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The GOP Is Dying. Time for a Whig Revival?

For conservatives who’ve soured on the sorry state of the Trumpian Republican Party, their new home might be an old home.

MPI/Getty Images
Whig Party politician Daniel Webster defending the idea of the Union against the speech of Senator Robert Hayne, which supported states’ rights

Liz Cheney declared Wednesday that the GOP is finished. “The Republican Party,” she said on ABC’s The View, is 

clearly so caught up in this cult of personality that it’s very hard to imagine that the party can survive. I think increasingly it’s clear that once we get through 2024 we’re gonna have to have something else. Something new. I believe the country has to have a party that’s based on conservative principles and values where we can engage with the Democrats on substance and on policy.

Cheney is right. Without artificial support, the body cannot long survive brain death, and the GOP’s brain, as I documented in February, is pretty obviously dead. The Republican Party maintains a fragile House majority, a narrow majority of governorships, and a larger majority of state legislatures. In the next election, current projections suggest the GOP will lose the House but win back the Senate and, possibly, the presidency. Even so, I agree with Cheney that the Republican Party is running on fumes and that we are witnessing something rare in American politics: the death of a major political party. 

Historian and author Sean Wilentz told me by email that “I’ve been saying something similar”:

[I’ve been saying] that the Republican Party is dead as a doornail, that mainstream parties come and go in American history …  that what was the GOP is now over, having been fully supplanted by an authoritarian political cult. 

Taking it another step, it’s time everyone in the news media woke up to that fact and owned it. Anything being done under the presumption that the Republican Party still exists (primaries, &c.), that it can be reconstructed after Trump … is sheer fantasy. Some of the Never Trumpers, maybe most, have come to realize this. But covering events, like Iowa, while denying that the GOP is a corpse normalizes the situation, which is extremely dangerous, giving Trump a degree of legitimacy he has long ago lost—or should have lost.

I believe the GOP’s death rattle is starting even to penetrate the skulls of most Republican officeholders, at least at the federal level, who aren’t Never Trumpers. They’re too dumbstruck with terror at the moment to do much about it, but given half a chance to drive a stake through Donald Trump’s heart, many would seize it. The difference between Cheney and most of her former Republican colleagues in the House is best measured not by their ideology but by their courage.

That said, a new conservative party, if there’s to be one, won’t likely continue the ideological path that the GOP has followed since January 1980, when Ronald Reagan pronounced, “Government is the problem,” or, going back further, since 1955, when William F. Buckley founded National Review in opposition to President Dwight Eisenhower’s accommodationist “modern Republicanism.” The American conservative trajectory followed since the 1950s was essentially a war against modern life, and it lasted far longer than anyone (including me) thought possible. But the ease with which the MAGA parasite coopted conservatism demonstrated what a weak host it had become—not least through the machinations of Cheney’s father when he was vice president. You can’t build a new conservative party on the legacies of Buckley and Reagan. From the looks of it, not even Dick Cheney wants that anymore.

I believe the answer lies, strangely enough, with a revival of the last major political party to die in America. I think Cheney and Mitt Romney and even many Republicans who aren’t yet willing to distance themselves from Trump are drifting toward something resembling the Whig Party, which was born in 1833 and died in 1856. As potential models for a reformed conservative party goes, conservatives could do a lot worse.

The Whigs were founded in opposition to the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson, which until recent years was regarded as a wellspring of the American liberal tradition because it elevated the common man (read: farmers) at the expense of the elite (read: bankers and industrialists). Franklin Roosevelt, for example, saw himself as Jackson’s legatee. It’s quite different today, of course, when the political figure most eager to associate himself with Jackson is Trump. If today’s liberals are repelled by Jackson’s demagogy against the Second Bank of the United States, by the 14 enslaved people he brought into the White House, and by the thousands of Native Americans killed through his policy of “Indian removal,” today’s conservatives—apart from the blowhard MAGA faction—have no great reason to quarrel with them. 

The Whigs were opposed to a president (Jackson) acquiring monarchical powers; they adopted the name “Whig” to emulate American colonists who opposed King George III. “They saw Jackson as Caesar,” Wilentz told me in a follow-up conversation to our email exchange. They would not have tolerated Trump’s preposterous and self-contradictory claims of immunity from prosecution for trying to overturn the 2020 election. Nor would they have much regard for the “unitary executive” theory of maximal presidential power that came into vogue during the Reagan years. The Whigs, whose preeminent leaders were Senators Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Henry Clay of Kentucky, were strong defenders of legislative prerogatives and the rule of law. If American democracy was to be preserved, Clay said, 

it must be by the practice of virtue, by justice, by moderation, by magnanimity, by greatness of soul, by keeping a watchful and steady eye on the executive.

The Whigs even favored (somewhat wrongheadedly) limiting presidents to a single term. In general, holding the presidency was not something at which the party excelled. “The poor Whigs,” Wilentz told me. “Both of their presidents died in office.” (That would be William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor.)

That said, the Whigs did not advocate small government in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson. They understood that the United States required not only a national bank but federally subsidized roads, canals, and other transportation infrastructure to connect far-flung commerce. They would have supported not only Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act but also the (misleadingly named) Inflation Reduction Act, which received not a single Republican vote in Congress, and whose subsidies for green technologies Trump is threatening to block (even though they’ve been a boon to red states). The Whigs would also have favored the CHIPS Act, which is helping to drive a $210 billion boom in factory construction. The CHIPS Act was opposed by all but 24 Republicans in the House and all but 17 in the Senate.

Something else in the Whigs’ favor: They were cool to manifest destiny, the doctrine that called for relentless and violent Westward expansion. “The Whigs hated that,” Wilentz told me. “They said America should not expand too quickly.” They also, Wilentz explained, saw it as politically advantageous to their opponents, the Democrats.

Just to be clear: If conservatives drift into a revived Whig Party, I will not, as a liberal, become a Whig. (I’m just kibbitzing here from the sidelines.) Nor will most Democrats. But it will be possible, as it isn’t today, for Democrats to engage in conversation with Whigs “on substance and policy,” as Cheney puts it.

The Whigs were vulnerable to the accusation of elitism. The Democratic Party, founded around the same time as the Whigs, was the party of the ordinary Americans; the Whigs were, especially at the beginning, the party of business. But unlike the current Republican Party (which, for all its populist bluster, is also the party of business), Whigs tended to eschew mythologizing; as Oxford historian Daniel Walker Howe puts it in his 2007 book What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, “Whig support usually came from environments providing good access to information and an awareness of people and events beyond the immediate horizon.”

There were, without question, some Whigs not worth emulating. John C. Calhoun, America’s preeminent defender of slavery, was a Whig. The Whig Party itself succeeded largely by avoiding the divisive issue of slavery, a peace that eventually became impossible to maintain and that led to the party’s collapse; the antislavery Republican Party was created out of its Northern faction. 

Today there is no slavery to avoid, of course, but the revived Whig Party would not likely lead the nation on matters related to race or diversity. But nor would it likely promote itself, as today’s Republican Party does, through the exploitation of racial animus. A revived Whig Party would also not likely promote taxation of businesses and the rich. But it would likely be more open to compromise with Democrats on taxation in order to keep the federal budget solvent, something today’s Republicans have no particular interest in doing. One especially refreshing aspect to reviving the Whig Party is that conservatives would no longer pretend to represent the working class, creating an opportunity for Democrats to recapture that constituency.

The Whig platform of 1844 (when it ran Clay, unsuccessfully, for president; he lost to James Polk) has a remarkably contemporary ring. It called for

a well-regulated currency; a tariff [today Whigs would say “tax”] for revenue to defray the necessary expenses of the government, and discriminating with special reference to the protection of the domestic labor of the country; the distribution of the proceeds of the sales of the public lands; a single term for the presidency [again: bad idea!]; a reform of executive usurpations;—and, generally—such an administration of the affairs of the country as shall impart to every branch of the public service the greatest practicable efficiency, controlled by a well regulated and wise economy.

“I’m a Whig,” David Brooks wrote in 2018, and he is. He’s always been conservative, but he’s never been especially anti-government. In the late 1990s, Brooks and Bill Kristol advocated something they called “national greatness” conservatism that looked a lot like Whiggery. They called for a return to “the nationalism of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay and Teddy Roosevelt.” They called for a more energetic federal government and dispensed with certain conservative orthodoxies, such as banning abortion. The idea foundered mainly because of its emphasis on military intervention (a doctrine, Wilentz notes, more in line with Bull Moose Republicanism), which came to grief in Iraq. But even here the Whig example is instructive, because the Whigs resisted militarism, most notably when many of them opposed Polk’s Mexican War. 

The Whigs didn’t last long, but they made a lasting contribution to the United States. As Howe concludes:

America’s future lay predominantly within the Whig vision of economic development and a stronger central government.… Eventually the Whig vision prevailed, but only after [former Whig] Abraham Lincoln had vindicated it in the bloodiest of American wars.… As economic modernizers, as supporters of strong national government, and as humanitarians more receptive than their rivals to talent regardless of race or gender, the Whigs deserve to be remembered.

Maybe they will be more than remembered. Maybe they’ll be resurrected, as the Republican Party that replaced them north of the Mason-Dixon line itself goes the way of the dodo. I’m not going to join a revived Whig Party myself, but I do think it’s a pretty good idea, and I’ll gladly cheer those conservatives who do. America is a two-party democracy, but nobody ever said we had to keep the same two parties and, historically, we haven’t. Time to try something new that just happens, at the same time, to be old.