As conservatives debate forming a third party, history demonstrates that the political situation in America is eerily similar to that of the 1850s when anti-slavery Northern Whigs left the Whig Party to form the Republican Party in 1856 and capture the White House in 1860.
The Whig Party was formed in 1833 in opposition to the policies of Andrew Jackson and his Democrat Party, taking their name from a common term Patriots used to refer to themselves in the Revolutionary War indicating hostility to the king. Whigs favored modernization programs and economic protectionism while supporting the supremacy of Congress over the Presidency, which wasn’t surprising since they viewed Jackson as usurping his authority as president to the detriment of the forces of modernization.
As the issue of slavery came to dominate the national conversation in the succeeding two decades, the Whig Party became increasingly fractured along regional boundaries with the Northern Whigs favoring abolition while the Southern Whigs favored the preservation of slavery and its expansion to new states admitted to the union. The Compromise of 1850, five bills which dampened tension and avoided Civil War through the negotiated conditions on various territories, seriously exacerbated the fracture of the Whig Party over the slavery issue. These tensions were heightened with the nomination of General Winfield Scott over Whig President Millard Fillmore and Scott’s overwhelming loss to Democrat Franklin Piece in 1852 which led to several notable party defections including that of Illinois Whig Abraham Lincoln, who subsequently left party politics to concentrate on his law practice. The culmination of this party fracture was embodied in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 which Southern Whigs generally supported and Northern Whigs strongly opposed and which prompted Abraham Lincoln to join the Republican Party.
As one can glean from this simplified view of factional tensions tearing away at the Whig Party over the contentious issue of slavery, one can’t help but notice the similarities of factional tensions pulling the Republican Party in different directions over the current issue of government expansion and its unsustainable spending curve. Establishment Republicans favor a policy of moderation which takes government expansion as a given but seeks to restrain this growth as much as possible. They argue that Americans have become enchanted with government subsidies and are resistant to their complete elimination, but could be persuaded that there should be limits to these subsidies to preserve the sustainability of government spending.
Conservative Republicans argue that the party should return to its brand of low taxes and limited government that frees the economy from the crush of unrestrained government spending and regulations which overwhelm businesses from expanding and hinders economic improvement. The establishment wing of the party is composed of the wealthy party donors who bankroll candidates and thus have an enormous amount of influence in party policy, while those in the conservative wing have performed the bulk of thankless grassroots work necessary to win elections. At this point, it is unclear which faction is more dependent upon the other as there are wealthy donors sympathetic to the conservative faction, and wealthy establishment moderates have the means to employ grassroots workers. I would give the edge to the conservatives as they are much more passionate given their desire to man the trenches during elections. Passion over the issues will generally overcome the laziness and indifference borne of mercenary efforts.
The Whigs faced contentious issues which fractured their party and endured political missteps which eventually led to its dissolution. Depending upon their views, its members drifted either to the newly formed Republican Party or were absorbed into the Democrat Party. Unable to overcome the gulf in their positions on the issue of slavery, they dissolved the party along factional lines and migrated to other parties more closely aligned with their factional positions. Despite the fact that the Whig Party had succeeded in electing four of its members as president, it faded from existence after fracturing over a contentious issue.
The Republican Party is currently fractured over the contentious issue of government expansion and its subsequent unsustainable spending curve. Moderates in the establishment wing have convinced the conservative wing that it risks permanent electoral exile if it abandons the GOP to form a third party, but history proves just the opposite. The Republican Party, newly formed in 1856 from a genesis in 1854 among dissatisfied Whigs, tapped into an enormous undercurrent of Americans tired of being presented with essentially the same choice from two parties occupying the same portion of the political spectrum and won the presidency just four years later in 1860 with former Whig Abraham Lincoln as their candidate.
The issue of that day was slavery with both the Democrats and Whigs accepting it as a given and arguing over details of its existence while Americans were clamoring for a candidate to step up and denounce it as an abomination which must be eliminated. The GOP under Lincoln did just that and was rewarded with electoral success by Americans tired of the entire slavery issue and its pernicious effect on daily life. The issue of this day is unsustainable government spending which is fueling government expansion at the cost of future generations sentenced to the burden of debt with both the Democrats and Republicans are accepting it as a given and arguing over details of its administration while Americans are clamoring for a candidate to step up and denounce it as an abomination which must be brought under control. The TEA Party under a genuine conservative candidate is poised to do just that and is in a position to be rewarded with electoral success by Americans tired of the entire government spending issue and its pernicious effect on daily life.
For this to happen, conservatives must admit that the Republican Party is no longer able to bridge the gulf between its factions and determine to leave it for the TEA Party which is much more closely aligned to their platform of limited government, lower taxes, less regulation, and more economic freedom. Libertarian Republicans favoring smaller government would certainly find a comfortable home in the TEA Party alongside economically conservative Republicans aghast at unsustainable government spending and socially conservative Republicans determined to rid America of progressive government interference in social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
Conservatives must stop believing the lie from establishment Republicans that their abandonment of the GOP automatically dooms them to the political wilderness. They must realize the existence of a vast undercurrent of Americans tired of being presented with essentially the same choice from two parties occupying the same portion of the political spectrum and clamoring for a genuine choice instead of being relegated to voting for the lesser of two evils. Americans desperately want to vote for a candidate who embodies the spirit of American exceptionalism with a sunny disposition and the drive to see America back on top instead of being forced to vote against the candidate they fear will harm America the most.
History is on the side of the TEA Party, and conservatives would do well to recognize the historical precedents which portend its success. We TEA Party members have demonstrated that we can nominate candidates, that Americans are receptive to the TEA Party message, and that these candidates can win. Conservative Republicans can help us continue this success much faster by not having us fight against the establishment wing of the GOP controlling the money and nomination process. On our own, we can more effectively contrast our agenda of limited government against the bankrupt ideas of the progressives who are dragging America into the abyss.