Will Republicans go the way of the Whig Party?

I have no formal training in matters of history outside of a public school education that ended with a High School diploma. So it is quite possible that I am missing some nuance and would welcome those more learned than I to chime in.

While discussing third party alternatives in recent Presidential elections, someone I know pointed out to me that Abraham Lincoln could have been considered a Third Party candidate. This surprised me because I was led to believe that he was a Republican.

So I hit the Googles and the Wikis and there is a germ of truth since by one yardstick, the Republican Party was a newly-created third party alternative to the Whigs and Democrats. However, it seems that by the time 1860 rolled around, the Republicans had already displaced the Whigs as the dominant party, at least on the national level with most of the North voting Republican in that election and there wasn’t a Whig on the ballot (former Whig John Bell ran under the Constitutional Union Party, which garnered some support from ex-Whig and Know Nothing Party members).

In any event, this fascinated me but I wondered how the Whigs vanished from the political landscape and were replaced by the Republicans. According to Wiki, “The party was ultimately destroyed by the question of whether to allow the expansion of slavery to the territories. With deep fissures in the party on this question, the anti-slavery faction prevented the re-nomination of its own incumbent President Fillmore in the 1852 presidential election; instead, the party nominated General Winfield Scott. Most Whig party leaders thereupon quit politics (as Lincoln did temporarily) or changed parties. The northern voter base mostly joined the new Republican Party. By the 1856 presidential election, the party was virtually defunct.”

So from what I can tell, all it took was a difference of opinion on one issue - slavery - to cause a political party that had elected four Presidents to splinter and vanish within a few years and get completely replaced by the Republican Party and aside from the occasional Bull Moose or H. Ross Perot anomaly, was pretty much when the two-party system as we currently know it was born.

Let’s look now to the current state of the Republican party. It, too, has warring factions from within. On one hand you have the fiscal conservatives and on the other, you have the Religiously-motivated right wing of the party that cares considerably more about social issues than their Libertarian-leaning fellow Republicans.

If the rights of slaves broke up a party, why can’t the rights of gays and women be the issue that causes the Republicans to go the way of the Whigs (quite literally in this case)?

I don’t know how likely it is, but if the upcoming election gives Democrats the White House, the Senate and the House, that can be the straw that really sets the Republican Party into ideological chaos.

(As for the likelihood of this, according to 538.org’s Nate Silver, right now Obama wins about 85% of the time and Democrats control the Senate 80% of the time. In June he gave Democrats only a 4-to-1 chance of retaking the house, however he hasn’t examined it since then. It is possible that the Obama-down-ticket surge in the Senate - which on Aug. 19th favored Republicans to win control 61.5% of the time but in only five weeks flipped to the aforementioned 80% Democratic advantage - may have an impact on House races as well.)

Or maybe Dems will just keep the Senate and White House but the next four years will be prosperous (indicators say that we should do better regardless of major policy changes thanks to the recovery) and in 2016 the Democrats sweep an ever-dysfunctional Republican Party away and the shit really hits the fan. As dysfunctional was the 2012 nomination process, maybe 2016 is even more of a clusterfuck of competing ideologies - similar to the Whigs in 1852…?

But it also seems that regardless of how bad they fuck things up and how splintered the GOP becomes, it’s just hard for me to envision a world without them even with a Libertarian Party that is increasingly becoming a place for displaced Republicans than Progressives and the Tea Party phenomenon. But was it hard to envision a Whig-free world in the 1850s before it actually happened? I don’t know.

It seems to me it mostly depends on just how firmly in control the crazies are. If the Republicans lose badly enough and often enough, but the fanatics insist on riding the party down in flames and can’t be dislodged then I can certainly see the party falling apart. If things get that bad then I’d expect the rich donors, the “plutocrat” faction to stop backing the Republicans and back some other party as a replacement; if that happened and the moderates continued to desert the fanatics would be left in control of a shell of a party.

On the other hand if the remaining non-fanatics can re-take leadership of the party after such defeats then eventually I’d expect them to re-invent the party and come back after a time in eclipse. For example, they could jettison the white racists/homophobes (who are declining in population and ultimately a losing proposition), and reach out to the large population of socially conservative non-whites. This would probably take quite a long time though, they’d have to overcome their present reputation.

The fiscal conservatives can’t jettison the social conservatives because there are relatively few fiscal conservatives. Far too few to make up a major party in the United States. In order to keep their tax rates as low as possible corporate types will continue to caucus with religious types. So it won’t be differing views of the place of gays and women in the world that causes an uproar. The 1% might not care to keep them in their place but they care about their money more than anything.

The demographic problem the GOP faces on the other hand is a real issue. As the nation becomes less and less white and America’s economic place in the world erodes we can expect a rise in racial tensions. I personally don’t expect it to tear the GOP apart. I figure they will drop the race baiting and reach out to conservative nonwhites and pretend they never did otherwise. But if the competition for resources escalates so that much that tensions cannot be ignored… then we once again have the exact recipe that finished the Whigs: with neither major party moving to adopt one side of the major national issue both parties are weakened and eventually one could topple. The business conservative party and the angry white party could go their separate ways. As I said, I don’t expect it to happen but I think that is the most likely way for the GOP to disintegrate.

No doubt about it - retaining control of the House and making gains in the Senate will be the death knell for the GOP.

Just like 2004 was the end for the modern Democratic party. They lost ground in the House and Senate, and they lost the White House. And they never recovered.

Have you ever heard of a concept called “wishful thinking”? I hope not - it would cut about half the entertainment value from threads like this.


Shodan, your answer suggests that there is no possible scenario where the a major party vanishes from the US political scene, that it will always be Democrats and Republicans. The OP isn’t saying “this will happen if Obama wins,” he’s asking “could this happen if Obama wins,” and it’s a good question.

One possibility would be that the Democrats gradually drift further right (as they are doing, and as the Republicans did) and a new party takes the place of the old left-of-center Democrats. The problem is, I don’t see any party on either side that’s currently viable enough to take over from one of the Big Two, no matter how weak. We don’t have anything like the British LibDems or Canadian NDP that I’m aware of. And one change from the 1850s is that Americans seem a lot less flexible in considering major systemic changes to the country, so maybe they’re so invested in Black and White (excuse me: Red and Blue) that they will keep it going until the country disintegrates.

I could see the Green Party or Libertarian Party getting their shit together and campaign like crazy to get people to know that there is an alternative to the two parties.

EDIT: But I am absolutely uneducated on how much money either party could gather and how much ads cost.

It is by no means certain that Republicans will make gains in the Senate or retain control of the House. Formerly safe nutcases like West and Bachmann may not be here next year, even Eric Cantor is in serious danger of losing.

In today’s Republican Party, the lunatics have seized control of the asylum. If sanity cannot be restored, the party will die and will deserve to. What I suspect will happen is that the Teahadists will go down in flames and some degree of responsibility will re-emerge within the GOP. If it doesn’t, they may well be replaced by a new party. Either conservative Democrats will split away and occupy the void or a new center right successor to the GOP will emerge.

Two years, max. The electorate is very fickle. Look how fast they went from giving the Democrats the government on a platter to electing the biggest slate of morons and racists in living memory.

The only thing that will destroy the Republicans as a party is when the religious nuts start turning on each other or the whole bunch die off.

I find it extremely unlikely that the GOP will die out like the Whig party did in the 1850’s. They could, potentially, be transformed in such a way that a large number of 2012 Republians wouldn’t qualify or want to be a member of the 2032 version–this is essentially what happened to the Democrats between 1948 and 1968.

The Libertarian Party is the most obvious candidate to cause that transformation (face it Tea Partiers, you’re really just warmed-over Libertarians–or at least it’s Libertarian zillionaires who are footing the bill). But here you’re really talking about the “Libertarian faction” within the Republican Party rather than the actual Libertarian party, which IMO has been a hopeless electoral cause.

I for one would love to see a third party pose an actual threat to one or both political parties, but until election rules are changed (e.g. instant runoff, proportion representation in the House) it will never happen.

Those were mostly two different groups of voters. And I don’t think that people are going to forget decades of bigotry directed at them as quickly as you claim. How long would it take the KKK to convince the black population it wasn’t racist anymore?

People are funny that way. More and more they are looking for the lesser of two evils, not a knight in shining armor. The Klan could probably convince enough people they had changed in less than 20 years. Besides, there are other social issues at work. The Latino vote is going to only grow larger, and they are very conservative on social issues. All the Republicans would have to do is come up with a rational immigration policy (fat chance) and they’d sway plenty of voters that would ignore the past to preserve the present.

And, there’s a big difference between a raison d’etre, and a pervasive trait (just how pervasive being arguable).

Political parties are probably immortal now. Parties used to die because they had core convictions that became minority positions or because their members became irrevocably split over an important issue. But modern political parties do not have any core convictions. They adapt as necessary to vie for the median vote, and will moderate stands on important issues to avoid the kind of fissures that used to kill parties (see, e.g., Democrats on gun control or Republicans on abortion).

Shodan’s basically right; odds are good the party will still hold a majority in the House and a strong minority in the Senate. I expect that sometime in the near future the Republicans will start to explain that they have always been supportive of gay marriage and that the real homophobes are the Democrats but they’ve got a reasonably successful electoral strategy and no reason to change it until they actually start seeing serious negative results on a consistent basis.

Unless real campaign finance laws reform the existing system, I can’t see how a splinter party from either the left or the right can succeed. Uneducated whites lack sufficient intrinsic monetary backing, just like the progressives do. Only by the far left making common cause with the mainstream middle class and the far right making common cause with the ruling class can their voices be heard at all.

Both the extremes are really unhappy with the situation, and for similar reasons – they get to be on the platform, but their train doesn’t leave the station. The libertarian, racist, religious-fanatic and homophobic/misogynist wings of the Republican party don’t get the respect they each feel they ought to get from the wealthy businessmen they elect, leading to the strange panorama we observe today, but much the same thing happens on the other side of the spectrum. If campaigns had limited time frames, limited, government sponsored budgets and airtime, things would be different. I like to think so anyway.

Not at all - there are certainly scenarios where a major political party would disappear. I’m just doubtful that the scenario where said party picks up seats in Congress is one of them, even if they don’t win the White House.


I just don’t think there is any issue of sufficient magnitude to cause the schism required for third-party ascendance (or even re-alignment). We’re talking slavery/civil rights type issues - gay rights and abortion just don’t have that type of sway.

On other issues the two parties just aren’t far enough apart to warrant a third-party’s rise.

I do think you will see a slight re-alignment within the GOP if they struggle to win nationally due to demographics. Otherwise you’ll see a more regional party that can still win majorities in Congress (due to rural districts in more demographically diverse states) but struggle to win Presidential contests.

That’s precisely why they will jettison the social conservatives in the end – lip service to hating teh gayz and teh uppity wimminfolk is an increasingly ironclad the votes of the Talibornagain faction and only the Talibornagain faction, and that just isn’t enough to win elections in most of the country. A pure fiscal-conservative platform, on the other hand, has a halfway decent chance of appealing to voters outside its own true-believer faction (it’s just a matter of spinning the pretty tax cuts front and center while hiding the benefit cuts up your sleeve, which was an old trick when the Greeks invented democracy).

That would be a natural result of the collapse of one of the existing duopoly parties (e.g. if the big-money fiscal conservatives reach the point of deciding that cleaning up teh crazee and reinventing the Libertarian Party is more practical than cleaning up teh crazee that has gotten a death grip on the GOP). If so, it will be more a side effect of larger events than anything the small parties do on their own initiative.

I really don’t see a way for the Republican Party to dry up and blow away, unless the laws change so it takes a majority, rather than a mere plurality, to win elections.

As long as a party can win with a plurality, the fact that a third party’s success draws off votes from the major party most like it means it throws elections to the major party least like it, undermining its own interests. This reality keeps third parties minuscule, and ensures that there’s nowhere else to go if you’re a sane Republican who still fundamentally disagrees with the Democratic governing philosophy.

Perhaps if the Democrats in 2017, say, were in as dominant a position as they briefly were in 2009, they could form two ‘parties within a party,’ one that was genuinely liberal, and one that was basically Blue Dog. If these two sub-parties competed with each other in party primaries as a matter of course, perhaps the two sub-parties would look enough like a step towards separate parties that they’d give sane Republicans somewhere to go. And as the actual Republican portion of the vote diminished, the Blue Dog and liberal factions of the Democratic Party could become separate parties.

I think the chance of something like that happening is essentially nil, and that’s about the only path I can envision.