A few weeks ago I was reading an article on 538 about the recent split within the GOP between the Trump Loyalists and the #NeverTrump movement, reborn like the Phoenix after the Billy Bush tape. In the article, the staff declare that they can’t think of any precedent for the current situation, though they eventually settle on the Republican Party abandoning Nixon in 1974 as the closest parallel. This struck me as a rather odd conclusion to reach. There are at least two other cases in American history where a major political party split in an election year, and though neither of them is an exact parallel to the current kerfuffle, they both bear examining.
The Election Of 1860
1860 is a pivotal year in American history. The election of Abraham Lincoln triggers the secession of the eleven southern states, as well as the subsequent Civil War needed to bring them back to heel, as well as the abolition of slavery. So it’s an important election. But in looking at the broader picture, I think we sometimes miss the affect 1860 had on the history of American political parties. Namely, the complete and utter destruction of the Democratic Party for multiple generations.
By 1860, the Democratic Party was under severe internal strain, split between a Northern wing that either ambivalent to or actively opposition to slavery, and a vehement pro-slavery Southern wing. Through various compromises the party had held itself together for decades, but this year was different. Rage over the Dred Scott case had propelled the Republican party to national prominence. The Southern Democrats demanded that the Party combat this by taking an unreservedly pro-slavery line, a position the Northerners knew would be untenable in their states. In April, the Southern delegates walked out of the Democratic Convention in Charleston, and the party was formally broken. That November, three Democratic candidates would be on the ballot: Stephen Douglass, representing the Northern Democrats, John C. Breckinridge, for the Southern Democrats, and John Bell, founder of the new Constitutional Union party, for those southerners who still hoped to avoid outright secession. (Side note: I LOVE the name Constitutional Union party. Wish they’d lasted longer.) This allowed Abraham Lincoln, a one-term Congressman from a party that had only been founded in 1854 to win the presidency in a crushing landslide.
This is always the example I think of first when the topic of party splits comes up, and it’s certainly the most consequential in American history. From 1860 to 1932, the Democrats would only elect two presidents (Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson). That’s a period of seventy-two years! There’s some obvious parallels that can be drawn between it and today. Just as the split in Charleston was only the endpoint of decades of internal party strife, Donald Trump’s rise is the result of Republicans cultivating racial resentment and anti-intellectualism going back all the way to Nixon and Reagan. One could, I think easily construct a narrative in which the Northern Democrats are today’s moderate Republicans while Trump’s base is the intellectual descendant of the Southern Democratic electorate. (Though, to be fair, they also resemble the Know-Nothings, many of whom supported Lincoln.) The South in 1860 seceded because they saw Lincoln’s election as the harbinger of the total destruction of their way of life, an apocalyptic worldview that reminds one of the rage and fear being expressed by many of Trump’s supporters as they see the permanent white majority in America slip away. More ominously, Trump’s refusal to agree to support the democratic process also raises the specter of organized political violence, something we have not seen on such a national scale since the Civil War. It’s worth noting that the only presidential candidate in American history to refuse to concede was Breckinridge, who joined the Confederate Army.
Still, I’m not sure if this is the best comparison. The election of 1860 can only be understood in terms of the debate over slavery and the ongoing escalation of violence over it, beginning with ‘Bleeding Kansas’, continuing with John Brown’s raid, and culminating in Civil War. No issue has anything like the same stature in today’s election. While the Democrats broke in 1860 over clear, ideological differences, the split in today’s Republican party is much less clear-cut. So-called Moderates like Paul Ryan continue to support Trump, while traditionally right-wing ideologues like Glen Beck and Eric Erickson have opposed him from the beginning. If 1860 was dominated by politics, 2016 has been dominated by personality. Which reminds me a lot of another chaotic U.S election….
The Election Of 1912
If 1860 is one of the most pivotal years in American history, 1912 is an afterthought. It’s an embarrassing epilogue to Theodore Roosevelt’s career, and the high-water mark of the Progressive Movement, but it’s also an interesting example of a case where a single individual single-handily wrecked the political aspirations of a major party. Unlike 1860, Taft’s loss in 1912 would not doom the GOP for generations. After an interlude of eight years of Wilson, they would return in the 1920s with a run of three presidents. But that may make it a better parallel to 2016 than the paradigm-shattering shifts of our previous example.
Taft had been elected president in 1908, following two terms of Roosevelt. At the time, the two were the best of friends, and Taft was considered Roosevelt’s chief political protegee. Over the following four years, however, the two would grow distant, as Roosevelt grew increasingly upset over Taft’s deviations from his economic policies. In 1912, Roosevelt returned, determined to seize the nomination from his former ally. Though T.R had a significant number of supporters at the republican convention in Chicago, Taft controlled the GOP’s party machine, and was able to mobilize a majority of delegates in his favor. Enraged at this ‘betrayal’, Roosevelt rejected all offers of compromise and called on his supporters to walk out. He swiftly organized a new party, the Progressives, and launched an independent candidacy. (It’s worth nothing that both of these historic splits occurred at the Convention, while the modern GOP waited until the last minute to implode because they’re LAZY MILLENNIALS WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND TRADITIONAL AMERICAN VALUES BY GOD.)
The loss of Roosevelt’s wing of the party destroyed the Republicans–Taft received only eight electoral votes, and swept Wilson into power in a landslide unprecedented for post-Civil War Democrats. There was another wrinkle in the election as well. Eugene Debs, the perennial Socialist candidate garnered nearly a million votes, by far the best result that party ever achieved. In a year where Gary Johnson stills polls as high as 5-9% mere weeks before the election, higher than normal third-party participation cannot help but look familiar. But all in all, comparisons between 2016 and 1912 rest on Theodore Roosevelt. Long since deified as one of America’s Great Presidents, people forget that in his lifetime, T.R was often derided as a maniac or loose cannon. His nomination for Vice President in 1900 was secured specifically because GOP elites wanted him shuffled out of the New York governorship and into a backwater post, and they were horrified when McKinley were assassinated in 1901. The political boss Mark Hanna famously cried “Now that damned cowboy is in the White House!” when he heard the news.
Roosevelt’s attempt to retake leadership of the party in 1912 was undertaken specifically as part of a declared crusade against ‘party elites’, and when he walked out of the convention he charged that Taft had rigged the process against him. While the Democratic party split in 1860 occurred due to an unbridgeable ideological divide, Roosevelt and Taft’s wings had worked together well as recently as four years prior. Though differences existed, primarily over the issues of conservation and trust-busting, a compromise was almost certainly possible. The Progressive Party existed solely as a vehicle for Roosevelt’s egotism, and when he lost, it rapidly went into decline, vanishing before the decade was out. Though obviously a much more substantial figure than Donald Trump, as well as a more admirable one, it is quite possible that their effects on the Republican Party will be quite similar.
What Does It All Mean?
No historical parallel is exact, and I’m not going to end this by with any grand conclusion about what this election will bring. But it’s worth noting some possibilities. If the Election of 2016 turns out to be one broadly similar to that of 1860, then we are witnessing what may be the death throes of the Republican Party, at least in our lifetimes. It also means, however, that the nation is facing a schism. Not necessarily a second Civil War, but a division between two versions of America that have very little in common. In 1860 it was between an industrialized north that saw slavery as an embarrassment and an agricultural south that required it as the bedrock of economics and society. Today, it may be between those who benefited from global capitalism and those who have been left behind. Or alternatively, between the shrinking white minority who cannot envision America as anything but a white nation and the growing numbers of minorities who feel they deserve an equal share of America.
If we’re in a 1912 situation, than what we face is a single, charismatic individual who has hijacked the Republican Party and transformed it into a vehicle of personal aggrandizement. In that case we can expect to see Republican elites rally shortly after the election and re-consolidate power. That doesn’t mean the stress lines in our country don’t exist, but it might mean we’re father away from a breaking point, we have longer to prepare and to try and patch things up. I have a friend who is convinced that Trump is merely the harbinger of the 2020 Republican candidate, who will also embody the worst of America but will be do so in a more seemingly reasonable way, allowing him to win. This strikes me as entirely plausible but also something to worry about if/when Trump is defeated.
Either way, this election is going to be interesting.