Prospects for partisan realignment: Lessons from the demise of the Whigs

What America’s last major party crack-up in the 1850s tells us about the 2010s

Philip A. Wallach
Wallach head shot
Philip A. Wallach Senior Fellow - American Enterprise Institute, Former Expert - Brookings Institution

March 6, 2017

Everything in American politics feels unsettled after the dizzying 2016 election, including the future of America’s two major political parties. Both Democrats and Republicans are struggling with internal divisions, and a major realignment is imaginable. In this paper, Philip Wallach sheds light on the current political moment by showing its parallels with 1848-1854, during which the Whig party rapidly went from majority status to extinction.

Table of Contents

I. Factors leading to the demise of the Whigs and the restructuring of the 1850s
II. How many of these factors apply to the modern GOP or Democrats?
III.Factors working on behalf of party stability and survival

A severe split within the Whig ranks, between partisans of Henry Clay and those of Zachary Taylor, preceded the party's convention in June 1848.


For all the understandable nostalgia we now feel for the simpler political times of, say, 2014, there is no avoiding it: American politics is as thrilling today as it has been in generations. What had seemed immovable is now fluid, and the future is maddeningly obscure. Perhaps the greatest part of our uncertainty is trying to imagine what will become of our two major parties, both of which face profound uncertainty in the months and years to come.

In the wake of Republicans’ victories this past November, many are convinced that the GOP is healthier and sturdier than it has been in a century. To even consider the party’s demise in this context may seem a strange and futile exercise, then. But to the extent that any moment in America’s political history can provide lessons about the chaotic present, the period from 1848 until 1856, during which the Whig Party self-destructed and disappeared, has much to teach us. It featured surging nativism, profound uncertainty for both major parties, the demise of the Whig Party, and the rise of several others, including the GOP. And it began with a political outsider sweeping in to take one of the two major party’s nominations, and then leading them to a narrow victory in the presidential election.

History of Political Parties. Photo Courtesy of History Shots:
“History of Political Parties” Image courtesy of History Shots.

In this piece, which relies heavily on Michael F. Holt’s enormous and compelling history, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party (Oxford University Press, 2003), I work through the factors that contributed to the Whigs’ demise and examine which of them apply to the predicaments of contemporary Republicans and Democrats. There are a striking number of rhymes. Then, as now, the issues that provided the traditional lines of contestation between the two major parties were losing potency while new divisions were taking their place. The end result then was a shift to a new party system—accompanied by Civil War.

Plenty of factors in our own political landscape make such a dramatic break with the past seem unlikely, at least in the immediate future. Both Democrats and Republicans in 2016 are better insulated from outside competition than the parties of the 1850s. Nevertheless, dramatic change is possible, either with or without the formal demise of a major party, and a look at history clarifies what portents in the years to come would indicate an imminent partisan restructuring.

I. Factors leading to the demise of the Whigs and the restructuring of the 1850s

America’s founding fathers envisioned a legislature without organizing parties, but once in motion, our constitutional system soon generated competition between organized groups. The first party system pitted Hamilton’s Federalists against Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans and ended in the so-called “era of good feelings” following the War of 1812, when the animating conflicts of those early years faded away. By the late 1820s, the outlines of a second party system were emerging, with Andrew Jackson’s Democrats facing off against a coalition of the president’s opponents led by Henry Clay, which would ultimately form the Whig Party.

To use Holt’s felicitous metaphor, during the twenty-some years that American politics was structured around the conflict between Democrats and Whigs (roughly 1833-1855), each party contained centrifugal forces pulling its coalition apart that had to be counteracted by centripetal forces holding it together.

The story of Whigs’ downfall, as Holt chronicles it, is complicated and defies a single explanation. Many factors, reinforcing each other over more than a decade, worked to erode the foundations of Whiggery until the party finally underwent a dramatic collapse from 1853 to 1855. Rather than attempting to retell this history chronologically, this paper attempts to isolate factors that can then be looked for in the present with as much parallelism as is possible.

We will turn to the decline of the forces holding the Whigs together first, and then to the growth of forces pulling them apart.

A. Decline in importance of traditional lines of contestation

As the Whig Party coalesced in the 1830s, it defined itself in opposition to Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren’s Democrats, with three issues paramount. First, the tariff: Whigs were the party of protective tariffs, Democrats the party of free trade. Second, the broader issue of government involvement in the economy: Whigs were committed to an active government role in banking and internal infrastructure development (first canals and roads, later railroads), encouragement of business activity through bankruptcy laws, and regulation of social behavior, while Democrats argued that government involvement in these endeavors was likely to be harmful and corrupting. Third, reacting to perceptions of Jackson’s Caesarism, Whigs saw themselves as champions of Congress, the rule of law, and the republican tradition of enlightened representative government. These were the leading issues that organized electoral competition, not only in presidential elections, but in the full range of local and congressional elections during the 1830s and 1840s. When Democratic policies seemed to produce calamity, as they arguably did in the run-up to the Panic of 1837, Whigs gained from offering a sharply differentiated set of policies.

Cartoon from anonymous artist circa 1832, used in campaign posters. Depicts Andrew Jackson as “King Andrew” who rejects republican values. {{PD-US}}

By the 1850s, there was a significant narrowing of differences between the parties on the issues of the tariff (which settled at middling rates), banking (where Whigs made peace with the demise of the Second National Bank and its replacement by the Independent Treasury), and infrastructure (Democrats became backers of support for railroads and rivers and harbors improvements). Meanwhile, Jackson left office in 1837 and died in 1845, and while Whigs did their best to paint his Democratic successors Van Buren and Polk as similarly prone to executive overreach, this message resonated far less than it did under the reign of “King Andrew I.” By the administration of Franklin Pierce, beginning in 1853, the anti-Caesarism that had bound Whigs together in the past was a feeble echo incapable of counteracting more salient issues pushing toward division. By then, many Whigs (including one letter-writer Holt quotes) had come to see politics as impoverished, a mere “scramble for the spoils & a fight about Men rather than measures.”

B. Profusion of intra-party factions

The two party coalitions that dominated national political life from the 1830s until the 1850s both contained a diverse range of opinion and priorities. This was especially important on the key issue of slavery. Both Democrats and Whigs were bisectional parties—drawing support from both the North and South—that managed to contain a variety of views about the future of slavery, from Southern champions of the peculiar institution to compromisers seeking middle ground, especially on the contentious issue of the future of slavery in the western territories, to out-and-out abolitionists.

The delicate balance that allowed Whigs and Democrats to compete exclusively on non-slavery issues came apart beginning in the 1840s, in large part because of the need to decide on the future of slavery in the territories acquired in the Mexican War. Worried that new slave states carved from these lands would permanently tip the balance in favor of the South, many Northerners opposed any extension of slavery into the territories. The Compromise of 1850 attempted to push slavery decisively off the agenda and was passed with bipartisan and bisectional support, but the coalition that had backed it proved unable to maintain majority support.

This engraving by Peter F. Rothermel, "The United States Senate, A.D. 1850,” depicts “the Great Compromiser” Henry Clay introducing the Compromise of 1850 on the floor of the Old Senate Chamber. {{PD-US}}

As a result, intraparty factional conflict dominated both parties during this period. Democrats had anti-slavery Barnburners pitted against conservative pro-Compromise Hunkers and their Southern allies; Whigs had anti-slavery Sewardites and “Conscience Whigs” fighting pro-Compromise “Silver Grays” and Southerners.

Pro-compromisers in both Whig and Democratic parties came to see each other as more important allies than their copartisans. In Holt’s telling they are sympathetic figures, given that they believed the Union between North and South was in danger of giving way to violent conflict. Commitment to the Compromise was used as a litmus test for many voters in 1852, such that a major focus for Whigs in the contest for their nomination was whether their candidate would take a formal “finality” pledge that declared the compromise sacrosanct. To the extent that the parties failed to adapt to the centrality of slavery, voters turned to other alternatives (see Section I.D).

Although slavery was undoubtedly the most important issue dividing Whigs from each other, two other schisms that opened up in the party in the 1850s proved nearly as damaging to Whigs’ ability to hang together. The first of these was prohibition of alcohol. The temperance movement was energized by Maine’s passage of a statewide ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages in 1851, and the divide between wets and drys in the Whig Party proved to be a deep and largely unbridgeable one. Whig politicians could try to ignore the issue or skillfully prevaricate, but, more and more, they found themselves alienating some part of their political base, whatever choice they made.

The second, not wholly unrelated issue was the rise of anti-Catholic nativism. The 1840s and 1850s saw a major influx of Catholic immigrants, mainly from Germany and Ireland. “Native” Protestant Americans, many of whom were traditionally Whig voters, were suspicious of these immigrants’ “popery,” their foreign languages, their association with corrupt urban political machines, and also their wet politics. Many Whig politicians thus embraced openly nativist positions as a way of shoring up their base.  Others, however, felt that remaining competitive with Democrats necessitated courting these new Americans. During his 1852 presidential campaign, Winfield Scott pursued this course. Scott was Episcopalian, and had one daughter who had converted to Catholicism and joined a nunnery, and thus he seemed to be in a position to court Catholic voters in the 1852 election. But his efforts to do so yielded few votes, and meanwhile rankled anti-Catholic nativists within the Whig ranks. Nativists would soon begin to look outside the Whig Party for candidates who took the urgency of their concerns seriously and propel the Know-Nothing movement to national prominence.

C. Outsider infiltration and broken conventions

A major element of the Whig party’s degeneration was the lack of continuity in its leadership, especially in the crucial realm of presidential politics. This was undoubtedly both the result of a dissolving coalition and itself a further source of problems.

Two of the most striking examples of this tendency come from the party’s two vice-presidents who ascended to the presidency only to find themselves at odds with large segments of their parties, and without their party’s nomination in the next presidential election. With John Tyler, this situation came early in the party’s development, and could be explained by Tyler coming from a group of Virginia states’ rights conservatives whose fit in the Whig coalition was awkward and ultimately impermanent. Millard Fillmore, on the other hand, had a long history among the Whigs but was caught in the crossfire of the fights over the future of slavery and the Compromise of 1850 (which he had signed shortly after becoming president).

As the party looked for a champion going into the presidential election of 1848, a majority of its members opted to put their trust in a man who had no political history in the party at all.

But the identity of the party’s presidential nominees in 1848 and 1852 offer perhaps the most striking instances in which the party abandoned continuity. As the party looked for a champion going into the presidential election of 1848, a majority of its members opted to put their trust in a man who had no political history in the party at all. General Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican War, seemed to be “a new Cincinnatus, a man who, like the revered Washington, stood above party.” There were even those who were enthusiastic about rebranding the party, abandoning the “Whig” label in favor of “Taylor Republicans.”

Taylor, in fact, was no political naif, but he skillfully exploited the public’s impression that he was above politics and adapted himself to the political realities of the day without yoking himself to Whigs’ historical positions. For Whigs in areas without long histories of party success, like U.S. Representative Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, Taylor’s personal reputation seemed to offer the best means of broadening the Whig Party’s base; Lincoln became one of Taylor’s earliest and most ardent backers.

Anti-Taylor Cartoon in The John Donkey (1848)
Anti-Taylor Cartoon in The John Donkey (1848)

But where Whigs were more deeply rooted, Taylor’s candidacy was often quite divisive. In the last months of the election, Taylor was forced to respond to Whig voters’ potentially demobilizing concerns that he was not truly one of their own. He did so by belatedly insisting that all had long known him to be “a Whig in principle,” and explained that his general anti-party disposition meant nothing more than that he would refrain from abusing the powers of his office on behalf of partisan maneuvering. In an age when candidates abstained from nearly all forms of active campaigning, this proved to be enough.

But Taylor did not simply act as a normal Whig upon taking office. Instead, in his distribution of the all-important spoils of victory, in the form of federal offices across the country, he snubbed the backers of Henry Clay and other Whig regulars, tearing open lasting rifts in the Whig coalition and demoralizing the party for midterm elections. He made some abortive and ultimately counterproductive attempts to realize the vision of a Taylor Republicanism more inclusive than Whiggery. By choosing four Southerners and only two Northerners for his cabinet, moreover, he exacerbated the party’s difficult sectional tensions.

But Taylor did not simply act as a normal Whig upon taking office. Instead, in his distribution of the all-important spoils of victory, in the form of federal offices across the country, he snubbed the backers of Henry Clay and other Whig regulars, tearing open lasting rifts in the Whig coalition and demoralizing the party for midterm elections.

Then, of course, Taylor’s death in July 1850 generated further challenges for his adopted party by elevating his Vice President, Millard Fillmore, to the presidency. Fillmore, who hailed from Buffalo, was strongly associated with the conservative, pro-Compromise wing of the Whig Party, and was already bitter rivals with William Henry Seward, New York’s Whig Governor from 1839-1842 and its Senator since 1849. Fillmore and Seward’s factional rivalry, which often revolved around the future of slavery, intensified throughout Fillmore’s presidency, leading to a bruising fight over the Whig presidential nomination in 1852, when Fillmore squared off against the Seward-backed General Winfield Scott.

Scott’s appeal had much in common with Taylor’s: his military reputation gave him the potential to run in part on his personal biography rather than by taking stands on divisive issues. While he had been more clearly tied to the Whig Party than Taylor had, he likewise lacked a long political history that would constrain his maneuverability. With the convention delegates mostly split between backers of Fillmore and Scott, but with a significant contingent favoring (pro-Compromise) Daniel Webster, a seemingly unbreakable deadlock made the Whig’s 1852 convention in Baltimore drag on for six long days. Only on the 53rd ballot did Scott emerge with the nomination—and he suffered a serious lack of enthusiasm over the course of the campaign, which ended in his winning just 42 electoral votes from four states. Down-ballot Whigs fared no better. The deep fissure in the party that the convention exposed would ruin the party before the next presidential election, in large part because of the rise of non-Whig alternatives to the (pro-Compromise) Democrats.

D. Ferment of third party activity

The Whig-Democrat bisectional system had always left those whose first priority was purging the evil of slavery from the country without a place in the country’s central political debates. As a result, the abolitionist Liberty Party organized in 1840 and managed to take 2.3 percent of the presidential vote in 1844. By 1848, it had been subsumed by the Free Soil Party, a larger and somewhat more realistic coalition that brought in anti-slavery Whigs and Democratic Barnburners alike and prioritized blocking slavery’s expansion into the territories. The Free Soil Party was able to recruit Martin Van Buren, the former president, to head their ticket in the election of 1848, and he won 10 percent of the popular vote and came in second place in Vermont and New York (then the nation’s most populous state). In the 31st Congress (1849-50), Free Soilers elected nine House members and two U.S. senators, including Ohio’s Salmon P. Chase, who managed to win the support of an anti-Whig coalition in the state’s legislature. The Compromise of 1850 satisfied some of those who had voted Free Soil in 1848, and thus the party regressed in the 1852 election, with presidential candidate John Hale of New Hampshire winning just under five percent of the vote that year.

But the Free Soil Party roared back to relevance in 1854 when their leaders quickly branded the Kansas-Nebraska Act a “bold scheme against American liberty” that would forever consign America to the mercy of the Slave Power and thereby framed the ensuing debate over the measure. As Holt puts it: “By exaggerating and impugning southern responsibility for the bill, by portraying it as a southern assault on the liberty and future economic prospects of Northern whites…the tiny group of Free Soil congressmen had a far more devastating impact on the Whig party than even they probably intended.” Voters in the North rapidly assembled “anti-Nebraska coalitions” using various labels, including “People’s” parties and, significantly, “Republicans.” These were styled as temporary vehicles needed to resolve an urgent matter, but the new organizations that formed soon “co-opted Whigs’ mission to defend republicanism by portraying themselves as better able to do so.”

Pro-Compromise (and later pro-Nebraska) Whigs sometimes looked in precisely the opposite direction, looking for ad hoc coalitions meant to prioritize preservation of the union over any other political priority. Unionist parties drawing from both Democrats and Whigs were especially strong in Georgia, Mississippi, and New York, and won some distinguished backers. First Henry Clay, and then Daniel Webster, the Whigs’ two elder giants, flirted with the idea of resuscitating their presidential hopes with the backing of a new Union party in 1852. The Unionist movement proved to be short-lived, soon to be undermined by the strength of pro-Compromise Democrats who aimed at preserving the Union largely on the South’s terms. But for Northern Whigs devoted to the Compromise, increasingly at odds with other Northern Whigs, the promise of some non-Whig, non-Democrat party designed to avert national catastrophe lingered on, eventually merging with the next strain of third party activity that revolved around nativism.

Nativist politicians, sometimes styled as “Native Americans,” had throughout the 1840s won seats in state legislatures, especially from the Philadelphia area; other times, they peeled off enough votes from Whigs that Democrats were able to win. But these modest beginnings gave little intimation of the way that their concerns would spread in the 1850s. As immigration increased along with a sense of rapid social change, so too did the appeal of an anti-Catholic party on a national scale.

It is hard to exaggerate how rapid and widespread the expansion of Know-Nothingism was in the 1850s. Founded as the secret “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner” in 1849, Know-Nothings built up a vast hierarchical organization of lodges and established themselves as the dominant force in many parts of the country. Officeholders of both parties, but especially Whigs, found that their political fortunes depended on having themselves secretly inducted into the rapidly growing order. As long as Know-Nothings remained officially secret, they seemed to offer a kind of symbiotic relationship with the Whig Party rather than posing a direct threat. But members of the movement, active in both the North and South, soon desired a more public arm of their movement, leading to the founding of parties variously called “Native American,” “American,” or “American Union,” in 1854 and 1855.

Before long, many ambitious office-seekers realized that Whiggery no longer provided as attractive a path to power as the Know-Nothings’ various splinter parties, which soon would hold their own conventions. This group eventually came to include Millard Fillmore, the Whig ex-president spurned by his party in 1852, who seemed to be the old party’s best hope of survival. Fillmore was inducted into the Know-Nothings in January 1855. He hoped that the Know-Nothings could play the role of a non-Whig, pro-Union party that earlier Whig leaders like Webster had flirted with. As such, he directed his energies and his followers in the 1856 election to desert the Whigs en masse in favor of the American Party. Fillmore went on to win 21.5 percent of the popular vote (and Maryland’s eight electoral votes) in the 1856 election. By then, Free Soilers and anti-Compromise Whigs had fused into the beginnings of the modern Republican Party.

A flag promoting the “Know-Nothing” or “American” party, circa 1850. {{PD-US}}

In short, although Whigs assumed that politics in the 1850s would be zero-sum between Democrats and Whigs, such that internal Democratic problems would automatically strengthen their traditional opposition, in reality they found voters alienated from Democrats turning to the upstart parties that defined their opposition in terms more clearly centered around the issues most salient to voters of the 1850s. Anti-Nebraska coalitions portrayed Whigs as insufficiently committed to protecting white Northerners from the menace of the slave power, and Know-Nothings asserted that Whigs failed to understand the threat to American liberty posed by the influx of foreigners. Both significantly weakened the party without Whig leaders realizing exactly how precarious their party’s position had become. Whig leaders hoped to wait until politics allowed them to return to familiar grounds of conflict; but instead, politics moved on and consigned their party to the ash heap of history.

E. Widespread contemplation of party dying, public abandonment by notables

Before the election of 1852 the Whig Party outwardly seemed to be as strong as it had ever been; indeed, many contemporaries were sure it was on the cusp of a great success. Things went wrong in a remarkably short time.

The last features of the Whig Party’s death worth noting relate to its final collapse. Although there had been signs of unbridgeable gaps between factions and mounting minor party alternatives for several years, before the election of 1852 the Whig Party outwardly seemed to be as strong as it had ever been; indeed, many contemporaries were sure it was on the cusp of a great success. Things went wrong in a remarkably short time.

First, both Clay and Webster died in 1852. These two presences had been emblematic of Whigs’ early anti-Jacksonian glories, and their absence deprived the Whigs of their most potent symbols. Then, after Scott’s bruising loss of 1852, worse than almost anyone had anticipated, some of the Whigs’ most important second-tier figures decided to abandon the party. The influential New York City publisher Horace Greeley, whose New York Tribune had been one of the Whigs’ most influential organs, publicly denounced the party in 1853. Then Truman Smith, a Whig representative from Connecticut who had acted as party’s de facto national chairman since 1842, walked away from the party and declared himself ready “to have Whiggery charred and burned.” A number of influential Whigs decided simply to withdraw from politics rather than face what seemed to them the impossible task of holding together Northern and Southern Whigs.

Through 1853 and 1854, many of the party faithful fought on to preserve what was for them a cherished institution. But the signs of strain were evident. In Whigs’ correspondences, which Holt masterfully excerpts, the idea that the party might die steadily spread until it began to seem more likely than not. Some Whigs thought that they could keep their piece of the party alive by denationalizing—in other words, by ceasing to hope for the survival of the national Whigs and instead seeking the continuance of Southern Whigs or Northern Whigs. But Know-Nothings capitalized on the explicitly populist, anti-party moment; not only were religious Catholics suspected, but so were “political jesuits” fighting for the old order.

In October 1855, Senator William Henry Seward of New York, who had finally directed his supporters away from the Whig party and into the rapidly growing Republican Party, gave the Whig Party its eulogy: “Let, then, the Whig party pass. It committed a grievous fault, and grievously hath it answered it. Let it march out of the field, therefore, with all the honors.”

II. How many of these factors apply to the modern GOP or Democrats?

Having examined the demise of the Whigs, we now turn to the state of our contemporary parties and examine how many of the same factors are present today.

A. Decline in importance of traditional lines of contestation

At least since Ronald Reagan’s victory in the presidential election of 1980, American politics has been defined by a stable and fairly coherent conflict between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats (acknowledging that these terms have idiosyncratic, historically contingent meanings as used in American politics). But recently it has become difficult to know exactly what these terms encapsulate in the present moment. And with Donald Trump’s historic 2016 victory and the rise of 21st century populism as a force, it is clear that neither party can be fully described in these terms any longer.

The GOP has been described as a sturdy three-legged stool: a coalition of social, economic, and defense conservatives. This conservative fusionism—which was hardly synonymous with a GOP that contained self-described liberals through the 1970s—came to be identified with the party itself during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Even as the Cold War has receded into memory, veneration of Reagan’s iconic leadership has served the purpose of reaffirming the relevance of the party’s old self-definition.

After the events of 2016, however, it is hard to see adhering to the old formula as a viable strategy for assembling a majority of Republican voters. Not only the decline of the Cold War, but also the overwhelmingly negative perceptions of George W. Bush’s Iraq War, have made foreign policy hawkishness a hard position to sell voters on. The kind of militarized isolationism dominant among Republicans in the 1920s, however, is hardly a dominant alternative. Social issues have become a contentious source of division within the party, especially gay marriage, which young Republicans often support even as their elders declare their willingness to resist it indefinitely. (Opposition to abortion is, conversely, one issue that still tends to glue the party together.)

Economic issues show perhaps the deepest crack. The party’s elites (both the business and ideological variants) remain staunchly committed to a vision of lowered taxes and a retrenched welfare state, but its rank-and-file voters seem quite ambivalent about both prongs of this agenda. On taxes, marginal federal income tax rates for the wealthy hardly strike the average voter as manifestly unjust, as they might have when they were around 70 percent in the Carter era. The federal estate tax applies only to the rich. And although Democrats and Republicans are at odds over taxation of the wealthy, President Obama famously promised to spare the American middle classes from any tax increases and then delivered on that promise, diminishing the difference between the two parties. Although most Republican candidates seeking the party’s presidential nomination in recent years have highlighted their commitment to tax cuts, there is something increasingly perfunctory about these gestures, which seem designed to appeal to the party’s donor base but no longer seem to be a clear boon to its electoral fortunes. There are at least stirrings of new approaches within the GOP which would seek to shift the burden of taxation onto wealthy investors.

On the spending side, Republicans remain committed to deficit reduction and entitlement reform, at least as a matter of professed principle. But, in spite of having Rep. Paul Ryan—then the Budget Committee Chairman most associated with aspirations of major entitlement reform—on the ticket in 2012, Republicans ran away from entitlement reform in that election, with Mitt Romney framing Obamacare as an objectionable attack on Medicare because of projected spending reductions. In 2016, Donald Trump won the nomination promising to defend the welfare state, at least for the right sort of people (a pattern very much in line with populist parties across Europe). Certainly, he has echoed the familiar Republican call to repeal and replace “Obamacare”—but it remains to be seen whether “Trumpcare” will really turn out to be so radically different (or, for that matter, whether the “repeal” might turn out to be largely imaginary). The rhetorical differences on government healthcare provision seem to be considerably stronger than the real policy differences (with the important exception of Medicaid).

As Ross Douthat describes it, the vision of “true conservatism” that sees a strictly limited role for the federal government in economic matters seems to have fallen by the wayside, and “Trumponomics” is ascendant, at least for now. That the latter is such a muddle, and so hard to distinguish from Democrats’ positions on many issues, is precisely the point. The battle between “free marketeers” and backers of “industrial policy” is gone, leaving us with both sides denouncing “crony capitalism” and both seeing large roles for government intervention.

The vision of “true conservatism” that sees a strictly limited role for the federal government in economic matters seems to have fallen by the wayside, and “Trumponomics” is ascendant, at least for now.

The diminished importance of economic issues in organizing partisan conflict is also clear in patterns of voter support in 2016. Democrats have traditionally been the party of labor—that is, of members of private and public sector labor unions. But over the last half century, membership in traditional labor unions has gone from approximately one-in-three to one-in-ten, and the strong preference for Democrats among union households has shrunk nearly to insignificance. And whereas a higher income has traditionally been an excellent predictor of a propensity to support Republicans, the relationship between income levels and support for Trump was quite weak, with education levels becoming a much stronger predictor.

In this way, reminiscent of the 1840s and 50s, the forces binding Democrats and Republicans to their own coalition partners have weakened, making it harder to identify exactly which policy beliefs distinguish the members of each party.

B. Increased importance of issues dividing party, profusion of intra-party factions

Meanwhile, intra-party tensions have soared and named factions proliferated, especially in the years after the financial crisis of 2008. Taking each party in turn:

Republicans have seen the emergence of the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus, Reform Conservatives, #NeverTrump, the alt-right, and others (and the corresponding epithets these factions hurl at each other: “RINO” and “cuckservative” on one side, “authoritarian” or “demagogic” on the other). This split is reflected clearly in the media environment, which then further reifies it. Talk radio and anti-establishment news sites such as Breitbart Media increasingly distrust and denounce not only the conservative end of the mainstream media environment (e.g., The Wall Street Journal, or traditional Republican bastions like the Cincinnati Enquirer) but also some of the outlets seen as staunchly conservative but insufficiently anti-establishment, such as National Review and Fox News.

Keeping a multiplicity of factions within the Republican coalition is, of course, nothing new to the current period. Back when it was a permanent congressional minority, the party featured active liberal and moderate factions that coexisted with conservatives in an uneasy peace—one that eventually ended in conservatives driving them out, as recounted by Geoffrey Kabaservice’s great Rule and Ruin. Internationalist and isolationist factions of the party were historically in tension, also, and that rift looks like it might become salient once again.

But today’s surge in populism poses what looks to be the greatest challenge to Republicans’ ability to coexist within the same caucus in many years. Donald Trump has embraced populism and distanced himself from conservatism in remarkably forthright ways, including at one point declaring, ““This is called the Republican party, it’s not called the Conservative party.” Reliable supply-side economist Stephen Moore, an advisor to Trump, stirred controversy by confidently telling congressional Republicans: “Just as Reagan converted the GOP into a conservative party, Trump has converted the GOP into a populist working-class party.” If Trump were to fail to deliver on his promise to transform his party in a populist direction, that would come as a massive disappointment to many of his most ardent supporters.

Some of the most combative conservatives in Congress have tried to convince themselves that their worldviews actually mesh well with Trump’s, such that they have a bright partnership ahead of them. But it is hard to see how this honeymoon will last, given that a number of prominent issues clearly divide populists of various stripes and traditional business-friendly interests, which have long been at the heart of the GOP coalition but now look suspect to many of its voters.

The first of these, of course, is immigration. There has been a wave of political energy behind the idea of ejecting illegal immigrants and securing the nation’s borders that Republican leaders and donors largely resisted in recent years. In many ways, the spread of nativist sentiment in the 2000s and 2010s recalls the rapid rise of Know-Nothingism in the 1850s; in both cases, the level of foreign-born residents in the country reached double-digit percentages and sparked widespread anxieties among “native” Americans.

Immigration is an especially difficult policy problem for the Republican coalition to handle because of the way it divides the grassroots from business leaders. A serious policy to reduce illegal immigration would be targeted at American employers—whose interest in cheap labor often leads them to support easing the conditions of immigration into the country. Corporate interests wary of alienating any portion of their customer base also tend to embrace an inclusive idea of Americanism, whereas right populists angrily charge that such ideas have diluted our understanding of what makes America a great country.

In many ways, the spread of nativist sentiment in the 2000s and 2010s recalls the rapid rise of Know-Nothingism in the 1850s; in both cases, the level of foreign-born residents in the country reached double-digit percentages and sparked widespread anxieties among “native” Americans.

Questions of international trade create a similar divide. Businesses largely favor free movement of capital across international lines, the better to expand their markets and structure their businesses for maximum efficiency. Middle Americans (and especially Trump supporters) have come to see this way of thinking as profoundly detrimental to their own interests, and want trade policies tailored to protect their livelihoods and penalize outsourcing. Notably, divisions over trade do not correspond neatly to the partisan divide in recent years; again, a populist vs. business dimension seems more important, such that “neoliberals” in the Democrats’ coalition and free marketeers in the GOP have more in common with each other than with their populist copartisans.

This is even more clear for issues relating to “cronyism,” the political theme most ascendant in recent years. Many of the pronouncements of anti-establishment Republicans denouncing the corrupt self-dealing of Beltway insiders could easily come out of the mouths of left populists such as Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. True, the particular bêtes noires for these groups are quite distinct, but their intense suspicions of each other often look like the narcissism of small differences. Republican insiders, on the other hand, turned out in 2008 to support the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) legislation along with a majority of Democrats, a fact that continues to enrage many Republican backbenchers years later.

Insider vs. outsider is a recurrent theme in American politics, but it looms especially large given Donald Trump’s victory. In many ways, Trump seems poised to heighten its importance, having spent as much time in the final weeks of his campaign picking fights with other Republicans as he did differentiating his agenda from the Democrats’. The same goes for pro-Trump media, which stoked immense fury at all of those Republicans who refused to back Trump.

By no means was Trump the start of Republicans’ problems in keeping their coalition unified. Open plotting by hardline elements led to the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner, a remarkable development with few historical precedents. Before Trump’s victory, it seemed likely that his successor, Paul Ryan, could meet the same fate after coming to be seen as a traitor by many Trump supporters for his lukewarm support of the party’s nominee.

Victory in 2016 has put off these reckonings, at least for a short time. There are already plenty of attempts to reconcile apparently conflicting worldviews within the GOP coalition. But the tensions will undoubtedly be reactivated with a fury once the party is forced to take consequential stands on concrete issues that divide them. If nothing else, those Republicans who remain committed to fiscal conservatism will have to decide whether they can cooperate with an administration likely to swell the federal deficit very early in Trump’s presidency.

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - President Donald Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) meet at the U.S. Capitol. The relationship between Trump and Ryan may serve as one indicator of the health of the Republican party.

For Democrats, the split between populists and the party’s establishment has also widened since the financial crisis. Self-described progressives seek to frame things in terms of a civil war between true reformers struggling for the greater good and a party apparatus hopelessly compromised by its close ties to corporate interests. (A recent symbolic vote on whether Americans should be allowed to purchase Canadian pharmaceuticals provides a good illustration.) While President Obama was, at least in some ways, able to straddle this divide because of the aura created by his heady 2008 rise to the presidency, his anointed successor, Hillary Clinton, proved to be quite incapable of continuing that feat. Her seemingly inexorable march to the party’s nomination ended up exposing a deep divide in the party’s base over fundamental issues, which her leading challenger, Bernie Sanders, highlighted.

In many ways, Democrats’ internal divisions closely parallel Republicans’. On trade and immigration, in particular, there is a profound divergence in worldviews between haves and have-nots. The increasingly reified “WWC”—white working class—seems to be alienated from a party that was once its comfortable home, in large part because of its feelings that cosmopolitan elites care more about advancing global development (and their own financial stakes in it) than about preserving high-quality jobs for their countrymen (whom those elites largely see as undeserving of sympathy relative to historically oppressed minorities).

Such questions of economic solidarity feed into parallel questions of cultural solidarity that have simmered for many years, but seem to have come to a boil recently: whether and how Democrats should put racial identity politics or an aggressive campaign for multicultural diversity at the center of their self-image. During the George W. Bush administration, culture war issues seem to have been a unifying issue for Democrats. “Defense against the religious right” could unite a wide variety of people who felt threatened by evangelical ambitions. But somewhere along the line, the culture war objective for many Democrats shifted; as Mark Tushnet rather gleefully put it, those on the left needed to “abandon defensive crouch liberalism” in favor of stamping out all opposition. “Showing the bigots just how wrong they are, and stopping all of their insidious forms of discrimination in all corners of life” turns out not to be a particularly unifying agenda, especially outside of the nation’s major cities.

Of course, much of the difference between the Bush years and the Obama years can be explained by going from out-party to in-party, with all of the attendant burdens of responsibility for governing, and the task of banding together in cultural opposition to Trump will probably be an easier one. But these issues retain the potential to be seriously divisive, especially given some Democrats’ insistence that identity-related issues should be the party’s top political priority. It remains to be seen if the party can find a way to contain both camps.

C. Outsider infiltration and broken conventions

To many staunch Republicans, the idea that Donald Trump could be their party’s nominee, and then president, was unthinkable as recently as late 2015. Trump was widely opposed by movement conservatives, who doubted his commitment to their principles, and seen as someone driven into the Republican Party by opportunism more than anything else. This was entirely understandable, given that in an early primary debate Trump refused to pledge that he would support the GOP nominee (and it is remarkable that this question even needed to be asked). Trump’s victory in winning the party’s nomination was accompanied by dramatic signs of discontinuity with the party’s recent history. Perhaps most strikingly, both Presidents Bush and Mitt Romney withheld their support for Trump, with George H.W. Bush going so far as to let it be known he would vote for Hillary Clinton.

But here we are.

Trump’s emergence was not, to be fair, the first sign that the institutional party was incapable of producing leaders its own base would warm to. In 2008, Sarah Palin gave voice to populist elements of the party that were clearly in tension with its pro-TARP congressional leaders (which included nominee John McCain). In 2012, little-known businessman Herman Cain led primary polls at one point. That year, Ron Paul, who ran as the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee in 1988 and has always styled himself as a critic of Republicans’ Washington leadership, took 118 delegates into the Republican convention, shaking party insiders enough for them to significantly reconfigure their nomination rules. In 2016, alongside Trump, Dr. Ben Carson garnered huge amounts of early support in national polls preaching a message of citizens ousting a corrupted party leadership.

Trump’s emergence was not, to be fair, the first sign that the institutional party was incapable of producing leaders its own base would warm to.

In the end, Trump’s populist takeover of the party was effected fairly smoothly thanks to his string of primary victories over his fragmented opposition. The 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland will not go down as a broken one in which the party left in shambles. But there was just a whiff of that old-time convention-floor pandemonium when anti-Trump delegates sought a roll call vote on the question of whether delegates should be unbound by their states’ primary results and allowed to vote their consciences. Shouting to have their point of order recognized, the Utah delegation, co-headed by Senator Mike Lee, staged a dramatic moment of resistance to Trump, though ultimately its protests were ignored. In itself, this moment does not amount to much, but it is possible that it is a harbinger of open intraparty warfare yet to come. Certainly this is more drama than featured in most modern conventions, which tend to be carefully scripted affairs.

We will have to wait and see whether the Republican Convention of 2020 might wind up being as divisive as the 1852 Whig Convention was—of course, everything will depend on which divisions within the party deepen, and which are successfully managed, during Trump’s presidency.

Democrats have not experienced a similarly charged convention since 1980 (or, in a parallel universe, since the run of Tanner ’88); by the time they got to their national convention in Philadelphia in July 2016, the drama of intraparty struggles so evident during the primary contest had been contained. But the successfully stage-managed convention atmosphere belied the extraordinarily lively platform fight that preceded it, which featured struggles over whether to support a national $15 minimum wage, a single-payer national health insurance program, a carbon tax, and other progressive priorities.

Sanders’ candidacy deserves some attention as a symptom of outsider infiltration into a party system. Sanders has defined himself as a socialist throughout his political career and always run as an independent, and even as he sought the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination he refused to clearly label himself as a member of the party. That he could nevertheless run so strongly, in spite of nearly united support of the Democratic leadership, says a great deal about the party’s vulnerability. One might see Democrats’ ability to fend off and then ultimately coopt Sanders as a sign of good organizational health, but doing so was extraordinarily costly in terms of ongoing partisan cohesion. Indeed, the struggle spawned a super-PAC devoted to opposing the eventual Democratic nominee from the left and left a trail of disaffected young voters (which contributed to a smaller margin of victory for Democrats among that group).

REUTERS/Mike Sega. Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (L) speaks directly to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a debate in 2016. The success of Sanders, a self-described socialist, in Democratic primaries highlights the divisions within the party

Lingering organizational tensions within the Democratic party continue to play out in public. First, there was a fierce struggle over who will be the next chair of the Democratic National Committee. Progressive favorite Representative Keith Ellison, backed by Sanders, was opposed by the outgoing administration, which saw him as likely to pick unnecessarily divisive fights during a period in which the party needs to expand its tent. Meanwhile, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi faced an unexpectedly strong challenge for her leadership of House Democrats. Representative Tim Ryan, from a quintessential Rust Belt district in northeast Ohio, mounted a challenge to Pelosi, questioning whether a San Francisco liberal could adequately represent Democrats for middle-Americans coping with the long hangover of deindustrialization. Although he took only 63 votes compared to 134 for Pelosi, this was the strongest performance by any challenger to the former Speaker she has experienced in 15 years as House Democrats’ leader. Showing how hard it is to serve all of the diverse elements of their coalition, Senate Democrats under new Minority Leader Charles Schumer will have a remarkably large 10-person leadership team—including Bernie Sanders, who still says he is not a Democrat—during the 115th Congress.

D. Ferment of third party activity

A decisive factor in the Whigs’ decline was the rise of third party alternatives, including the Liberty and Free Soil parties focused on slavery and the American Party channeling nativist energy. The emergence of these parties meant that anti-Democratic energy did not necessarily accrue to the Whigs’ benefit. The weakness of third parties in our contemporary moment is, conversely, the best thing going for today’s two parties. The election of 2016 featured historic levels of antipathy for the nominees of both major parties, but in the end relatively few people were driven to support minor party alternatives.

Holt stresses the importance of a structural element of voting that helped doom the Whigs. In the 1850s, the Australian Ballot had not yet proliferated in America; since there were no official pre-printed ballots, every voter could cast a different ballot. That meant that third parties could make fast inroads much more quickly: simply by providing their own ballots with their own candidates, they could empower voters to support their party up and down the ticket at no greater cost than printing.

Today, in contrast, ballot access laws require political parties to collect thousands (or, in some states, hundreds of thousands) of verified signatures in order for their candidates to be among the choices voters can select from. Third parties are, therefore, at an immense disadvantage. People generally have some sense of this fact, which leads to a widespread sense that politics outside of the two leading parties is inherently unserious and, indeed, a waste of time. This makes it harder for outside parties to gain any traction, which in turn reinforces ballot access restrictions, and duopoly persists effectively unchallenged. We should therefore be cautious about over-reading signs of third party ferment in the current moment.

That said, there have been some signs recently that Americans are willing to look beyond Democrats and Republicans—and when we think about the potential for serious reconfiguration that could doom one of the two existing parties, we must certainly think of both in tandem. For the reconfiguration of the 1850s to happen, Whigs had to fracture and split apart, but Democrats also had to alienate sufficient numbers of northerners to swell the ranks of new parties.

Today’s third largest party is the Libertarian Party (LP), which consistently manages the feat of getting its presidential candidate on every state ballot and which, in 2016, attracted its most ever votes, with nearly 4.5 million Americans (about 3.3 percent) supporting their duo of ex-Republican governors, Gary Johnson of New Mexico and William Weld of Massachusetts. That the Libertarians could attract, and agree to nominate, two serious politicians with fairly good reputations shows that the party has made some real strides toward political competitiveness in recent years.

But by other metrics, the LP seems to have missed its moment to emerge as a serious political contender; the breadth of its support is lacking, though hardly negligible. Johnson and Weld got only one endorsement from a sitting federal legislator (Scott Rigell of Virginia, on his way to retirement). They managed to get three percent of the vote in only a third of U.S. Senate races (AK, AR, CO, GA, IL, IN, KS, NC, ND, OK, PA, WI) and put a candidate on the ballot in only around a quarter of all U.S. House races. The national party listed only 602 candidates for any office (state or local) nationally (for reference, there are 7,299 seats in the country’s 98 partisan state legislative bodies). As of this past May, the LP was reported to have just 13,000 dues-paying members and a (recently much-increased) membership of over 400,000. There are trends moving in the right direction for the LP, but they do not seem on track to become a full service national political party in the near future. And 2016, in many ways, seemed like their best chance.

The Green Party, which Ralph Nader headed in his infamous 2000 run, is even more of an afterthought than the Libertarian Party. Though its presidential ticket did get almost 1.5 million votes (one percent of the national total), it had very little support from any notables, either in politics or in other walks of life. Just two of its U.S. Senate candidates passed three percent support (in AZ and MD) and it had just 295 candidates nationwide. Considering that Nader received almost 2.9 million votes in 2000, the Green Party seems unlikely to break through into national strength.

Two other recent developments seem more significant to potential party reconfiguration. First was Michael Bloomberg’s exploration of a presidential campaign. Facing the possibility that both Republicans and Democrats would select populist candidates in the 2016 cycle, Bloomberg—mega-billionaire and former Mayor of New York City—seriously considered a run in which he would position himself as a practical, business-friendly alternative with the ability to transcend the bitter partisanship of recent years and get things done. Ultimately, he decided that Hillary Clinton was likely to win the Democratic nomination, that she was a responsible enough choice, and that his own presence in the race could help deliver the election to Trump. Bloomberg’s flirtation raises an important question about the future of business interests in a political system tending toward structured conflict between left- and right-populists. If they can effectively coopt one of the two main parties, constraining the power of its populists, they may be happy enough backing it. If not, however, they might have considerable power to disrupt things by backing (and funding) some third party capable of winning political offices in business centers and grabbing a pivotal position between Ds and Rs. There are at least stirrings of such centrist political organizing, though it is unclear whether they will gain much traction.

Second, we saw a muted but suggestive reaction against Trump from the right. Given that the heterodox and unpredictable Trump took control of the Republican Party, many wondered if hardline conservatives could rally around a “#NeverTrump” candidate who would claim the mantle of “True Republicanism” or the like. This movement failed to draft Mitt Romney, widely seen as its best hope, and seemed to be simply sputtering out. Finally Evan McMullin, a 40-year-old with experience in the CIA and as a congressional staffer, belatedly entered the campaign in August 2016 with the idea of rallying this crowd to support him. Although he had very little institutional support, McMullin was on 11 states’ ballots and made a surprisingly strong run in Utah, where his roots in the Mormon community helped him win 21 percent of votes. With a shoestring budget and without an especially distinctive platform, McMullin collected some 725,000 votes, including that of Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina. McMullin’s run suggests the potential for Trump’s singular style to drive a wedge through the Republican coalition.

All this said, political organizing outside the confines of the Democratic or Republican Parties remains rather tame as of this writing. Institutional reforms to encourage such activity is minimal, though not non-existent: third-party-friendly Maine’s citizens just adopted ranked-choice voting for all of its statewide (and U.S. Congress) elections, which will allow a kind of provisional support for a third party candidate without costing voters their sense of efficacy should the race turn out to be between a Democrat and Republican. The nation’s largest state, California, continues its experiment with nonpartisan blanket primaries, with unclear results as of yet. If there is to be a major disruption of our party system, ferment of third parties well beyond present levels will be the best indicator.

III. Factors working on behalf of party stability and survival

When considering whether all of the centrifugal factors considered above are likely to prove decisive, fracturing the familiar coalitions we have known, we must also consider countervailing centripetal factors that push toward stability, of which there are several.

For the GOP, the first of these is its current strong organizational position when looking across all levels of American government, which is the strongest it has been since 1928. Republicans are about to have control over the White House, House of Representatives, and Senate for the first time since 2006, and their Democratic opposition is roiled by internal dissent. Although Trump’s support and their Senate majority are both tenuous, they are arguably in a much better position to absorb shocks in the coming years than Whigs were in after the election of 1848.

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - U.S. Representatives John Mica (R-FL) and Pete Sessions (R-TX) show off their “Make America Great Again” hats, illustrating Donald Trump’s support among the majority party in Congress.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - U.S. Representatives John Mica (R-FL) and Pete Sessions (R-TX) show off their “Make America Great Again” hats, illustrating Donald Trump’s support among the majority party in Congress.

Several other factors help make the GOP’s position today considerably more secure than the Whig party’s in the 1850s, and should also help to cement Democrats’ position even in spite of their current disadvantages. First, the national political conversation is much more dominant of state and local ones today than it was in the nineteenth century, both because of the increase in the federal government’s power and because of the structure of our modern media industry. That makes it less likely that local groups with divergent priorities will strike off in their own directions, and thus makes it less likely for third party alternatives to the two national parties to develop. The increased role for political money channeled through the two national parties likewise makes it hard to escape the duopoly. Also arguably suppressing third party organizing is social media’s facilitation of anonymous contact between like-minded people, which encourages them to discharge their energies in a fairly non-disruptive way relative to the face-to-face political organizing featured in the mid-19th century. At least for now, 4chan and Reddit pale in comparison to Know-Nothingism.

Second, America currently has historic levels of interparty mistrust and even loathing that go much deeper than policy differences. Some of this is about racial attitudes, which many political scientists now see as the single most reliable variable for predicting Americans’ political affiliations. Donald Trump’s appeal across middle America has been interpreted as being strongly or even primarily racial; a popular trope after the election was that “Whites Without College Degrees Voted Like an Ethnic Bloc” to deliver his victory. To the extent that persistent racial resentments organize our current political environment, they offer a potential source of party unity for Republicans that could override other kinds of intraparty tensions—though, given the trajectory of American demographic change, over the long run relying on racial and ethnic fears is obviously a double-edged sword.

Even apart from race, there is a sense that our “Big Sorted country really does feature two distinct types, “Reds” and “Blues,” each with an assigned political party. If that persists and deepens, our two existing party containers will endure, and the only question will be what kinds of policy agendas they are filled with. Cross-partisan resentments can sustain a two party system, at least in the short run, if no clear cross-cutting issue emerges to create new lines of political competition. Partisan self-identification ticked upward in 2016 and ticket-splitting appeared to continue its decline.

Cross-partisan resentments can sustain a two party system, at least in the short run, if no clear cross-cutting issue emerges to create new lines of political competition.

Third, and probably most importantly, there is no cross-cutting issue mobilizing as many Americans today as slavery did in the 1850s. Slavery aroused intense passions and also created policy differences that were quite readily comprehensible to any engaged citizen: although many controversial political tactics were quite arcane, the main questions of whether slavery should be allowed anywhere or in the nation’s growing territories were quite cut and dry and easily moralized. Immigration policy, which probably inspires the most intense cross-cutting passions today, raises questions that are far more complex: what enforcement and deportation targets should be prioritized, what kind of border control will be most effective, what kind of penalties should be targeted against employers who hire illegals. Though these undoubtedly do lead to acrimonious feelings for engaged citizens, it is hard to imagine them as the engine of massive political realignment, let alone civil war.

And yet it was difficult for Whigs, in the wake of Zachary Taylor’s election, to imagine that their party, still basking in an unexpected victory, could become obsolete over the next eight years. There are many reasons why the GOP and Democrats may avoid that fate. But it is failure of historical and political imagination to think they are necessarily immune.