From the early 1830’s until 1852, when they refused to re-nominate Millard Filmore, their own incumbent president, the Whig Party was a dominant political force in America. Whig was a common term for a patriot during the revolution; it described someone who opposed the king and tyranny. The Whig Party was formed to oppose the presidency of Andrew Jackson, a Democrat they had decided was a tyrant, and hell bent on taking away their freedoms. Sound familiar? The modern Republican Party philosophy owes much to the Whigs, particularly the Tea Party wing, and now finds itself in danger of suffering the same political fate, schism and electoral irrelevance on a national level.
In the dark days after Reagan, the current Republican Party coalesced around its hatred of all things Clinton. No matter that he presided over an economy that created twenty million jobs, balanced the budget, reformed welfare, signed the hateful and bigoted Defense of Marriage Act and left office with a budget surplus, he was despised and constantly hounded by conservative Republicans. The insane Obama conspiracy theories that currently flow non-stop from the Right Wing Noise Machine had their genesis in the obsessive intrusion into Bill and Hillary Clinton’s private lives.
In both the Clinton and Obama administrations, the Republican congressional majority in the House was consumed by partisan political grandstanding against the president making it difficult to do the hard work of governing this nation. Ditto the Senate minority now. The Whig Party was formed around a shared hatred for President Jackson and today modern Republicans are defined by their own irrational hatred for Democratic presidents.
The Whigs were pro business, they believed in state’s rights, small federal government and they were suspicious of immigrants, who once naturalized, tended to vote for Democrats. They had charismatic and popular national leaders and yet were split on the main issue of the day, slavery and it eventually led to their downfall. The Republican Party rose from those ashes. Abraham Lincoln had been a Whig congressman before the collapse of the party.
Today the Republican Party faces an issue of national concern that threatens to irreparably divide them, immigration reform, specifically a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented aliens already living and working in the United States. The mainstream pragmatists in the party, who see winning elections as the goal of a political party, know they cannot win national elections unless they make inroads with women, youth and minorities. Given the Republican obsession with removing control of women’s reproductive health issues from doctors and patients and giving it to local, state and national government, women’s votes may not be a realistic goal. Social issues do not resonate with the youth vote any longer, even young Republicans don’t see the point of hating gays and denying them civil rights like marriage equality and lives free of discrimination. Shrinking government until it fits inside our bedrooms is not going to move the next generation into the Republican camp.
So that leaves wooing minorities to the party if they ever expect to occupy the executive mansion again. Given that African-Americans vote 90% Democratic, and there are no signs that is going to change anytime soon, making inroads with the Hispanic vote is the only way back to an electoral majority. And legislating a fair and equitable path to citizenship is the issue that will make or break that endeavor. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party vehemently opposes any type of amnesty, so there will be no Republican consensus. As former Whig and Republican icon Abraham Lincoln observed, a house divided against itself cannot stand.
The southern “Cotton Whigs”, who were pro slavery, doomed the party in the mid 19th century because they refused to recognize the humanity of the Africans they had enslaved. The Tea Party Republicans in the 21st century doom their party’s ability to advance a national agenda because they refuse to recognize the humanity of a people searching for a better life for their families. Immigrants, the poor, infirm, elderly, LGBT, hungry or homeless Americans deserve a government that works for them and they will not find it in today’s Republican Party. Failing to learn from the Whigs demise may yet doom the Republican Party to repeat their history.