Leading up to election night in 2016, many predicted that when Donald Trump inevitably lost, the Republican Party would finally and irreparably split in two and fade into history like the Whigs. But, of course, Trump won, and the Republicans now stand more united than they've been in a few years. Watching President Trump’s State of the Union Address a few weeks ago brought something into focus for me: It wasn’t the GOP that would soon be going the way of the Whigs, it was the Democrats.
The Whig Party formed in 1833 for the explicit purpose of opposing Andrew Jackson’s attacks on the Second Bank of the United States and his expansion of the Executive Branch. These two policy points (mainly the former), along with the likes of Henry Clay’s visceral hatred for Andrew Jackson, united the members of the party under a common banner.
In American politics, the term opposition party is often thrown around to describe the party not in control of the Executive or Legislative Branch. The role of the opposition party in any Democratic Republic is essential, as they are to hold the controlling party accountable and keep them in line. Though they have a clear role, the opposition party’s identity does not solely exist in being, well, opposition. They have a clear set of party values, a philosophical approach to politics and government, and an overall policy platform which unites them. Their opposition does not often just stem from a single issue or a detestation of the current President.
This was not the case with the Whigs. After winning four Presidential Elections, the Whigs faded into obscurity and disbanded in 1856 due to irreconcilable divisions over slavery. More importantly, however, this breakup was inevitable when it finally came to an issue too controversial to ignore. The Whigs seemed to never see themselves, as a party, as more than the opposition. As stated in a History Channel article on the topic, “The tendency of Whig officeholders to vote as a bloc on certain issues, in opposition to Democratic blocs, helps account for the tendency of some historians to exaggerate the extent and depth of Whig single-mindedness.”
The Democrats, proving the relevance of the theory “history tends to repeat itself,” have taken up a similar disposition.
Over Trump’s first year in office, we have seen the Democrats begin to develop a strange pattern, anything Trump supports, they must oppose. Even if the battle is a losing one, the Democrats show up to play Devil’s Advocate to Trump’s positions.
We have seen it with Democrats supporting NFL players’ protests of the National Anthem, despite a majority of the country opposing their actions. We have seen it with many Democrats now suddenly condemning Trump’s move to set the US Embassy for Israel in Jerusalem, despite it being a sentiment their party has supported time and time again. And we saw it at the State of the Union when, despite Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer stating, “[we will] work in good faith on issues like infrastructure and trade,” at the beginning of the Trump presidency, Democrats sat, most refusing even to applaud, when Donald Trump brought up a historically low black unemployment rate and promised a whopping 1.5 trillion dollar infrastructure plan.
There is more to this than some policy standpoint changes, though. When talking about the decay of the Democratic Party, we must address a key component: their mentality behind such changes.
Since the election of Donald Trump, the Democrats seem to have entered the mindset of "The Resistance," a term used by many on the left to describe their explicit opposition to President Trump. Democrats, as Kevin Sheridan correctly points out, “are just running on Trump hatred, and it manifests itself in everything they say or do…”
Such a focus on being the opposition has caused the Democrats, much like the Whigs, to put off and ignore dealing with the factionalism in their party, along with the main forces driving the wedge between the factions, progressivism and economic policy.
The Democratic Party has three main factions duking it out for control beneath the party’s unified looking exterior.
In one corner, you have the Centrists. These are the folks lead by organizations such as "New Democracy." They support the economic Populism which gets Middle American families voting for Democrats but are worried that elitism, hyper-Progressive views, and the negative tone their current economic ideas revolve around could very well lose Middle America to the Republicans indefinitely.
In another corner, you have the Socialists or Bernie-Style Democrats. These individuals mainly consist of the younger demographic which pushed Hillary Clinton further and further to the left during the 2016 Democratic primaries. This group is full of economic populists who wish for intense corporate regulation. They are often rather socially progressive but tend to focus more on economic policy, rather than social issues.
Finally, you have the Intersectionalists. Much like the Socialists, they are staunch in their economic leftism; however, the Intersectionalists are much more concerned with making the Democratic Party a socially progressive force. This group would instead focus on advocating an end to the patriarchy or institutional racism than protectionist trade policy.
Though the Intersectionalists and Socialists align on many issues, the main argument between them seems to be which policy platform to put at the forefront of the party’s conscience. Would the party’s energy and resources be best spent on moving the party toward the intersectional politics of Barack Obama, or the economic, socialist populism of Bernie Sanders?
If the Democratic factions, in Whig-like fashion, find these differences to be irreconcilable, which they are on a trajectory toward, there is a strong possibility they will face an enormous schism -- one which, in defiance of Duverger's Law (first past the post voting and single-member districts favor a two party system), causes an entirely separate party to form.
That or one to two groups, likely the Centrists and/or Socialists, abandons the party entirely, leaving the Democratic Party too weak to fight on a national stage as they starve for votes.
Now, how likely is this?
It isn’t something that is exceptionally concrete, mainly due to the fact that it is unknown whether the Democrats will stay on this current trajectory. What we know is that the Democrats are, as of now, meeting the historical party standards for such an event to unfold:intense factionalism, basing their party identity purely in being the opposition by ignoring deepening divides between the factions, and showing an inability to reconcile large political and philosophical differences between said factions.
Additionally, if these characterizations prove correct in the long-term, don’t expect the Democratic Party to topple soon. It took the Whigs over two decades and four presidential runs to fade away, after all.
Regardless, the fact remains that a party based in opposition cannot stand. If the Democrats can not settle the differences of their factions, and instead choose to continually put off these disagreements until their unity of being an opposing force fades, it is fair to assert that the party will either severely weaken, or tumble, as a consequence.