A political party can be destroyed by warring factions after it nominates a celebrity candidate and loses its coherence. That’s what happened…after 1848, when the Whigs backed Zachary Taylor.
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Donald Trump, who four short years ago was viewed by many GOP operatives as an erratic outsider, has just been re-nominated as the Republican Party's standard-bearer. But whether he wins or loses, can a party without any guiding principles survive?
How do old political parties die, and how are new ones born?
Imagine a political party that has lost its ideological coherence and is torn apart by various warring factions. Then an outsider and celebrity candidate emerges with no fealty to the party's policy agenda and with no previous political experience. He goes on to connect with voters and retake the White House.
That's exactly what happened in 1848, when the Whigs backed Zachary Taylor.
Political scientist Philip Wallach, a resident senior fellow at the R Street Institute, published a 2017 paper on the parallels between Taylor and Trump.
"Taylor was a very disruptive force for the Whig Party," says Wallach. "His victory was, of course, something they were very excited about, but he didn't govern in exactly the ways they would have preferred."
Weinstein sees a parallel with the mid-19th century in that voters are again open to alternatives.
"This is, in some sense, the natural outgrowth of the fact that the parties long ago stopped serving the interests of the American public," says Weinstein.
Weinstein launched an initiative called Unity 2020, which intends to use online crowdsourcing to nominate a center-left and center-right candidate to run and govern as a team. He says by circumventing the usual political process, candidates will avoid being so easily corrupted.
But in the 19th century, there were fewer obstacles to challenging the major parties.
"For a third party to be able to get some votes was much easier," says Wallach. "It just had to be able to print ballots and distribute them to a network of supporters….Nineteenth-century politics were just much more open and fluid than our politics today."
The Libertarian Party's presidential nominee, Jo Jorgensen, is on track to getting on the ballot in all 50 states, and she says she offers a better path forward than either Trump or Biden.
"People are realizing that they don't have the choices that they used to have. And I think they're getting fed up with government telling them at every turn what they can do," says Jorgensen.
But Wallach is skeptical that a third party can disrupt our modern duopoly.
A third party or independent candidate has never triumphed in a modern presidential election, with the strongest contender being former President Teddy Roosevelt's 1912 campaign under the Progressive Party banner. The self-funded billionaire Ross Perot's run in 1992 eventually spun off the Reform Party, which never won a national election but did become the site of Donald Trump's first foray into presidential politics.
"That leaves us wondering, where would a successful
a third party come from?" says Wallach.
He believes that, based on the death of the Whigs, to be successful the Libertarian Party would need to win in statewide races and then merge with defectors from a collapsed Democratic or Republican Party.
"Americans are frustrated because they don't have any control over their own lives," says Jorgensen. "And all they know is that it's the two old parties that are making them feel this way."
Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Opening graphic by Lex Villena.
Music by Stanley Gurvich licensed by Artlist.
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