How Political Parties Die

The means by which political parties; or movements, die off has become a hot topic of late. The chaos created in the Republican Party by the rise of Donald Trump, has gotten many people wondering if the GOP; or the modern conservative movement is in danger of dying off.

For answers we need to turn to history; can teach us a few things about how political parties and coalitions die out. The demise of past American political parties and movements can show us what might happen to the Republicans, or at least their conservative wing; in years to come.

How the Parties of the Past Died

The first two American political parties; the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans, died out because they were elitist and aristocratic organizations that could not create the kind of mass following needed to succeed in a democracy. Both groups were composed of wealthy elitists, and centered on the East Coast; in a nation where the center of power was moving westward to the Frontier.

The fourth great American political party; the Whigs, collapsed because its’ centrist agenda of tolerating slavery and appeasing Southerners lost popular appeal during the 1850s. Growing opposition to slavery; and popular suspicion of the South’s slave-owning elite in the North, led to a Whig meltdown shortly before the Civil War. The final nail was driven into the Whigs’ coffin by all out partisan warfare between various factions in the party.

The Socialists; the most successful American third party of the 20th Century, were never able to develop the mass following needed to break into the political mainstream. Like the Federalists, the Socialists became an elitist minority that died out in obscurity.

More recently the great New Deal coalition in the Democratic Party collapsed because of partisan warfare between moderates and New Left activists; and a popular revolt among the party’s base. The Progressive Movement of the early 20th Century, died from the popular backlash against World War One and Prohibition. The Progressive’s rivals the Populists failed, because they lacked effective leadership and organization.

Why the Republican Brand will not die

What we are seeing now is not the death of the Republican Party, but the demise of the conservative coalition of the last 40 years. Much like the New Deal coalition; the Reagan Coalition is being ripped apart by partisan warfare, and populist revolt.

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Trump is leading; and on some level instigating the populist revolt. The partisan warfare is provided by the leaders of the conservative and libertarian factions; who were too busy fighting among themselves to put up a united resistance to Trump.

The Republican Brand will survive this debacle, because it provides access to the ballot. The Democrats survived the collapse of the 1970s, because their brand gave them electoral access. The Republicans survived a similar collapse in the 1960s, because the conservative movement needed a national party to reach elected office.

A new movement; possibly composed of the populist forces unleashed by Trump, will take control of the party at some point. Another possibility is that the party’s former leaders will regroup under new commanders and take back the party. That happened to the Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s; when Clinton’s moderates effectively took back the party from the New Left.

All out Warfare in the Republican Party

The most likely scenario for the Republicans; will be several years of partisan warfare between libertarians, populists, moderates and cultural conservatives.

We see this playing out this summer as a faction of moderates and libertarians led by former Massachusetts Governor William Weld; are trying to use the Libertarian Party as a vehicle to destroy Trump. A new coalition composed of libertarians and corporate-funded moderates is already organizing in an effort to block Trump’s presidential bid.

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Weld; who has been named the Libertarian’s vice presidential candidate, has organized what he calls a “Socially Liberal and Fiscally Conservative PAC (political action committee).” The purpose of that group is ostensibly to raise money for Libertarian Presidential candidate Gary Johnson; but it looks suspiciously like a new coalition designed to destroy Trump.

The PAC has some high powered helped including former Federal Election Commission Chairman Trevor Potter; who served as general counsel on US Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) failed presidential run in 2008 and Matt Sanderson who worked for Mitt Romney and McCain. The group has the sympathy, but not the overt support of Romney himself, The Boston Globe reported.

Other disruptive elements in the GOP will be the leaderless remains of the Religious Right, and the Trump movement. My guess is that Trump will go down to a miserable defeat in the fall, but the populist movement he has launched will regroup under more sophisticated leaders with mainstream appeal. For all his marketing genius, Trump lacks the organizational ability to form an effective political movement.

The most likely scenario will be the appearance of a new leader who is “a kinder gentler Trump;’” someone who shares Donald’s agenda on immigration and trade, but lacks the racist rhetoric and obnoxious behavior. Who that will be remains to be seen, because despite Trump’s popularity his politics have little appeal among the party’s leaders. There is also the toxicity of Donald himself; which drives away even many who share his views. A potential successor might want to be associated with the movement, but not the man.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington D.C.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington D.C.

The Religious Right seems to be a spent force, but it could regroup and reorganize under an effective leader. Such a leader might be available in the form of US Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) but he is widely distrusted and despised by many rank and file believers.

The Republican Party as we know it is dying fast. It remains to be seen who or what will replace it and how that will affect American politics.