“I was educated a Democrat from my boyhood,” a Republican delegate confided to his colleagues at Iowa’s constitutional convention in 1857. “Faithfully, I did adhere to that party until I could no longer act with it. Many things did I condemn ere I left that party, for my love of party was strong. And when I did, at last, feel compelled to separate from my old Democratic friends, it was like tearing myself away from old home associations.”
As often seems the case today, American politics in the 1850s were nearly all-consuming and stubbornly tribal. So it was hard—and bitterly so—for hundreds of thousands of Northern Democrats to abandon the political organization that had long formed the backbone of their civic identity. Yet they came over the course of a decade to believe that the Jacksonian Democratic Party had degenerated into something thoroughly autocratic and corrupt. It had fallen so deeply in the thrall of the Slave Power that it posed an existential threat to American democracy.
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Placing the sanctity of the nation above the narrow bonds of party, these Democrats joined in common cause with former Whig antagonists in the epic struggle to save the United States from its own darker instincts.
Today, a small but influential cadre of Republican elected officials, strategists and policy experts faces a similar choice. Heirs of Ronald Reagan, they have grown to believe that their party has also degenerated into something ugly and undemocratic—hostile to science and fact, rooted in an angry spirit of racial and ethnic nationalism, enamored of foreign strongmen and hostile to American institutions, and so fundamentally estranged from the nation’s founding values that it poses an existential threat to American democracy.
During the presidential campaign of 2016, and for the better part of the past two years, these Never Trumpers could plausibly speak of extracting their party from the grip of white nationalism and angry populism. Now, with midterm elections approaching—with broad majorities of the GOP electorate firmly in the president’s thrall and the Republican Congress all but fully acquiescent to the White House—such talk is fanciful.
Like that Iowa delegate in 1857, today’s Never Trumpers face a stark choice: passively acquiesce to the further ascent of Trumpism, or switch parties and play a vital part in stopping it.
If they do choose the latter, they might be surprised at the result: Like the GOP’s founding generation, in the process of leaving a party they once loved, today’s Never Trump Republicans might also free themselves from partisan dogmas that have lost relevance in the current age. At the same time, they might find Democrats demonstrating a new spirit of flexibility and accommodation—leading to a new unity that could cure the country of some of its worst ills.
From the late 1820s through the 1840s, Americans split their political loyalties between two parties, Whigs and Democrats, that disagreed on a host of economic and political questions including a national banking system, tariffs, infrastructure spending, monetary policy and workers’ rights. Both parties enjoyed strong bisectional support and, for the most part, conspired to keep slavery out of the national dialogue.
That changed in 1854 when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which organized the Kansas and Nebraska territories in preparation for the construction of a midwestern link to a planned transcontinental railroad. At the insistence of Southern Democrats who initially balked at supporting the bill, Stephen Douglas, chairman of the Committee on Territories and chief author of the bill, inserted a “popular sovereignty” provision allowing the residents of the two territories to decide for themselves whether to permit slavery. Kansas and Nebraska were part of the Louisiana Purchase, and as such they fell under the provisions of the Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery above the 36’30” parallel. In one quick motion, Douglas and his Democratic colleagues obliterated a longstanding arrangement between the North and the South and reintroduced the slavery question into American politics.
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The backlash was swift. The Kansas-Nebraska Act created “a deep-seated, intense, and ineradicable hatred” of slavery, observed the editor of the New York Times. It wasn’t just that the ruling Democratic Party had repealed the Missouri Compromise. It also seemed intent on flouting any law or tradition that stood in the way of slavery’s extension into the territories. William Pitt Fessenden, a Whig senator from Maine, spoke for many Northerners when he called the Kansas-Nebraska Act “a terrible outrage. … The more I look at it, the more enraged I become. It needs but little to make me an out & out abolitionist.”
The introduction of the Kansas-Nebraska Act snapped the cords that bound many Northern voters to the two political parties and introduced a period of extreme volatility and excitement. For all intents and purposes, the Whig Party—which for reasons unrelated to the slavery issue had been in a state of slow decline—ceased to exist, while throughout the North, Democrats suffered massive defections by both voters and officeholders. At hundreds of political meetings around the country, antislavery activists abandoned their political bases for new “fusion” tickets uniting antislavery “Conscience” Whigs and “anti-Nebraska” Democrats, who opposed the Whigs on most policy questions but thought slavery was a dangerous social and political system. In some states, these fusion tickets were called Anti-Nebraska, Democrat-Republican or Free-Soil. In Ripon, Wisconsin, on February 28, 1854, several dozen residents of the surrounding county converged on the town’s simple, one-room, wood-frame schoolhouse to forge a new political party. They called themselves Republicans, and the name soon stuck.
Former Democrats-turned-Republicans weren’t disgusted simply by the imposition of “popular sovereignty” in territory that should, by their estimation, have been free. They also watched as their former party perverted the very idea of free elections and democratic process. In the Kansas territory, “border ruffians,” led by Missouri’s Democratic senator, David Atchison, moved in and out of Kansas with impunity—stuffing ballot boxes, visiting violence on free state settlers and attempting to tilt the scales in favor of slavery. “You know how to protect your own interests,” Atchison declared. “Your rifles will free you from such neighbors. … You will go there, if necessary, with the bayonet and with blood.” “If we win,” he promised, “we can carry slavery to the Pacific Ocean.” Although antislavery voters probably made up a healthy majority of the population, the slave forces stole a series of territorial elections, leading the Free Soilers to establish a shadow government in Lawrence, Kansas.
Tensions had already started to boil over when Atchison’s ruffians “sacked” and pillaged the free-state capital city, destroying the local Free-Soil newspaper office and laying ruin to the Free State Hotel, which housed the shadow legislature. Days later, on May 19, 1856, Charles Sumner rose on the Senate floor to denounce the “crime against Kansas.” The day after his speech, as Sumner attended to routine paperwork on the Senate floor, Butler’s cousin, Congressman Preston Brooks, entered the chamber and set upon him with a metal-tipped cane. The senators’ desks were bolted to the floor, making it impossible for Sumner to escape from his seat. Writhing in pain, he wrenched the desk up with his knees and collapsed on the bloodstained carpet. His injuries nearly killed him, and it would be four years before he could return to normal duties in the Capitol. As for Brooks: He enjoyed the full-throated support of Southern Democrats and the quiet approval—or at least non-disapproval—of his Northern party brethren who remained faithful to their party.
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The incident soon became known as “Bleeding Sumner,” and it created a political firestorm. The symbolic importance of the crime was arresting. Southern Democrats and their fellow travelers up North were no longer content to employ violence and terrorism in Kansas. Now they had brought their war of aggression into the halls of Congress. “The South has taken the oligarchic ground that Slavery ought to exist, irrespective of color,” the New-York Tribune intoned, “that Democracy is an illusion and a lie.”
In the course of defecting to the new Republican Party, many former Democrats came to look back with disgust on the ways by which Southern Democrats had enforced rigid, doctrinaire support for slavery for decades. Starting in the 1830s, when Congress instituted a “gag rule” barring debate or discussion of the peculiar institution, the Democratic majority blithely tramped over the First Amendment rights of white Northern congressmen in the defense of chattel slavery
A onetime Democrat from Ohio—and future Republican congressman—put the matter in sharper relief when he complained that “we have submitted to slavery long enough, and must not stand it any longer. … I am done catching negroes for the South.” Hannibal Hamlin, a Democratic senator from Maine, lamented that “the old Dem. party is now the party of slavery. It has no other issue, in fact, and this is the standard on which [it] measures every thing and every man.” Hamlin soon switched parties and served as vice president in Abraham Lincoln’s first term.
It’s unclear whether the politicians were leading their constituents, or vice versa. The congressional district in Pennsylvania that antislavery Democrat David Wilmot and his Democrat-turned-Republican successor, Galusha Grow, represented had delivered a plurality of 2,500 votes to Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Pierce in 1852. Four years later, Republican nominee John C. Fremont won the district with 70 percent of the vote and a plurality of 9,000. (Grow would go on to serve as House speaker.) Throughout most of the North and Midwest, Democrats were reduced to minority status overnight. Defections were so profound in Illinois that a former Whig observed that “the men here who have been regarded as the elite of the Democratic party are now with us for the Republican ticket.”
That roster of Illinois ex-Democrats included Lyman Trumbull, who in early 1855 won just five votes in the legislature’s first-round balloting for the United States Senate. The incumbent Democrat, James Shields, won 41 votes, and Abraham Lincoln, a former Whig turned Republican, led with 45—just shy of the 51 votes needed to secure election. Lincoln understood that Trumbull’s holdouts were “men who never could vote for a whig.” Over the course of several roll calls, he began bleeding support to Trumbull, while the Democrats swapped Shields out for the popular incumbent governor, Joel Matteson. Fearing that some of the anti-Nebraska Democrats might reunite with their party and send Matteson to the Senate, Lincoln instructed his Whig supporters to fall in line with Trumbull.
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Political accommodation between ex-Whigs and ex-Democrats didn’t come easy. It required men like Lincoln to set aside personal ambition in the interest of defeating the slave power. It required Whigs to vote for ex-Democrats, even when the Jacksonians were in the minority. But on balance, it required considerably more of ex-Democrats.
In 1948, the historian Michael Hasseltine suggested that the Republican Party was “little more than an enlarged Whig party disguised in a new vocabulary.” That’s a vast oversimplification, but it’s undeniable that former Whigs outnumbered former Democrats, and that each camp eyed the other warily. In Connecticut, former Democrats led by Gideon Welles and John Niles determined to prevent the state Republican organization from devolving into “but another phase of Whiggery.” For their part, ex-Whigs like David Davis of Illinois disdained former Democrats-turned-Republicans as “a perfect oligarchy with a maw ready to swallow everything.”
Republicans fundamentally agreed on two things: That slavery must not be extended into the territories, and that the Democratic Party was a dangerous, anti-democratic institution that must be ground out throughout the North. That left much room for disagreement and compromise over the tariff, monetary policy and the powers of the federal state. Ultimately, though, the Civil War compelled former Democrats to make the greater compromise, a point well-illustrated by hundreds of millions of Union greenbacks issued by Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and signed by Francis Burner, treasurer of the United States. Both were former hard-money Democrats.
The war greatly expanded the federal state in ways that ex-Democrats might once have found unconscionable. To raise, arm, feed and move the Union Army, the Republican administration and Congress introduced new taxes, expanded the federal debt and engaged in inflationary monetary policies that would have made Andrew Jackson turn in his grave. In the 1870s—with the question of slavery settled and civil rights for freedmen at least theoretically embedded in the Constitution—some ex-Democrats returned to their fold. Many did not. Those who returned to their party were unsettled not only by the seeming permeance of Whig economic policies that they had accepted as a wartime expedient, but also by political corruption that seemed the natural byproduct of the GOP’s close relationship with industrialists and manufacturers who had prospered on government contracts under the Lincoln, Johnson and Grant administrations.
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Ex-Democrats in the 1850s and 1860s didn’t have to become Whigs. They were able to join a new political party—albeit one dominated by former Whigs.
The shrewdest of today’s Never Trump Republicans realize that they face only one clean choice, and it is, of course, more jarring: Become Democrats or, like the prominent GOP strategist Steve Schmidt, become independents and support Democrats. Third parties have rarely taken flight in American history, and when they have, they rarely stay airborne for long.
Like the Iowan who felt as though he were “tearing [himself] away from old home associations,” Never Trumpers will find it a bitter pill to swallow.
But history offers them some consolation.
In the process of abandoning their party allegiance, most Democrats-turned-Republicans disenthralled themselves from political prejudices that no longer made much sense. In Congress, they avidly supported distinctly Whiggish policies like the Homestead Act, the Land-Grant Agricultural and Mechanical College Act and the Pacific Railroad Acts, all of which established a foundation for the country’s post-war economic growth. On some level, the war catalyzed this political realignment. But something equally fundamental may also have been at play: Having concluded that their former Whig enemies shared their fundamental commitment to the good of the nation, ex-Democrats freed themselves to imagine a larger space for political collaboration.
So too can Never Trumpers and Democrats in 2018 find common cause. Relative to other center-left political parties in the developed world, the U.S. Democratic Party is more center than left. It’s the only American political party that has seriously attempted to develop market-based policies to expand health care access (the Affordable Care Act), address climate change (cap and trade) or upgrade the nation’s deficient infrastructure (an infrastructure bank.
As recently as the 1990s and early 2000s—before their party devolved into a spirit of revanchism—center-right Republicans used to compromise with center-left Democrats to address systemic challenges like children’s health care, tax policy and environmental protection. There’s no reason they can’t do so again, within the framework of an enlarged and more ideologically diverse Democratic Party.
If Never Trumpers are truly alarmed by Democrats’ recent embrace of single-payer health care and universal community college, they should become Democrats and develop market-based solutions to big, systemic problems. That would also require that Democratic voters understand their role in forging a new majority: They must pitch a larger tent and accommodate a broader range of ideas and perspectives. Some of them might be forced to make sacrifices like Lincoln’s and step aside in favor of former Republicans where circumstances demand it.
In the same way that former Democrats in the 1850s had to climb their way out of an intellectual foxhole, Never Trumpers in 2018 must arrive at some political accommodation—and quickly. Having devoted so many years and decades to denouncing theoretical and rhetorical incursions on personal liberty—usually in the form of taxes or regulations that Democrats support—many Republicans have been slow to recognize the very tangible and real-world danger of a thuggish central state under their own party’s control: the knock on the door at night, the separation of children and parents, congressional show trials, the erosion of civil society, the autocratic leader forcing private companies into submission, the state-run television station that insists the weather is bright and sunny when everyone can see that it’s raining.
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This late in the game, you can be Never Trump or Never Democrat. But you can’t be both.