Just when you thought our political leaders could not divide us any further, they have now turned on themselves. Right now, both parties are dealing with internal conflicts. The Democrats are struggling between the so called “progressives” (I still believe they are not using that term correctly) and the “moderates.” One recent difference is between how to respond to problems in Israel. As for the Republicans, they seem to have the bigger conflict right now, as seen by the removal of Liz Chaney from Republican leadership over her beliefs about Trump. Historically speaking, this is not new. During the Republicans’ most dominant period in history, they twice splintered into competing factions and both times allowed the Democrats to crack their control of the White House.
There have been two great runs in political history, one by each party, but the Republicans had the larger of the two. Between Abraham Lincoln who won in 1860 and FDR who won in 1932 and ended the Republican’s run, there were only two Democratic presidents. In other words, for a 72-year span, Republicans controlled 64 years and Democrats only eight. Yet instead of being satisfied with their dominance, the Republicans split into factions.
During the Gilded Age (1870s-early 1900s), three Republican factions emerged, two revolving around prominent figures. The first group were the Mugwumps. In a time of political corruption, mostly from the spoils system or rewarding political supporters, the Mugwumps were calling for reform. They wanted to see civil service exams so government jobs could be based on merit instead of patronage. The Mugwumps were the weakest of the divisions.
Then there were the Stalwarts, led by the very powerful New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. These were the most traditionalist who wanted to keep the spoils system intact. It was this group that supported a third term for President Grant because they were profiting from the corruption in his administration. Finally, there were the Half-Breeds, led by the most powerful of them all, the Senator from Maine James Blaine. They took a page from the Mugwumps and called for reform, but in reality, they were no different than the Stalwarts, except they wanted Blaine as president.
The Republican party was able to stay together in 1880 when it compromised with Garfield, a Half-Breed presidential nominee who was not Blaine and Chester Arthur, a Stalwart for V.P. The partnership did not last long as Garfield was assassinated by what many thought was a Stalwart plot. However, before Garfield died, he pushed for some civil service reforms. When Arthur took over, he went against his own faction and pushed through the Pendleton Civil Service Act. Pendleton was a good start but not enough for the Mugwumps.
In the 1884 election, one of the more interesting that I have discussed many times, the Half-Breeds were tired of messing around. They dumped Arthur and succeeded in running Blaine for president. The Democrats took advantage of Blaine’s ties to corruption and cover-ups by courting the Mugwump vote when they ran a true reformer in Grover Cleveland. The move gave the Democrats just enough votes for the rare victory.
The next couple of elections danced around some as the Republicans took back the White House in 1888, only to lose again to Cleveland in 1892. Starting in 1896 the Republicans regained their control with McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, then Taft. However, even though the old three-way split in the party had dissolved some time earlier, a new division had grown by the 1912 election. Teddy Roosevelt left office after a term-and-a-half, and he handpicked his successor to follow through with his progressive reforms. (These were the real progressives, who wanted reform but slow moderate changes.)
By this point, both parties were divided between progressive and moderate wings. Complicating matters was that there were more internal conflicts than external between groups. The problem was TR’s replacement, who, though a good progressive, was willing to compromise too much with the moderates for TR’s liking. In 1912, Roosevelt decided to retake his party and ran for the presidency. Yet when Taft was re-nominated instead, TR stole away the progressive wing of his party and formed a third party, the Progressive Party, which became better known by the best party name in history, the Bull Moose Party. Of course, with the Republicans divided, the Democrats ran their own progressive, Woodrow Wilson, and won.
We will have to watch over the next few years to see if history will repeat itself. Will the divide between the progressives and moderates in the Democratic Party sink the party’s chances for reelection? If Trump runs again, will he cause a third-party split from the Republican party led by Republicans like Chaney and Romney. Time will tell, but, historically speaking, this could be a bumpy couple of years ahead for both parties.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.