylor, was elected President in 1848.
But by 1856 — only two presidential elections later — the Whig Party was gone, unable to field a candidate for national office. It broke apart on the shoals of the slavery issue, irreparably splintered by the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with southern Whigs supporting the South’s detestable “peculiar institution” and northern “conscience Whigs,” like Lincoln, recognizing that slavery had to be ended or the country would tear itself apart. As the old Whig Party fell apart, a new party, the Republicans, arose. Led by Lincoln and Seward, the Republicans opposed slavery, fought the Civil War, and then became the second party in America’s two-party system. Since 1860, those two parties have been the Democrats and the Republicans.
Could what happened to the Whig Party happen to one of the two major parties of the modern day? Probably not. The modern political parties are much more well-funded and entrenched, with permanent national staffs and constant fund-raising and electoral laws that make it difficult to get third-party candidates onto the ballot.
And yet . . . I think about the Whigs when I consider the choice presented this year by the two major parties. According to the polls, the vast majority of Americans are extremely unhappy with the candidates who apparently will carry the banners of their respective parties come November. I’ve written before about the flaws of the candidates, but what about the flaws of the parties, and the process they created?
The two parties took opposite approaches to the 2016 election. The Republicans had a huge field of 18 current and former Governors, Senators, and business leaders, had free-for-all debates, and ended up with Donald Trump. The Democrats treated Hillary Clinton as the presumptive nominee, seemingly discouraged other prominent national Democrats from running, and now see an increasingly unpopular Clinton locked in an improbable, lingering fight with a 70-plus Socialist and facing increasing scrutiny about her personal ethics and credibility. In short, the parties took opposite approaches to selection of their candidates, but each produced candidates who seem to be deeply, deeply flawed.
Many people out here in the Midwest speak of the choice the parties have given them with a bitterness that goes beyond the normal dismissive comments about politicians. There is a strong sense that the political parties have utterly failed; many believe that the process is corrupt, and that we should blow it all up and start over. In short, the views of the electorate probably are a lot like the views of Americans in the 1850s, when the Whigs turned out to be an empty shell with no substance that collapsed and vanished forever.
Could the Democrats or Republicans go the way of the Whigs? I wonder.