The Republican Party, many fear (or hope), could be headed for a crack-up this year on the shoals of Trumpism.
And there’s at least some danger that Donald Trump could bust up the GOP and still ride pieces of its strewn wreckage all the way to the White House. That’s because Democrats, increasingly, seem comparably fractured and disoriented by the insurrection of Bernie Sanders’ believers.
This is all serious news, important and intriguing news — but it’s far from being anything altogether new.
Maybe recalling that political parties have been splintering, imploding, reincarnating and even going extinct throughout American history can for a moment permit us — if not exactly to enjoy today’s spectacle — at least to put it in perspective.
Herewith, a brief history of political party upheaval in America:
• 1814: America’s first political party, the Federalists, more or less invented the country, but didn’t long endure itself. Its heroic founding leaders departed the political scene in rapid succession, with George Washington dying in 1799; John Adams losing the presidency in the 1800 election and withdrawing from public life, and today’s toast of Broadway, Alexander Hamilton, getting himself killed in a duel in 1804. John Marshall, appointed chief justice in 1800, served 35 momentous, nation-shaping years on the Supreme Court, but never again participated in electoral politics.
Under lesser leaders who followed, the Federalist Party drifted toward extremism and New England parochialism. During the divisive War of 1812, its leaders flirted with secession, helping to complete the discrediting of the party.
• 1824-28: With the Federalists gone and Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party in sole control, something inaptly called the “Era of Good Feelings” ensued. In fact, and not for the last time, the lack of firm opposition simply caused the dominant party to splinter among jealous factions.
In the disputed 1824 election, John Quincy Adams was made president by the House of Representatives in what his main rival, Andrew Jackson, considered a “corrupt bargain” with Speaker of the House Henry Clay.
Four years later, in what detractors called “a raving howl of democracy,” Jackson ousted Adams and launched what historians call the “Second Party System” in America. Jackson now led what became the Democratic Party; Adams and Clay led the Whigs.
When he retired, Jackson remarked that his main regret as president was that he hadn’t found an excuse to hang Henry Clay.
• 1854-60: Like no other storm in American history, the slavery controversy blew apart every political structure in its path. The Whigs, hopelessly divided between Northern and Southern wings, disappeared by 1854, essentially replaced by the new anti-slavery Republican Party. The Democrats came spectacularly undone in 1860, ending up holding three conventions and fielding two candidates, helping Lincoln, the Republican, win the presidency — with less than 40 percent of the popular vote.
• 1912: The decades after the Civil War witnessed the mass production of political bitterness and corruption, the golden age of political bossism and the spoils system. Still, the Democrats rather remarkably survived their 1860 cataclysm. The nation’s party alignment remained comparatively stable — until 1912.
That year the volcanic and charismatic former President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican progressive, turned on his protégé and successor William Howard Taft and formed his own third party — the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party. Roosevelt carried eight states (including Minnesota) and ensured the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson — with less than 42 percent of the popular vote.
• 1968-74: Republicans bounced back from the personality-driven disorder of 1912. But their long era of dominance ended with the Great Depression. Even so, from the 1930s until the late 1960s, the GOP held together through (mostly) thin and thin.
The Democrats had gradually transformed themselves after the Civil War into an intimidating coalition, fueled by the economic and cultural interests of the working class and immigrants, along with deep historic ties to the South. (“Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion,” Republicans sneered, but all three germinated potent constituencies.)
When, from the late 1940s on, Northern Democrats increasingly turned against Southern segregation, the long epoch of party stability began to unravel.
It was the addition of the Vietnam War debate and the broad 1960s cultural rebellion that destabilized not one but both parties. In 1968, the Vietnam controversy moved Democratic President Lyndon Johnson to not seek re-election. A bitter scramble for the nomination between Minnesotans Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy (darkened by the assassination of a third rival, Bobby Kennedy) fractured the party. The independent candidacy of segregationist and former Democrat George Wallace, who carried five states, topped off the chaos that helped Republican Richard Nixon eke out victory — with less than 44 percent of the popular vote.
Four years later, the Democrats’ rebellious “new left” nominated anti-war Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, whose candidacy shattered the liberal coalition when national labor boss George Meany refused to endorse the Democratic ticket. That year, Nixon took 61 percent of the popular vote.
But within two years, Nixon, whose flawed character had cracked under the pressures of that stormy era, was driven from office by the Watergate scandal. Republicans, too, seemed headed for crisis. For 20 years, from 1975 to 1995, the GOP in Minnesota defensively called itself the Independent-Republican Party of Minnesota.
And yet, Republicans would more than regroup in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan and even regain parity in congressional politics, something they had lacked for half a century.
And Democrats, though clearly not (since 1968) the juggernaut they were, have regained the initiative and won major policy battles on health care, same-sex marriage and more.
Morals? Every era is different; but almost nothing is unprecedented. There’s nothing novel about political parties being shaken, transformed, even broken to bits by oversized events and oversized personalities — either when they burst upon the scene or depart it.
Parties can even disappear, but America’s main parties have proven impressively hard to kill for a long while now.
And we aren’t the first Americans to wonder whether politics have ever been this crazy before.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.