Monday, June 2, 2008

What happens to a Party when the Party's Over

In the United States, political parties do not have any federal constitutional status. They are extra-governmental organizations, giant advocacy groups so to speak. Unlike the country itself, political parties come and go.

The example that keeps springing to my mind: The American Whig Party, a party that existed just prior to the Civil War (1834 to 1854). I'll say a very abbreviated bit about the rise and fall of the Whig Party. You decide for yourself the parallels to today's political situation. There are no perfect ones, in my opinion, but the ones I see strike me as remarkably telling for the here and now.

The Whig Party organized in opposition to a president many regarded as an imperialist executive, trying to elevate federal power above the powers of the individual states. That president was Andrew Jackson.

President Jackson held office during a tumultuous time in American history. Pre-Civil War America was in the throes of sectarian battles, along geographic, economic, and political fault lines. The country was expanding its territory rapidly creating enormous pressure to do something about the issue of slavery, which the Founders had passed off to future generations. For many people of the time, whether to admit new states as slave states or free states had as much to do with competing geographical and economic interests as it did with the immorality of slavery.

President Jackson was regarded by the founders of the Whig Parties as fiscally irresponsible (because of his opposition to renewing the charter of the Bank of the United States ) and as disrespectful of states' rights. The extremely politically gifted Henry Clay - a man who desired the Presidency but whose own political cleverness may very well have cost him a chance that office - united seemingly disparate bedfellows. Supporters of the Bank were for federal supremacy in matters fiscal; states righters were concerned not only with each state's right to decide the slavery issue for itself but with the general tendency of the federal government to trod upon a host of local matters.

This coalition could not hold. The American Whig Party was on a collision course with itself. As the the political fights over the future of slavery in the U.S. escalated, northern Whigs and southern Whigs could not get along. As the years went by, the southerners tended to gravitate to the then wholly states-rightist Democratic Party while the northern Whigs tended to join forces with what was then a fledgling in the U.S.: the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln himself was quite influenced by Henry Clay, a fellow Kentuckian (Lincoln's family was from Kentucky). Like Clay, he was a moderate, preferring to avoid a war over the states' rights/slavery issue and preferring to find a political solution rather than violent one. But Lincoln was no fool. Once he realized that the only political "solution" would be the secession of the southern states, Lincoln reluctantly but firmly decided that force was necessary, necessary to protect the original American Dream - a union of the American states and their citizens, diverse as they might be. And so Lincoln fought the Civil War to save - and we know now to better - that Union.

By the end of the Civil War, the Republican Party was no fledgling political advocacy group. The Democrats reemerged as a force. And the Whigs were history.


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