Democrats Face Fate of Whigs
Elite parties defined by opposition to a single man do not have good prospects for success.
Republicans have become increasingly confident of recapturing Congress in 2022. That feeling began last November with Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory in a tough race for the Virginia governorship, and looks forward to scores of planned Democratic retirements in the House. Meanwhile, Democrats fear Youngkin’s victory and the new wave of culture wars over school curricula mean Trumpism remains potent despite Trump’s defeat. The Democratic Party is right to be nervous—history is unkind to political coalitions forged in opposition to a single individual.
In the early 1800s, America was led by an elite comprising the nation’s banking and merchant class who favored using the federal government to nurture the country’s economy. Those in opposition included small farmers, frontiersmen, and slaveholders. The clash between these interests came to a head in the 1820s over the establishment of a national bank and tariff rates. The elite favored the bank and higher rates; the opposition, without a leader around which it could rally, was powerless to stop it.
General Andrew Jackson, a charismatic war hero, emerged as a champion for the opposition in 1824 when his run for the presidency revealed an incipient populist revolt against the status quo. Jackson lost this first bid, but he won a dramatic rematch four years later. His 1828 victory thrilled his supporters, but it horrified the elite; they feared Jackson would establish a dictatorship cheered on by an illiterate mob.
In 1832, the defeated elite rallied around Henry Clay, a stalwart advocate of a strong federal government. Clay believed an unapologetic defense of a national bank would ensure his victory. Clay was spectacularly wrong and Jackson was re-elected in the first landslide in American history.
Following this defeat, America’s elite shifted into opposition mode. In 1834, Clay established the Whig Party, choosing the name to evoke the opposition to Tory royalists in England. Slaveholding states who resented Jackson’s strong defense of the Union aligned with them occasionally under the guise of states’ rights. However, Northern federalism and Southern confederalism made for an unwieldy alliance.
The Whigs couldn’t even agree on a candidate in 1836 when Jackson’s vice president, Martin Van Buren, ran for president. Instead, the party ran three regional candidates in a bid to deny Van Buren a majority in the Electoral College and move the decision to the House of Representatives. The Whig scheme ultimately failed and Van Buren won easily.
Four years later, the elite’s desperation peaked. The Whigs nominated an elderly general, William Henry Harrison, for president in 1840 and undertook a brazen campaign of misdirection.
The Whigs muted their support for an activist central government and instead undertook a populist campaign that presented Harrison as a man of the people and depicted Van Buren as an upper-class snob indifferent to the country’s economic woes. (Van Buren was actually the candidate who had overcome humble circumstances; he had become wealthy as a private lawyer. In contrast, Harrison was a member of the Virginia aristocracy and made his career in the government.)
To accommodate their states’ right allies, the party selected John Tyler as Harrison’s running mate; he was, however, an opponent of the Whig agenda. The party leaders solved the contradiction by keeping “Harrison vague and Tyler quiet.” The facade was abetted by the nation’s leading newspapers, all openly pro-Whig. In the end, the ruse succeeded and Harrison defeated Van Buren.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning upset in 2016, one can detect the same machinations at work in the fractious Democratic Party.
After the Cold War ended in 1992, an elite comparable to the Whigs had emerged, again in favor of banking, financial, and commercial interests, but on a global scale across both parties. Between 1992 and 2016, the two parties generally supported greater international economic integration, free trade, and unrestricted immigration; dissenters to this consensus rarely gained political traction.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee and embodiment of this consensus, emerged as the heavy favorite to win the presidency. Clinton, however, like Clay, represented an elite that was disconnected from the country’s economically disadvantaged. More emphatically, it was oblivious to the mounting discontent. Within the party, this dissatisfaction manifested itself in the form of Bernie Sanders, who mounted a strong challenge to her from the left.
Clinton eventually prevailed but she underestimated how much Republican Donald Trump’s populist America First message would resonate with those who felt forgotten by a disdainful elite, much like Jackson’s supporters. Only after Trump won did the enmity between Clinton liberals and Sanders progressives vanish.
Like the Whigs who opposed “King Andrew,” the Democrats re-imagined themselves as the “resistance” to a Trump tyranny. The liberal-progressive combination proved successful immediately, sweeping Congress two years later. However, the true test of unity would come in the next nomination race.
In 2020, Sanders was joined in his second bid by a number of progressives, such as Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. Similarly, a new generation of liberals, such as Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, bid for the nomination. Lastly, former Vice-President Joe Biden came out of retirement to make a third and final bid.
Biden quickly became the frontrunner, albeit a rickety one. Biden had a distinguished resume but an undistinguished reputation; he was once labeled the party’s “dumb blonde.” Furthermore, if successful, Biden would be the oldest nominee ever: eight years older than Harrison. Lastly, Biden admitted he was only a “transitional figure,” a stopgap measure to avert a civil war before the party could oust Trump.
Biden’s weakness became evident immediately. Sanders went onto win the first three contests while Biden never finished above third. Biden finally prevailed in the all-important South Carolina primary, a victory that prompted Klobuchar and Buttigieg to leave the race, even though they had performed better than Biden in the preceding contests. In truth, the two didn’t necessarily exit out of deference to Biden but because they recognized that continuing to divide the liberal vote would only deliver the nomination to Sanders, who was unelectable.
Still, Biden could only unify the party after agreeing to support major progressive proposals and selecting Harris as his running mate. On the campaign trail, Biden emulated Harrison by sequestering himself in his basement and limiting his availability. (While some claimed the pandemic mandated such steps, one party luminary commented that secluding the self-admitted “gaffe machine” was probably wise.)
Biden’s agenda was as vague as Harrison’s. Biden merely promised a triumph of “light over darkness” and “build back better”, while the liberal and progressive wings downplayed their numerous disagreements. As in 1840, the nation’s media actively facilitated the blackout. The media blanketed the country with negative coverage of Trump while endlessly extolling Biden’s decency. Journalists never pushed for more access to Biden and hardly vetted Harris despite her relatively short time on the national stage.
Biden won but it was a triumph of obfuscation, just like Harrison. The Democrats succeeded in ousting Trump but they failed to remember how fleeting the Whig success was. Opposition to one man can galvanize disparate factions, but it is a shallow foundation for an electoral majority or effective government.
In 1841, the frail Harrison contracted pneumonia at his inaugural and died thirty-two days later. When Tyler took over, the states’ right absolutist actively thwarted the Whig program at every turn. The same dysfunctional dynamic is visible in the current Congress where liberal and progressive disagreements have prevented the passage of Biden’s agenda, crippling his presidency.
After Clay ran and lost again in 1844, the Whigs reverted to nominating inscrutable ciphers like Harrison. In 1848, the Whigs nominated Zachary Taylor, a popular general like Harrison but just as opaque. Taylor won, but he too died in office, achieving little of the Whig agenda.
Non-entities similarly occupy the Democratic bench as well. Harris has underwhelmed as vice-president, Klobuchar faces health challenges, and Buttigieg, now Transportation secretary, has made ineffective moves during the supply chain crisis. One commentator begged Biden to forswear a re-election bid so that the party can begin finding a more viable nominee in 2024.
In contrast, Trump’s GOP is exuberantly looking forward to upcoming contests. The former president is itching for a rematch, and if he forgoes a second run, a number of supporters are already credible contenders. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, in particular, has emerged as a possible heir, winning praise for his handling of the pandemic and defiantly MAGA posture.
History remembers Jackson’s election as the “Revolution of 1828.” No such moniker has yet been bestowed on Trump’s victory because contemporary observers refuse to acknowledge its deeper meaning. The wounded elite instead focus on his unflinching destruction of prevailing norms while under-appreciating how the Trump Revolution of 2016 has placed the United States on a new trajectory.
Ultimately, Jacksonian politics and governance overwhelmed a flaccid Whig coalition that was only united by opposition to him. The Whig Party ran its last presidential candidate in 1852 and then disintegrated. Trumpism is poised to accomplish the same against a Democratic Party united only by hatred and hopelessly riven by ideology.
R. Jordan Prescott is a private contractor working in defense and national security since 2002.