Just when you thought our political leaders couldn’t divide us further, they have now turned on themselves.
At the moment, the two sides face internal conflicts. Democrats wrestle between the so-called “progressives” (I still believe they don’t use that term correctly) and the “moderates”. A recent difference concerns the way to respond to the problems in Israel.
As for the Republicans, they seem to be having the biggest conflict right now, as evidenced by the withdrawal of U.S. Representative Liz Chaney from the Republican leadership due to her beliefs about Trump. Historically speaking, this is nothing new. During the most dominant period in Republicans’ history, they twice split into competing factions and allowed Democrats to break control of the White House.
There have been two great races in political history, one by each party, but Republicans have had the greater of the two. Between Abraham Lincoln who won in 1860 and FDR who won in 1932 and ended the Republican race, there were only two Democratic presidents. Yet instead of being content with their dominance, Republicans split into factions.
During the Golden Age (1870-early 1900s) three Republican factions emerged, two revolving around personalities. The first group was the Mugwumps. In an era of political corruption, mainly due to the spoils system or the reward of political supporters, the Mugwumps called for reforms. They wanted to see civil service exams so that government jobs were based on merit rather than favoritism.
Then there were the Stalwarts, led by New York Senator Roscoe Conklin. They were the more traditionalists who wanted to keep the spoils system intact. It was this group that supported a third term for President Grant because they were taking advantage of corruption in his administration. Finally, there were the Métis, led by Senator from Maine James Blaine. They took a page from the Mugwumps and called for reform, but in reality they were no different from the Stalwarts except that they wanted Blaine as president.
The Republican Party was able to remain united in 1880 when it compromised with Garfield, a Métis presidential candidate who was not Blaine, and Chester Arthur, a stalwart for VP. The partnership didn’t last long since Garfield was assassinated. However, before Garfield’s death, he pushed for some public service reforms. When Arthur took power, he opposed his own faction and passed the Pendleton Civil Service Act. Pendleton was a good start but not enough for the Mugwumps.
In the 1884 election, one of the most interesting that I have discussed on several occasions, the Métis were tired of messing around. They dumped Arthur and managed to introduce Blaine for the presidency. Democrats took advantage of Blaine’s ties to corruption and cover-ups by courting the Mugwump vote when they led a true reformer in Grover Cleveland. The move gave Democrats just enough votes for the rare victory.
The next two elections were held as the Republicans retook the White House in 1888, only to lose again to Cleveland in 1892. From 1896, the Republicans regained control with McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and then Taft. However, even though the old three-way division in the party had dissolved some time earlier, a new division had developed in the 1912 election. Teddy Roosevelt stepped down after a term and a half, and he left office. handpicked his successor to continue his progressive reforms. (These were the real progressives, who wanted reforms but slow and moderate changes.)
At this point, the two parties were divided between the progressive and moderate wings. To complicate matters, there were more internal conflicts than external ones between the groups. The problem was Roosevelt’s replacement, who, although a good progressive, was willing to compromise too much with moderates to Roosevelt’s liking. In 1912, Roosevelt decided to resume his party and ran for president. Yet when Taft was renamed instead, Roosevelt stole the progressive wing of his party and formed a third party, the Progressive Party, which became better known as the best party in history, the Bull. Moose Party. Of course, with Republicans divided, Democrats led their own progressive, Woodrow Wilson, and won.
We will have to watch over the next few years to see if history repeats itself. Will the divide between progressives and moderates in the Democratic Party lower the party’s chances of re-election? If Trump runs again, will he cause a third-party split from the Republican Party led by Republicans like Chaney and Mitt Romney? Time will tell, but, historically speaking, it could be a few chaotic years for both sides.
– James Finck is Associate Professor of History at the Oklahoma University of Science and the Arts and chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. He occasionally contributes to the Saturday forum.