The deep schism in the Republican Party has given rise to speculation that the GOP is finished. While it is certain that the Republican Party is deeply wounded, it is premature to say that is dead. As conservatives and Republicans contemplate their future, it may be helpful to remember how the Republican Party was born from the death of the Whig Party.
The Whigs were formed in 1834 to oppose what many saw as the authoritarian tendencies of Andrew Jackson. They took their name from the British anti-royalist party and stood against the Democrats led by the man they derisively called “King Andrew.” Like the later Republicans, the Whigs were derided as a rich man’s party by their opponents.
The Whigs had a 20 year run as a successful party. Politico noted that their decline began with the election of an outsider candidate, Zachary Taylor. Many Whigs felt that Taylor did not share their beliefs and that the party had embraced Taylor’s personality as a hero of the Mexican War rather than nominating a candidate who shared their values. Horace Greeley, the founder of the New York Tribune, said that the party was “at once triumphant and undone” as it elected a man who might have been called a “Whig in name only.” Once in office, Taylor, who had campaigned on his personality since the Whigs did not even write a platform that year, soon began to anger party loyalists.
The election of Taylor deepened a rift between Northern and Southern Whigs over the issue of slavery. After his death in 1850, his vice president, Millard Fillmore, passed several pro-slavery laws with the Compromise of 1850. As the party became more pro-slavery, Northerners began to leave. In 1852, the Whig candidate carried only four states, losing in a landslide to Democrat Franklin Pierce.
It was the pro-slavery Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 that finally killed the Whigs and led to the creation of the Republican Party. A March 20, 1854 meeting of opponents to the act is generally considered the birth of the Republican Party according to History.com. Two years later, in 1856, the Republicans fielded their first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont. By that point, the Whigs were nonexistent. Four years later, the Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected president.
There are several lessons to be learned from the demise of the Whigs. The Republican Party was the result of a coalition of anti-slavery activists. The Republicans focused on that issue and swayed enough voters with their argument that they won the election of 1860. Republicans knew what they believed and fought for it. They focused on what was important and kept their eyes on the prize.
Though not part of the campaign, the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858 established a logical and moral basis for the party’s existence. Lincoln was able to eloquently argue the evils of slavery and the impracticality of having a nation that was split between slave and free states. The debates not only helped to cement the regional factions of the new Republican Party, they also established Lincoln as a powerful intellect and a popular and persuasive speaker.
Conversely, the Whigs didn’t know what they stood for any longer. The party had no platform or statement of principle to rally around. The party that had opposed the Mexican War nominated a war hero and Taylor’s nonpartisan stances alienated Whigs rather than attracting voters from other parties. A successful political party must preserve its base while persuading unaffiliated moderate and independent voters at the same time. The Whigs won new voters at the cost of splitting their base.
Winning elections is not the only reason a party exists. The Whig party won the election of 1848, but lost its soul in the process. Winning the election with a candidate that did not share their principles doomed the party in the long run. There is little point in winning an election if the end result is not to move the country in the direction that the party believes is best.
Finally, if the Republican Party does die, it doesn’t mean that conservatism dies with it. There will be opposition to Hillary and the Democrats even that if that opposition is does not fall under the Republican label. Millions of conservatives will not cease to exist if the Republican Party dies. They will reorganize and rally under a new banner.
One new conservative banner that competes with Trumpist Republicans is the one being hoisted by Evan McMullin. McMullin said in the Washington Times, “In the long term, we’re building a new conservative movement we think is badly needed in this country. The party needs to be more welcoming to people that don’t look like me, people of different races and religions.”
If the Republican Party does go the way of the Whigs, there will be a period of confusion and rebuilding, but the party that emerges may be stronger than what came before. The Whigs lasted for 20 years. The Republicans have lasted for more than 150 and have produced some of the greatest presidents in American history. Abraham Lincoln, generally acknowledged to be among the top presidents, emerged when the party was only four years old.
In the nearly 250 years of the American republic, many political parties have come and gone. There were political factions before the Democrats and the Republicans and there will be new parties that one day take their place. Political parties come and go, but principles never die.