Way Of The Whigs Is Good, Not Bad, For Democracy

Some folks are scared that Trumpism could live beyond the 2016 election if he splits off his supporters into a new third party. But that might be exactly what we need to return to a functioning two party democracy. [I hope to add links to some of my points, but want to post this before the election.]

James Nevius writes in The Guardian:

What if, in addition to a new Trump media empire, he’s preparing his followers to coalesce into a brand-new Trump political party?


The 1850s saw the rise of the American Party, better known as the “Know Nothings,” that were staunchly anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. In 1856, their standard bearer, former president Millard Fillmore, garnered 22% of the vote.


Picture what could happen in 2018 if a Trump Party – its voters fueled by a 24-hour-a-day Trump News Network – makes significant inroads in the House. It will make the Tea Party’s resistance to Barack Obama seem tame by comparison. The Tea Party, at its heart, is about Constitutional originalism and has generally operated within the framework of the Republican party.

A Trump Party will have no such strictures. Since Donald Trump doesn’t seem to understand the Constitution or care about the Republican brand, it’s likely a Trump Party won’t have any qualms about simply blowing up Washington and watching it burn – while all of it is gleefully covered on Trump News.


This analysis is... confused. The author, quite correctly, compares Trumpism to the nativist Know-Nothings but then, having identified a historical analogue, mumbles something about 1876 and then proceedes to ignore history altogether. 

Why does the author ignore history? Because a deep background assumption of our political discourse is that the two parties will exist forever.

But history tells us that the Know Nothing faction didn't turn the Whigs into an extreme opposition party that blew up Washington. History tells us that the Know Nothings blew up the Whig Party, making room for the rise of the Republican Party.

Why can't it happen again? Is there any reason why the GOP can't go The Way of The Whigs? 

 Famous Whig Daniel Webster

Famous Whig Daniel Webster

Since early 2014, I've been blogging about the tensions within the Republican Party that will eventually drive them to go the Way Of The Whigs. The split I have identified would lead to a Southern Rump Neo-Confederate Party losing ground over time to a Western Red Party that, while still "conservative" in some sense, would win elections with a racially inclusive message that would attract at least some brown voters. 

Here are the basic facts: 

  1. Voting is fundamentally tribal. Evolutionary pressures have strongly selected humans who outsource tribal decision making to tribal elites, freeing up time, energy, and brain power to do the work of daily survival.
  2. Historically, the American electorate was 100% propertied white male. This obscured the tribal nature of voting because the tribes weren't differentiated by race, religion, or social class. 
  3. Non-WASP Americans have been very slowly added to the electorate over two and a half centuries. 
  4. Meanwhile, the national conversation has been conducted between the press and the academy, two groups that have remained virtually 100% white.
  5. The members of these two groups are as tribal as the rest of us. However, because "college educated white person" continues to be synonymous with "normal American" in their communities, academics and reporters are largely blind to their own tribal behavior.
  6. The Press/Academy demographic group is divided into two tribes: The "liberal ideology" tribe and the "conservative ideology" tribe. 
  7. Psychologically, the members of the Press/Academy tribes derive their self-esteem from their brains and education. In order to maintain their identity, they imagine all politics to ultimately be a "debate over the size and scope of government" in order to shield themselves from their own tribal behavior. 
  8. This false belief that all politics is ideological causes the Press/Academy cohort to view appeals to non-ideological tribes as sub-normal "identity politics".
  9. In reality, all politics is identity politics. This is just another way of saying that politics is tribal. "Environmentalist white person" is an identity just as much as "Rural white evangelical" or "urban black man."
  10. The press/academy model of politics as an ideological debate over the size and scope of government is represented by the metaphor of the "political spectrum". This metaphor is invoked anytime you hear the words: left, right, center, liberal, conservative, pivot, tack, etc. 
  11. The realities of tribal identity politics have been shoe-horned into the "ideological debate model" of politics using the idea of intersectionality. 
  12. For example, race is obviously a huge factor driving American politics. Rather than reject the ideology model and accept the tribal reality, the Press/Academy cohort  added race as a y axis which "intersects" [running up and down] with the x axis of "normal" ideology [the axis which runs left to right]. This "solution" has been expanded in academia to deal with new categories of tribal behavior in addition to race. Thus, the progressive scholar writes on the "intersectionality" of politics, where new axies are added for gender, sexual orientation, disability, rural vs urban, etc, etc.
  13. Thus, all new data which falsifies the basic theory of ideological politics is instead incorporated into the falsehood.
  14. Back in the real world of winning elections: Tribal appeals work. They get votes. The most effective tribal appeals speak to the tribe's view of itself and define specific out-groups that are excluded from the tribe and vilified.
  15. But out-group vilification is a double-edged sword because it strictly limits multi-tribal coalitions. If a political party needs a coalition of tribes to achieve a majority of votes, the party message must allow for cooperation across tribal lines.
  16. In 1964/1965 things changed radically as Southern blacks (where the majority of black people have always lived) were added to the electorate in one fell swoop and Barry Goldwater ran an explicitly anti-Civil Rights campaign.  
  17. The Republican Party collection of tribes that has been limited ever since to those tribes which incorporate "white" as part of their identity.   
  18. Changing demographics mean that, county by county, district by district, and, eventually, state by state, a white only coalition will be a minority of voters and be doomed to lose elections. 
  19. There is no guarantee that the red party will always be the GOP. 
  20. Parties are defined by who can win a primary election. 
  21. The more national elections are won by Democrats, the clearer it will become to Republican voters that a multi-ethnic coalition is needed to win nationally.
  22. There are "red" House districts that are currently safe Republican seats but where the majority of Republican Primary voters would not be opposed to being in the same party as Hispanics or Blacks. 
  23. But, you can't just decide to be not racist. In order to overcome the inertia of tribal identity, a candidate needs to make an explicitly multi-racial appeal.  
  24. Policy platforms and other ideological approaches don't work. Policy works as identity politics when it reach the level of "Civil Rights Act" or "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" and becomes law. 
  25. If there is a Trump/Racist Party, then the job becomes much much easier. Tribal appeals take the form of: look at the racists over there! 
  26. As a result, House district by House district, one of two things will happen, either: a) In a Republican Party primary for a safe red seat a Republican stressing a multi-racial appeal will beat a Republican with a whites only message, or b) A third party will face off against the GOP in the general election for a safe red House seat and the third party will win.

See, also, this article in te New Republic.

Meanwhile, here's a positive take on tribalistic voting at New Yorker:

But maybe voting is neither commons nor market. Perhaps, instead, it’s combat. Relatively gentle, of course. Rather than rifles and bayonets, essentially there’s just a show of hands. But the nature of the duty may be similar, because what Brennan’s model omits is that sometimes, in an election, democracy itself is in danger. If a soldier were to calculate his personal value to the campaign that his army is engaged in, he could easily conclude that the cost of showing up at the front isn’t worth it, even if he factors in the chance of being caught and punished for desertion. The trouble is that it’s impossible to know in advance of a battle which side will prevail, let alone by how great a margin, especially if morale itself is a variable. The lack of certainty about the future makes a hash of merely prudential calculation. It’s said that most soldiers worry more about letting down the fellow-soldiers in their unit than about allegiance to an entity as abstract as the nation, and maybe voters, too, feel their duty most acutely toward friends and family who share their idea of where the country needs to go.