The Party of Arthur? | Steve Berman

I am an observer of politics, not a player. One observation I’ve gleaned through life is that people have to be “voluntold” to join a committee, but willingly spend their precious time and money to join a movement. Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have long disguised themselves as movements when in reality they are giant committees that have to pay people to work.

Starting anything new is difficult, and made more so in politics because a party, naked and stripped down to its founding members, obviously, walks, quacks, and swims like a committee. It takes time and some demagoguery to complete the movement disguise. Therefore, most political insiders who understand these things know that a “third party” will fail, and they also know why.

Ross Perot ran as a true independent in 1992, garnering over 18 percent of the vote (and contributing to the sinking of George H.W. Bush) then founded the Reform Party in 1995. In 1992, Perot led a movement; by 2000 it had become a committee, and that fact scared away one Donald J. Trump, who realized he couldn’t take it over. The Reform Party never had a shot after that.

There is tacit agreement among many pundits that the GOP is in trouble. The populist former president who has consolidated the reins of political power, fund raising, and raw messaging to himself, making a mockery of our system which has now become a simple calculus of “are you for or against Trump?” has polluted the Republican Party. The main question we all seek to answer is if the poisoning is fatal, or if it’s just a fever that will pass.

One thing that I believe is true: The anti-Trump reflex is a movement, not a committee. This is similar to 2010, when the Tea Party was a movement. Movements attract all kinds: Zealots, grifters, organizers, and followers. The dividing line that determines when a movement becomes a party is one of those mysteries we have no insight to solve. It’s further complicated by the fact that Federal Election Commission regulations, state ballot access rules, and inherent bias toward the major parties tend to snuff out anything new. Will the movement within the GOP against Trumpism metastasize into something useful?

It’s a hard question, and we don’t know how it’s going to work out. If you polled every pundit I know or read, you’d finda lot of great recipes. But you’d also find a diversity of opinion on the degree of listing and the inevitability—or lack of it—of the capsizing of the Republican Party ship. I think much of this is the kind of handwringing that any generation engaged in a great question engages in. Even during World War II, when in reality the outcome, once the United States fully committed to the war and England won the Battle of Britain, was never in serious doubt, anyone who lived through it would tell you they never assumed ultimate victory until the work was done and the surrenders were signed.

Of course, I am not drawing an equivalence between our political battles today and an actual world war, although if you add in COVID-19, the casualties are worthy of the comparison. My purpose is to point out that regardless of the facts on the ground, and the historical basis supporting likely conclusions, people will cling to uncertainty. While there is a chance the GOP will recover from its current hysteria, I believe that’s increasingly unlikely, and not because of the people running for office. There’s been a large shift, a realignment of voters and priorities, which has placed both political parties in a precarious position. Fortunately, conservative ideals, both in philosophical and in practical terms, offer more to attract Americans than the naked centralization and wishcasting of the socialist wing of the Democrats.

Upon this reality, a foundation for a new party can be built, because it’s based on a movement, not a committee. I’m not talking about a third party, but a successor to the current Republican Party. In order for the new party to succeed, the GOP must perish. I do think it’s already well on its way to join the party it replaced 168 years ago, the Whig Party, despite its successes at the state and Congressional level. I don’t think the GOP can shake the Trumpism off itself. I see the GOP as the New Whigs, and we can learn alot from what happened to the Whigs.

Now, I get that the history of an obscure political party from nearly 200 years ago isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but nerds like me (and my brother) rather enjoy it. Join me as we take the Wayback Machine to 1840, and set the playback speed to “really fast.”

A bit of Whig history

This is going to be a view of Whig history as seen from the moon. I am no professional historian, and even today historians are split as to the actual tendons of relationship and sinews of thought that made up the Whigs. I will long form quote one here by Mr. Allen C. Guelzo, as published 20 years ago in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.

They prided themselves on being a coalition of independent thinkers, unlike (in their imagination) the disciplined faithful of the Democrats, and they did not hesitate to turn on each other with divisive and disheartening abandon. Linked to that, the Whigs valorized the image of themselves as statesmen rather than (like their opposite numbers) party hacks who loved politics only for the power political office conferred. Sacrificing party for the nation, they would join hands with Democrats to serve the nation’s good—and then be punished at the polls afterwards by voters who saw no reason why they should vote Whig rather than Democrat. The most hideous example of this form of self-mutilation occurred immediately after the Whigs’ great triumph in 1840. In a gesture of independent nonpartisanship, the Whigs nominated former Democrat John Tyler as Harrison’s running mate. When Harrison died prematurely in 1841, Tyler assumed the presidency and promptly split the Whig majority in Congress into violently quarreling factions. As a result, disgusted Whig voters stayed home on election days from 1841 to 1848, and the Whigs’ majorities in the states and in Congress ebbed; in the 1842 by-elections they “suffered one of the most staggering reversals in off-year congressional elections ever witnessed in American history” (151).

Reaching across the aisle to hand power to your political adversary is the pinnacle of bipartisan statesmanship, which, as political advisers from both the mid-19th century and today would say, is also supremely dumb. I am really tempted to jump forward here and do a cut and paste of “Democrats” with “populists” or “formerly nominated candidates for the Reform Party,” but I will hold off. The results here, “self-mutilation,” are not hard to find in the GOP.

The issue of slavery overshadowed everything in the 1840s and 50s. Whig President Millard Fillmore endorsed the Compromise of 1850, as a statesmanlike way of preserving the union, as the voters moved increasingly to new alliances and poles, divided by that one issue, versus federalism, economics, or statecraft. It was the realignment of voters that did the Whigs in, because Whig voters cared less about using political power to implement policies, and more about having political power to force the other side to do their bidding.

New issues, like slavery, proved divisive rather than unifying for the Whigs; new, and sometimes flukey, political movements (like the Know-Nothings) easily carved into Whig constituencies, first because the Whigs prided themselves on the absence of the party discipline that would have kept those constituencies safe, and then because the 1850s had none of the disincentives for third-party movements (party registrations, qualifications for federal matching funds) that cripple modern third-party efforts. But the most obvious factor that changed the landscape was, simply, Whig defeats. The impact of political loss is cumulative. A party cannot indefinitely spring back anew with a new issue or a new candidate or a new election. Twenty years of defeats had simply worn down the old Whig leadership, many of whom (like Whig national chairman Truman Smith) called it quits on politics.

The Know-Nothings were a nativist, populist movement that was characterized by personalities, grifters, emotional appeal and distrust of government. The Whigs trusted government and its processes. In modern terms, the Whigs were the establishment Republicans—the Bushes, McCains, Boehners, McConnells, while the Know-Nothings were the Tea Partiers—the Cruzes, Rubios, Grahams. In the 1850s, what operated as fringe parties, the Free-Soilers, Know-Nothings, etc., are today shadow wings of the existing parties, funded by dark money, PACs and their remora.

The rise of Zachary Taylor in 1848 is widely cited as the beginning of the end of the Whigs. History professor Gil Troy drew a direct comparison of Taylor to Trump, writing in Politico in 2016. “In fact, just a few years after Taylor was elected under the Whig banner, the party dissolved—undermined by the divisions that caused Taylor’s nomination in the first place, and also by the loss of faith that followed it.”

Troy looked at the similarities between the Whigs of the 1840s and 50s Republicans of the 2010s and 20s, many leaving the party and refusing to run rather than support the GOP under Trump’s leadership.

Resisting pressure to run as an independent, but refusing to stump for Taylor, Henry Clay exclaimed, “I fear that the Whig party is dissolved and that no longer are there Whig principles to excite zeal and simulate exertion.” A New York Whig, claiming the convention “committed the double crime of suicide and paricide,” mourned, “The Whig party as such is dead. The very name will be abandoned, should Taylor be elected, for ‘the Taylor party.’”

Zachary Taylor was the last Whig to win the White House (Millard Fillmore succeeded Taylor upon Taylor’s death). His win echoed in November 2016 when Trump beat Hillary Clinton:

Blessed by an even more unpopular Democratic opponent whose party suffered more from the antislavery defections than the Whigs did, Taylor won—barely. He attracted only 47 percent of the popular vote, merely 60,000 more popular votes than Clay had in 1844, despite a population increase of 2 million. Turnout dropped from 78.9 percent in 1844 to 72.7 percent in 1848, reflecting public disgust with both candidates. Cass won 43 percent of the vote, and Van Buren won 10 percent. Taylor’s Electoral College margin of 36 was the slimmest in more than two decades. As hacks said the results “vindicated the wisdom of General Taylor’s nomination,” purists mourned the triumph of Taylor but not “our principles.” Greeley said losing in 1844 with a statesman like Clay strengthened Whig convictions: The 1848 election “demoralized” Whigs and undermined “the masses’” faith in the party. Greeley mourned this Pyrrhic victory: Whigs were “at once triumphant and undone.”

The GOP will prove harder to kill than the Whigs, simply due to the massive government-bestowed structural advantages political parties enjoy today. A third party is simply a difficult social and political project to pull off. This is what leads smart people like Erickson to declare “it won’t work.” But the GOP will, eventually, die.

The Whigs eventual death was contained in the seeds of its birth, as one of the wings of the Whigs began as a conspiracy cult. Proto-Whig Thurlow Weed believed the Masons were engaged in a great conspiracy to control the U.S. government. Weed was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1825 and re-elected in 1830.

An interesting read by Peter Hess, writing in the New York Almanack this month (October 13, 2021), traced Weed’s influence in the death of the Whigs and the rise of the Republicans. If I closed my eyes, I might have been reading about post-presidency Donald Trump, at least a little.

The realignment of voters around slavery, the failed Missouri Compromise, and the new Kansas-Nebraska Compromise, doomed the Whigs, while Weed pandered to the new emergent fringes and conspiracy-flingers.

“I am a Whig but where is my Party? … what calls itself the Whig Party now … is just no Whig Party at all. It has not one element of nationality in its whole composition,” complained Albany Whig patrician and diplomat Daniel Dewey Barnard.

I may as well be listening to Georgia Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, or former Senator Jeff Flake speak those words today.

It’s the voters, not the party

Barrels of ink and billions of pixels have been dedicated to explaining the 2016 election, and how voter alliances have shifted. One of the best books I read on the topic is “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics,” by Selena Zito. In that book, Zito profiled seven “archetypes” of Trump supporters, and brought receipts with copious notes and survey results backing up those vignettes of personal contact.

She named them: Red-Blooded and Blue Collared; Perot-istas; Rough Rebounders; Girl Gun Power; Rotary Reliables; King Cyrus Christians; and Silent Suburban Moms.

Many of those in the coalition had traditionally voted for Democrats, while some have split their party loyalty along local (unions, workers = Democrats) and national (jobs, economics, foreign policy = Republicans) office. 

The Rough Rebounders and Silent Suburban Moms were two elements of the 2016 Trump coalition which have abandoned Trump in 2020. King Cyrus Christians have generally kept their support, but some have dropped along the way. Perot-istas are also split, with professional college-educated libertarians finding themselves homeless, and “rabid libertarian populists” like Republicans refusing federal COVID-19 vaccination dollars in New Hampshire lining up with working-class Red-Blooded and Blue Collared white voters who cling to Trump.

Voters in 2020 and beyond are finding affinity based on issues that have been brewing for a few decades. The reach of the federal government, New York-based media, Hollywood dealmakers, and tech billionaire-powered leftist corporations into the lives of ordinary Americans has provoked everything from a mild protest vote to a full reactionary response. The degree of allergic reaction to progressive overreach by secular utopians depends on the voter’s economic, educational, religious, and racial background.

Lee Drutman, writing in 2016 at Vox’s Polyarchy blog, predicted that

Over the next decade or so, the Republicans will split between their growing nationalist-populist wing and their business establishment wing, a split that the nationalist-populist wing will eventually win. The Democrats will face a similar split between the increasingly pro-corporate but socially liberally Clinton wing and a more economically progressive Sanders wing, a split that the Clinton wing will eventually win.

How right Drutman has proved to be, but in ways he could scarcely have seen coming. Trump was a weird duck in the Republican Party. He was a nationalist-populist dog whistler while at the same time a pro-corporate, economically progressive isolationist. Trump placated the nationalists—the new Know-Nothing nativists—with his protectionist, “America First” front. At the same time, Trump pandered to billionaires, big media, and big-spending budget busting. Instead of draining the swamp, Trump filled it with garbage, stolen cars, and sewage.

The next party must be competent, not corrupt

The GOP as it stands is not much more than a rigged slot machine, owned by a Ponzi schemer who skims a giant slice off the top of every lever pull. As a political force, the party is doomed to a future of more extremists in highly-red districts, and less moderates who are interested more in policy than viral tweets. The GOP is abandoning the middle ground to people like Sen. Manchin, and the two senators from Georgia, Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff (all Democrats).

To answer my question from the top of this essay: Eventually such a party will capsize under the weight of gerrymandered districts, the inexorable push of demographics, and the increasingly stupid comments, scandals, and brainless candidates these districts produce. Candidates with brains, like J.D. Vance, willingly prostitute themselves to follow the crowd, instead of leading. When the Democrats went this route in service to their own cult of personality in Barack Obama, they lost an impressive advantage at the state level in a stunningly short period of time.

In 2009, President Obama’s party controlled both chambers of 27 state legislatures. Eight years later, Democrats control both chambers in only 13 states. Among the states that slipped from Democratic control are Wisconsin, North Carolina, Iowa and West Virginia; states key to the victory of President-elect Donald Trump last November. According to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Democratic Party has lost a net total of 13 Governorships and 816 state legislative seats since President Obama entered office, the most of any president since Dwight Eisenhower.

The factors that have prevented a repeat of this loss for Republicans under Trump is the fact that Democrats have lacked a vision that appeals to the political center. They have caved to the Obama extremism and treated it as a serious goal, which the majority of Americans outside the Acela corridor and over-educated young liberal idealists do not share.

A new party needs to, in simple terms, set out a series of conservative principles, broadly appealing to most Americans, and find serving elected officials willing to jump away from the Republicans, and even from the Democrats. I know, it’s easy to write this and it is back-breakingly hard to do it. It’s comparatively easy to get money from Peter Thiel for populist/Trumpist campaigns versus finding some wealthy donors willing to break the party model with their own cash. It’s easy to fund a third party when Trump is running; it’s hard when Trump might run.

What 2020’s election established: 

  • Voters are willing to split tickets at the top or simply withhold votes;
  • Republican/Trump voters are willing to stay home in service to a fantasy “stolen election”;
  • Traditionally Democratic voters are willing to break from the extremist liberal fringe in states like Florida, Texas and Arizona (and even California);
  • Republicans can win in a Trumpist party but are setting themselves up for a capsizing event.

The death clock is ticking for the GOP. The party will likely gain in 2022, because Joe Biden is a mess, and Republicans have control of most state houses and therefore redistricting efforts. In 2024, we don’t know what will happen, but neither option is appealing or safe.

  • A Republican like Ron DeSantis wins the White House by a small margin and continues a Trumpist policy on immigration, trade, and foreign policy;
  • A Democrat (Joe Biden?) wins the White House.

In the first case, Trumpist-inspired policies, along with the continued use of “stolen election” narratives, will continue to weaken trust in institutions, and erode safeguards against complete partisan control of all levers of government. In the second case, it’s difficult to see how, if Democrats regain control of either house in our national legislature, that traditional rules regarding respect of the minority party, debate, and bipartisan negotiations, can survive. Even with a Republican majority in either house, it’s likely that some significant guardrails will fall, such as the filibuster.

American voters are split on the filibuster, with Democrats more likely to oppose it, and Republicans more in line with keeping it. But in a different time, when Republicans want to pass an agenda and Democrats block it (Trump’s term excepted), the results might reverse. What voters would like is to trust their government, not play partisan flip-flop games. Unfortunately, most don’t trust it.

“Just 20% of U.S. adults say they trust the government in Washington to “do the right thing” just about always or most of the time,” says a Pew Research report released in September. Ironically, many of the same voters want to hand the government even more power and responsibility over our lives.

According to the study, Democrats are far less trusting of government than Republicans, but are also far more likely to say the government should play a major role in 10 out of the 10 areas surveyed. Democrats are angry that the government isn’t doing enough, and Republicans are more sanguine about our ability as a nation to solve problems.

A new party can find agreement here, in the competence and ability of the federal government to effectively manage American interests, regardless of the size of its footprint.

“The last time there was a sustained surge of confidence in government’s competence was under Ronald Reagan,” George Will claimed in 2014. Politico challenged and rated George Will’s claim “false.” In fact, confidence in the federal government rose more during Bill Clinton’s years in the White House than in Reagans, but it can be argued that Clinton was standing on Reagan’s shoulders.

President Barack Obama did nothing to enhance trust in government. Despite recovering from 2008’s financial crisis, and igniting one of the longest and strongest economic expansions in our history, Obama refused to give Reagan much credit, other than for fomenting “a lasting legacy” of suspicion against central control. In 2013, the Washington Post noted a “trust-in-government deficit” after Obama began his second term.

What has happened since Obama laid down that challenge for his administration? More Americans favor smaller government over bigger government than when he was first elected, according to exit polls from last November. Public confidence in the federal government is as low as it has ever been, according to a Pew Research Center survey released this spring.

The article went on to enumerate four separate crises of trust and mismanagement: Benghazi, the IRS Lois Lerner scandal, Department of Justice targeting and investigations of the AP for leaks, and sexual assaults in the military that occurred in just one weekend.

Americans want a government that works, and not one that works just for the partisans in control at the moment. A party founded on the serious working of the levers of government is one that voters from both parties can support.

The humblest inspiration

Chester A. Arthur ascended to the presidency upon the death of President James Garfield. Arthur was a Whig until 1854, when he became a Republican. He served as a Brigadier General in the New York Militia during the Civil War. His nomination to the Republican ticket as Vice President under Garfield was a political backscratch to appease Roscoe Conkling’s Customs House constituency, which tried and failed to renominate President Grant in 1880.

As president, Arthur, intimately familiar with the smoke-filled room deals, political carpetbagging, machines, and favoritism plaguing the federal government, cut through it all to ram the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act through Congress. Republicans, running the machine, suffered a poor showing in the 1882 mid-terms, and Arthur correctly saw some of the failings of the Whigs coming to roost on the Republican Party. (Notably, Millard Fillmore never joined the Republicans, sadly ending his life and career as a Know-Nothing, a fringe nativist.)

Arthur’s civil service reform became the measure of limiting political patronage that survives to this day. He also lowered tariffs, and vetoed the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1882, though Congress overrode him. Instead of supporting what would today be called earmarks and pork-barrel politics, Arthur insisted that surpluses be returned to the people in the form of tax reductions. He opposed the racist Chinese Exclusion Act, which sought to ban immigration from China for 20 years, though he did compromise and—unfortunately—signed a 10-year ban.

If the GOP claims the title of the Party of Lincoln, the new party needs to be the Party of Arthur. Its foundational principles would be best summed up as, competence, respect, and honesty in the public trust.

America does have too much government, but that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that America has too much incompetent, partisan, pork-barrel government. Democrats and Republicans have both clearly shown they are aware of the problem but are too addicted to the current system of political favor to do anything about it.

The voters have indicated that something needs to be done about it. I’ve always understood that innovation and progress means seeing a need and fulfilling it. The GOP is headed for the same fate as the Whigs. The Party of Arthur—I’m not sure what else to call it?—is what we all wish for.

Why not do it?

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.

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