Interesting Parallels

History doesn’t really repeat itself, at least in the sense of “re-enactment,” but there are historical cycles with striking resemblances. We really can learn from history–if we are open to pondering its lessons.

Because I think the past can illuminate the present, I found this article by a Brookings Institution scholar fascinating.

Philip Wallach looked at various pieces of evidence offered by November’s elections–the electoral dominance of the GOP, followed by dissent and disarray, and asked whether America might be on the cusp of a realignment:

A month-and-a-half into Trump’s presidency, however, the tensions are looking more overwhelming than manageable. Internecine fights between Republicans, about both the party’s biggest priorities and the president’s unprecedented persona, erupt into headlines daily. And so we find ourselves wondering: could the GOP coalition be impossible to hold together? Might we be witnessing the beginnings of a serious partisan realignment, perhaps even the end of the long era of Democrats vs. Republicans in federal politics?

Wallach proceeded to analyze this question by comparing today’s political landscape to a “neglected chapter in American history”: the downfall of the Whig Party from its peak in 1848 (the year its outsider candidate won the presidency and gave Whigs effective control of American government), to 1856, when for all intents and purposes, the party no longer existed.

That period featured surging nativism, profound uncertainty for both major parties, and a striking number of rhymes with our current political moment. Then, as now, the issues that provided the traditional lines of contestation between the two major parties were losing potency while new divisions were taking their place.

Wallach proceeds to enumerate the schisms within the GOP that might well lead to that party’s disintegration–the various factions rejecting Paul Ryan’s healthcare “reform,” similar disputes over tax policies, deep disagreement with Trump’s populist policies on trade, and concern over what Wallach delicately refers to as Trump’s “preoccupations” and “personality.” He then turns to the Democrats.

Although the GOP’s troubles are more vivid just now, Democrats are in some ways in just as serious a predicament. Insurgent populists and establishment neoliberals are deeply suspicious of each other and divided on where the party’s future lies, as was made apparent by the bitter fight over the DNC chairmanship.

What internal conflicts ultimately fractured and dissolved the Whigs? The most important was slavery, but there were also deep divisions over prohibition and the rise of anti-Catholic nativism. There had been a major influx of Catholic immigrants, especially German and Irish, and the “native” Protestant Americans, who tended to be  Whig voters, accused these immigrants of “popery,” criticized their use of foreign languages, and decried their participation in “corrupt” urban political machines. (They also tended to drink demon alcohol.) A number of Whig politicians adopted virulently nativist positions as a way of energizing their base. (Sound familiar?)

Wallach identified a lack of leadership continuity as another reason the Whigs imploded:

As the party looked for a champion going into the presidential election of 1848, a majority of its members opted to put their trust in a man who had no political history in the party at all. General Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican War, seemed to be “a new Cincinnatus, a man who, like the revered Washington, stood above party.” There were even those who were enthusiastic about rebranding the party, abandoning the “Whig” label in favor of “Taylor Republicans.”

However, Taylor’s policies enraged a substantial number of Whig partisans, allowing the “Know Nothings” and others to step into the breach.

It is hard to exaggerate how rapid and widespread the expansion of Know-Nothingism was in the 1850s. Founded as the secret “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner” in 1849, Know-Nothings built up a vast hierarchical organization of lodges and established themselves as the dominant force in many parts of the country. Officeholders of both parties, but especially Whigs, found that their political fortunes depended on having themselves secretly inducted into the rapidly growing order. As long as Know-Nothings remained officially secret, they seemed to offer a kind of symbiotic relationship with the Whig Party rather than posing a direct threat. But members of the movement, active in both the North and South, soon desired a more public arm of their movement, leading to the founding of parties variously called “Native American,” “American,” or “American Union,” in 1854 and 1855.

I won’t belabor these parallels further (although I can’t resist comparing the Tea Party to the “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner”).

It may be that the American political structure–a structure that overwhelmingly privileges a two-party system– will end up saving both Republicans and Democrats in their present form, although not necessarily in their present, respective substances. But the parallels–and their implications– are worth pondering.

On the other hand, we may truly be in previously uncharted waters….


  1. Interesting points today about our two party system. I follow a blog written by David Houle, titled “Evolution Shift”. He has successfully predicted most of the economic and political changes that have happened over the past ten years.

    A few months ago he predicted that between 2017 and 2020 our two party system will end and suggests that there will be four parties – a progressive, a right wing, a middle party and a smaller single issue party (either environmentalism or nativism). He stated that this is the most common democratic reality around the world today. Basically, we have far too many major issues and the gap between the beliefs and priorities of the two parties keeps us from being able to resolve any issues.

  2. Thank you for introducing what I hope are many, many people to that period of our history. It’s fascinating to study, and I’m sure it was an exciting time to be living as a political animal!
    One of my favorite Presidents lived at that time, the Vice-President under Zachary Taylor and his successor, Millard Fillmore.
    He was a New Yorker (Finger Lakes region) and was sort of a constitutional literalist in that although he hated slavery, he accepted that it constitutionally existed in the south and therefore it must be accepted as an institution. He’s usually laughed at for both his name and his being the ‘unlucky’ 13th President, but he was a fairly good one. He opened Japan to trading with us, and signed the Compromise of 1850, which was a good settlement/postponement of the slavery issue, except for that one pesky part of it — The Fugitive Slave Act.
    In a better time, he could well have become a “better than average” President, but when the Whigs turned their backs on him, he was a man without a party.
    His biggest problem? He was a ‘middle of the roader’. Examples, on slavery as mentioned, and on immigration? He accepted the 1856 Presidential nomination of the Know Nothings which was strongest as an anti-immigrant party, but he didn’t campaign as a nativist.
    Trying to compare him with somebody today brings to mind — sorry to say it — Hillary Clinton.

  3. Not matter how many parties we have, we still need to understand that there are no easy answers to the issues that face us and stop voting for snake oil salesmen dressed as CEOs.

  4. We had a “four party system” in 2016; two were barely recognized as a party due to the few issues they founded their campaigns on and some questionable actions by Stein and Johnson. Democrats and Republicans rant, rave and bluster their way through all campaigns with the myriad of issues at hand with too many at priority status to have the promised quick viable solutions. The 2016 “four party system” pointed out the disruptions to the entire country with those who were so anti-Hillary Clinton or anti-Trump that they voted for Green Party or Libertarians which effected the Electoral College outcome as much as it effected the popular vote.

    The Democratic party needs to strengthen its candidates support of issues; it remains the humanitarian party but following the “rule of law” has put them and us at a disadvantage. Currently; the all-out war against humanity being waged by the Republican party with its fascist, White Nationalist composition backed by big money. (Again, follow the money!) Why do Trump’s blatant daily lies and mentally unbalanced behavior not matter to the GOP? Why do his and his known family, friends and appointee’s obvious Russian connections not matter to the GOP?

    While millions of Americans, comprising a 57% majority, are “taking to the streets” to protest and speak out, and are winning some major issues, the GOP carries on its illegal and inhumane daily business of running the government and passing laws while we concentrate on Trump’s numerous daily Tweets. What actions have transpired regarding our entire education system, the continuing ruination of our environment, the vacant judicial seats and the escalating Russian takeover attempt continues? Are we the ones being distracted by “shiny objects” or is the Democratic party and its supporters active in the background, waiting to attack?

    We truly are in “previously uncharted waters” due to the Trump’s pubic approval and release of the return to “Jim Crow laws” with a longer list of targets, the Internet and the on-going increase of the nuclear power structures. Remember; Abraham Lincoln was a Whig before becoming the first Republican party candidate for president. Are there issues in the Whig party history we should be looking at as well as trying to see into the future for answers to our salvation?

    Government, politics, civics, democracy, the Constitution and amendments, our civil and human rights, with the current lack of education regarding these issues makes it difficult for the majority of American people to understand more than two parties to chose from. This, too, is worth pondering.

  5. However this plays out internally we still have an international order that needs to be maintained in all this internecine fighting on both sides the question remains can we still remain predominant in that world order. As we fight amongst ourselves and if indeed this is a replay of the pre-Civil War era, or indeed something else, the rest of the world marches on and those are our enemies and competitors gaining more strength as we hemorrhage our strength by fighting amongst ourselves accomplishing virtually nothing other than just that.

    This is a dangerous period in our history in many ways with perhaps the oddest component of the mix of things that are making it dangerous coming from the chaos in political and governance that we’re currently dealing with which is not all self inflicted. We need to restore balance in our political system and also protect it while, right now, we have no idea what that’s going to be. The Russians are no doubt itching to do once again what they did last year to it and we seem nowhere near prepared to deal with that once again.

    What a freaking mess!!

  6. No to make too much of it, but the “Native Americans” objected to immigrants’ use of “demon alcohol,” just as conservatives today are fighting a (likely lost) battle over the “Devil’s weed…”

  7. The fractures in the Republican Party continue – Fox News host Judge Jeanine Pirro, whose show President Trump urged his followers on Twitter to watch earlier in the day, opened her program on Saturday evening by calling on Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to step down.

    “Ryan needs to step down as Speaker of the House. The reason, he failed to deliver the votes on his healthcare bill, the one trumpeted to repeal and replace ObamaCare,” Pirro said in her opening statement.

    “Folks, I want to be clear. This is not on President Trump,” she said.

    “No one expected a businessman to completely understand the nuances, the complicated ins and outs of Washington and its legislative process. How would he know on what individuals he could rely?”

    “Ryan has hurt you going forward, and he’s got to go,” Pirro said.
    The above comments demonstrates FOX News ability to turn on dime. The comment above beginning with “No one”, simply shows utter duplicity necessary for the Trumpet. It was the Trumpet, who sold and his minions who bought on to Trump the Outsider – Successful (?) Businessman will get things done. An also necessary piece is blame anyone except the Trumpet.

    So here is what happened for seven years Ryan, the Republicans and later the Trumpet and his followers A/K/A Trumpteers screamed out Repeal Obamacare. Jump, Jump, Jump out of the Obamacare airplane, problem was the Republicans had no parachutes ( a viable plan).

    With a massive failure to govern, the Republicans and the Trumpet will turn back to their only reliable option and that is to destroy Obama Care – ACA.

  8. As a casual but ardent student of the American Civil War I have read a lot of information on the period referenced in your post today. In my readings I am constantly struck with the political similarities of that period and now. The comparisons of nativism and factional issues of race and religion are frighteningly alike. Where I willnot cite particulars right now I specifically remember thinking that the issues and rhetoric are what we are experiencing now. My main worry is civil war and fear we are getting close.
    Civil War in this era of technology would be far more devastating than the tragedy of 150+ years ago. I shudder at the thought, but the parallels are to much to ignore.

  9. I try not to forget that the first party that Trump defeated was the Republican Party. So he is as a party himself.

    He accomplished what he did by out lying everyone. He was created by fake news.

    He and his are outlandishly incompetent at what they are doing. No experience, no ability to learn, not even the pretense of governance.

    Due to all this I oscillate between this is the end and this is the beginning. The best we can hope for is that it’s both.

    Transitions are hard because they are unprecedented. We need to leave the past that we know and define a future that is unknown.

    It doesn’t seem likely to me that we’ll wake up one day and see collapse. It’s more likely that this will be a slow motion train wreck with a small beginning growing by endless cause and effects until there is silence.

    Then what?

    New leadership will emerge. That’s a given. Some will view the wreck as the ship salvedgers of old did, all opportunity for personal gain. Carpetbaggers. Some will come with a vision that will work in the new world.

    Will the failure of Trump return enough of us to valuing truth and reality and ration?

  10. Shelia – I too cling to the notion that history is linear and important to note while not being enslaved to it and have blogged frequently that the Republican Party is descending into what I have coined “Whigdom,” from whose ashes the Republican Party arose but may be returning. Your inference that both parties could be headed to political oblivion unless they change their ways to attract a larger constituency or even to save the remnants of what they now have is noted as well, but I think the Republicans will get there first even if Trump had not been (electorally) elected. I think his election merely hastened the pace of their descent in showing how internally torn that party really is and why they cannot effectively govern.

    There have always been factions within the two major political parties at odds with what their respective parties were doing (see FDR and his concessions to Southern Democrats), though frequently such factions were quieted and stayed “loyal to the party” with a bridge or a dam or some other economic concession back to the state or congressional district of such loyal if recalcitrant politicians who could then brag to their constituents that they (the politicians) had “brought home the bacon.” However, I think this time it is different, and more so in the Republican than the Democratic Party. Why?

    The hard right Republicans (Freedom Caucus, Tea Party and other libertarian elements)) cannot be pacified by a dam or a bridge. They are unbeatable in gerrymandered districts and are thus enabled to fearlessly play out their 19th century Gilded Age politics with scant regard to “loyalty to the party.” It appears that the Republican Party’s rush to gerrymander districts after the last census has come back to bite them, i.e., they have immunized right wing (pretended) Republicans from such districts who don’t have to obey the dictates of their Speaker (see Ryan, who may be badly injured if not gone after the Trump-Ryancare healthcare fiasco of last week). I think such a situation in addition to demographic realities hastens the day of that party’s return to Whigdom, a descent already in place before last fall’s election.

    So what of the Democratic Party, of which I have been a lifelong member? We did not arise out of Whigdom and will not therefore return to it, so what do we need to do to attract a massive constiuency such as that we enjoyed under FDR? Answer: Same thing he did (as adjusted for intervening realities). Our first task is to reengage the so-called “working class,” not only the “white” working class, but rather the working class. Period – no adjectives. Here is where history serves us a perfect template for action. We start by advocating a much higher minimum wage than we currently have at the federal level and work hard at state levels to repeal right to work laws and other such ALEC and CLUB FOR GROWTH anti-labor initiatives the Republicans have foisted off on working Americans. Working Americans will note and respond to such efforts in time as they see that only the Democratic Party has a place for all in its Big Tent.

    I have written at least 100 blogs over the past months and years complaining of wage inequality and how it inhibits aggregate demand in the market and how that keeps us in a perpetual state of near recession marked by tepid economic growth. We have had more than 40 years of stagnant median wages adjusted for inflation while the Dow has gone stratospheric, a runup based largely on Wall Street’s continuing theft of worker productivity which has gone unshared with such workers and unlike our post-WW II era in which the increased income to the economy occasioned by enhanced worker productivity rose in tandem with the Dow. We are suffering the consequences with both tepid demand and economic growth in our underperforming economy. We have seen the code’s treatment of capital gains, “carried interest,” stock options and the like get favorable treatment but minimal to no tax relief for working people. We are not rewarding work over investment, and that should be reversed. I think that the Democratic Party, like all parties, is eventually headed for oblivion, but that the Republican Party (given their greed, lust for power, heartless treatment of the sick and poor and leaderless inability to effectively govern) is much nearer to such destination than our party. The good news is that with a tweak here and there in adding old constituents to an evolving demographic of progressive millennials and minorities means we can win and win big for the foreseeable future – so let’s get on with it.

  11. James Lemons; one parallel I see comparing the Civil War and today is that the Republicans are fighting to maintain racist states rights bordering on sovereignty and fought harder than Democrats. Where the parallel ends is that this time the Republicans had all the money they needed and more to win this “war”. If you are a student of the Civil War, you are aware that the Confederates were better fighters, their fight was personal and based on racial issues which is very basic in the GOP today. Especially in the south; but the issue of race has never gone away, nor will it ever, sadly. It has simply been released, with additions, with Trump’s permission and financially backed by the 1% who, in a moral sense, are holding us all in bondage with their control of the economy.

  12. That’s a period of American history I’m not very knowledgeable about, other than what the abolitionists were doing. Sheila’s blog, and the comments section, are always educational, altho I’ve had to miss several columns recently. The real heroes of the AHCA debacle are the Indivisibles, who have taken over the Democrats’ long-neglected duty of educating the populace, and are finally providing some counter-balance to Fox and the Kochs. If they hadn’t organized local people to confront their congressmen and women, the AHCA might well have slipped through barely noticed. They have given people what they crave: a plan of action. I would sign up for an Indivisible Party immediately, and vote the straight ticket.

  13. Thinking Republicans (often an oxymoron but not always) are desperately trying to hang on to what no longer works. Trumpians are hoping to grab power from chaos. Democrats are closer on the average to seeing the inevitable global future but not apparently sufficiently comfortable with lying to get elected.

    Now’s the time for new leadership Elizabeth.



  15. Pete @ 12PM >> I try not to forget that the first party that Trump defeated was the Republican Party. So he is as a party himself. He accomplished what he did by out lying everyone. He was created by fake news. <<

    The Republicans crowded the stage during the debates. They seemed astonished that the Trumpet could engage in name calling and spout all the venom, they had engaged in, but so overtly and bluntly and get away with it. In fact it seemed anyone who fought back was flooded by more venom from the Trumpet. The result the Trumpet's approval ratings went up. The McMega-Media always on the alert for higher ratings gave the Trumpet all the publicity he wanted, good, bad and ugly. The empty suit mike Pence was brought on to grab the Bible Thumper vote.

    Now like every con man Don the Con is being exposed. All is not lost for the Republicans even though they suffered the Ryan-Trumpet Health Care debacle. They can begin to dismantle any social safety nets, and lower taxes for the 1%. Along the way the Republicans will obstruct investigations. If in all the confusion the American and Russian Oligarchs can make billions, along with the Trumpet Family, well then Don the Con will be able to say – Mission Accomplished.

  16. Louie, accurately put. America now has to depend on Trump’s incompetence to survive. I think that he’s down to the job but luck always plays a role.

  17. The question seems to be, “How many political parties will there be when the next election rolls around?” Inasmuch as a billionaire stole the top office this year, doesn’t it seem logical that several billionaires will start new parties the next time around? Monkey see … monkey do.

    Quite frankly, I would be very happy to see any or all of the cast members of “The Big Bang Theory” start a party. They’re very bright and all of them are multimillionaires. That would be far better than what we have going now.

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