Kent Bush: Will the GOP go the way of the Whigs?
How much longer will the tea party operate under the Republican umbrella?
Disagreements about slavery killed the Whigs in the Civil War era and the Republicans were born. Could disagreements on fiscal conservatism lead to a split in the Grand Old Party?
The Whigs had a short but successful tenure in early U.S. politics. The party only existed for about 35 years, but they were able to elect four presidents in that time.
That’s a strong party with nationwide attraction. Whigs were very progressive for their time, espousing such ideals as public education, rapid industrialization and a market oriented economy rather than one driven primarily by land ownership.
I think I just heard some “amens” from readers who wish the Whigs were still around.
But a few tricky issues led to the demise of the party and the rise of the Republicans. The GOP is rightfully called the party of Lincoln because Abraham Lincoln was a member of the Whigs, but he left the party and several other leaders died and left the remnant who remained unable to sustain the organization.
It was like a modern-day mega-church that grows under the vision and direction of a charismatic pastor but dissipates when that pastor is no longer leading the flock.
Controversy and a failure of leadership caused the Whigs to wither away.
The controversy was no minor skirmish. The Whigs divided over slavery.
Slavery is mostly known today as a moral issue. But most of the proponents of slavery were not in favor of the act because they enjoyed mistreating people, holding them captive and forcing them to work.
Slavery was a economic issue to plantation owners. Getting all of the heavy lifting done for the small price of feeding “workers” enough to stay alive and just enough shelter to survive really helped the profit margins on tobacco and cotton farms.
The fact that the people were black and considered to be less valuable than white people helped rationalize what had to be obviously wrong at the time.
When slavery became an issue in politics the southern Whigs devolved into the American Party and the northern Whigs became the Republican Party.
Lincoln was an early leader of the Republicans and the anti-slave former Whigs won the day thanks to legislation and a bloody Civil War.
Thankfully, no second chapter of the Civil War is on the horizon. But the tea party is threatening to tear the Republican Party apart.
At first the tea party appeared to be a faction of the GOP calling the party to a more conservative platform. The tea party’s effects on the elections in 2010 were undeniable.
In the two years since, many people have pronounced the death of the tea party as many pundits assumed the faction had been reassimilated into the GOP fold.
But the targets of the tea party continue to fall. And those targets are as likely to be moderate Republican candidates as they are Democrats.
Proponents of tea party ideals which are strong social conservatism and lower taxes to the point of austerity, continue to fight opponents from the left side of the aisle but also those from the “establishment” of the Republican Party who are seen as having compromised the party’s ideals.
The staunch refusal to compromise was a leading factor in the death of the Whigs. The Compromise of 1850 allowed California into the union and did so by making the new state a free state rather than a slave state. This was one of the final straws for the southern Whigs and a leading factor in the beginning of the Civil War.
Members of the tea party are equally reactionary toward Republican legislators and leaders who support any idea espoused by Democrats. If a member of the GOP supported national health care, they had a far-right opponent to challenge them in the next election cycle. The same was true for supporters of the stimulus package and other planks from President Barack Obama’s platform that were passed.
The tea party got another big win this week in the election for a senator seat in Texas when Sarah Palin went down to the Lone Star state and helped Ted Cruz defeat “establishment" candidate Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who had been endorsed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Cruz, Palin and the tea party won easily.
The problem comes when you try to see what the “end game” strategy is. The tea party would gladly remain under the banner of the Republican Party.
However, that would require a complete takeover of the party. The entire party would have to jettison moderate candidates willing to compromise or those who don’t pass a test of their loyalty to tea party ideals.
If the establishment Republicans aren’t willing to shift that far to the right of the political spectrum, what will the result be?
Will the tea party split off and operate unilaterally like the Reform Party did a decade or so ago?
The tea party has some assets that the Reform Party didn’t. Instead of Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura, the tea party has Sarah Palin.
Thanks to the Citizens United ruling, the tea party also has almost unchecked financial support that the Reform Party could have only dreamed about.
Obviously, the reason we still have a two-party system is that the parties balance each other out. For one to split successfully, both would have to split. The Reform Party cannibalized the Republican Party and led to the election of Bill Clinton.
The tea party has successfully operated under the Republican umbrella. Only the more moderate Republicans know how far to the right they are willing to see their party shift before the two sides have to operate as separate parties with separate platforms.
For now, the Republicans are accepting the intrusion from the right. When they finally tire of fighting with members of their own party and bearing the brunt of those attacks, will the GOP regain its former identity or will they go the way of the Whigs?
Kent Bush is publisher of the Augusta (Kan.) Gazette.