Believe it or not, bipartisanship and political partnership are possible. For significant periods in US history, the two dominant parties have shared core beliefs or opted for cooperation rather than conflict. In the antebellum era, Whigs and Democrats agreed on the sanctity of slavery; at the turn of the twentieth century, Progressivism found a home in both Republican and Democratic ranks; and in the post-World War II period, a “Cold War consensus” prevailed.
The rare moments of extreme partisanship, national polarization, and political crisis are often caused, at least in part, by deliberate decisions by party leaders. Hateful rhetoric, malicious falsehoods, and rigid ideological requirements are not accidental, but conscious choices made by office-seekers and wire-pullers. Both parties have engaged in these tactics, but at the present it is Republicans who are charting the course of calamity by silencing their moderate members.
Since Donald Trump assumed leadership of the Republican Party in 2016, he and his militantly conservative supporters labored to purge the organization of moderates or anyone who dared challenge the Trump cult of personality. At all levels of the party hierarchy, Republicans willing to work or negotiate with Democrats were expelled, silenced, or punished. The most famous victim of this ideological bloodletting is US Representative Liz Cheney (WY), who, in May 2021, was removed from her leadership position in the party conference. Her ouster was retribution for speaking critically about President Trump and his alleged role in the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol Building.
The consequences of such a partisan purge are immediate and severe. Without moderates like Liz Cheney, the Republican Party will be largely free from internal dissent, and thus will veer farther to the right and pursue a more extreme agenda – an agenda rejected by the vast majority of Americans and not subject to debate or dissection. 170 years earlier, Democrats did exactly the same thing. In the short term, it split their party; in the long term, it nearly destroyed the Union. Any political association hoping to forge a majority coalition and win elections through popularity rather than chicanery should study the past and learn the lessons of the early Democratic Party.
In the antebellum era, the Democratic Party was the conservative partisan vehicle, defending white supremacy, maintaining the reign of elite Southern enslavers, and quashing all reforms, including much-needed infrastructure improvements. Central to the Democratic agenda was the expansion of slavery and the forging of a vast hemispheric pro-slavery empire. By the 1840s, however, opposition to the spread of slavery had grown dramatically in the free states. Democrats in the North began to feel pressure from their constituents to halt the march of the enslavers and challenge King Cotton.
Despite growing opposition from Northern Democrats, the Southern party bosses pursued their aggressive pro-slavery plans. In the 1830s and 40s, they waged war on Indigenous Americans to remove them from fertile cotton lands, passed Congressional “gag rules” to prevent any discussion of the “peculiar institution,” and aided the pro-slavery Texas Revolution. In late 1845, enslaver grandees launched an invasion of Mexico. Anti-slavery Northerners, including several Democratic office-holders, balked at the blatant grab for more slavery territory. Led by Pennsylvanian David Wilmot, Northern Democratic moderates made a stand in August 1846, adding a “proviso” to a war appropriations bill stipulating that slavery would not be permitted in any territory stolen from Mexico. Since spreading slavery was the entire point of the war, party leaders were incensed. The motion was defeated. Nevertheless, the damage had been done: a dramatic split occurred in Democratic ranks.
In the 1848 state and national elections, moderate Northern Democrats who opposed the expansion of slavery (like Wilmot) ran on the new Free Soil Party ticket. The rupture proved fatal. Both the Democratic and Free Soil presidential candidates went down to defeat and the Whigs (who had no formal position slavery’s expansion) took the White House.
Needless to say, Democratic bosses wanted blood. Over the course of the next four years, they expunged any anti-slavery sentiment from their ranks, either by outright expulsion of intransigent Northerners or forcing them into submission through party discipline. Votes on the infamous Appeasement of 1850 (a massive pro-slavery victory for enslavers) became the litmus test of party fealty. Democrats who did not vote in favor of various pro-slavery measures, such as the horrific Fugitive Slave Act, were denied campaign funds, attacked in the press, and deprived patronage — a political death sentence. Contrite Free Soilers who voted as they were told, however, were allowed back and duly rewarded.
Things were even uglier and more chaotic at the state level. In Indiana, Democratic chief (and secret enslaver) Jesse Bright resorted to physical intimidation and illegal schemes to defeat the anti-slavery faction and reward repentant Free Soilers with offices. In the Empire State, a three-way political war erupted between intransigent “Hards,” who refused to brook any opposition from anti-slavery moderates, “Softs,” who were willing to make deals with former Free Soilers, and the “Barnburner” majority, who bolted the party in 1848 and wanted to expel the Hards. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, pro-slavery conservatives James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce, respectively, seized control of county and district conventions to deny former Free Soilers elective office at any level. “Old Buck” and “Handsome Frank” would later be rewarded with the presidency for their service to the Slave Power.
A united Democratic Party emerged in time for the election of 1852, thoroughly shorn of any anti-slavery elements. “We have got rid of all negroism,” chirped Buchanan with pleasure. Though good for enslavers, the victory was pyrrhic. The party was now free to pursue even more aggressive policies without any internal deliberation or discussion.
In short order, Democrats passed legislation that spread slavery to formerly free territories, nullified the Missouri Compromise, launched illegal invasions of Caribbean and Central American nations, enforced the Fugitive Slave Act with a vengeance, tried to force slavery on the unwilling settlers of the Kansas Territory, and physically assaulted anti-slavery activists in the streets and in the halls of Congress. These actions precipitated the Civil War. By 1856, Northerners had set aside their differences over banks, immigration, and internal improvements to unite against the spread of slavery in a new Republican Party. The election of the first Republican president in 1860 triggered secession, and the Union was nearly torn asunder. In other words, when one party became more intransigent and extreme, it united and popularized their opponents, which, in turn, motivated extremists to seek extra-political, violent alternatives to the electoral process (in 1860-61, it was secession; in 2021, it was the January 6 insurrection).
The lack of ideological diversity and any meaningful policy debate within the antebellum Democratic Party caused that organization to enact an extreme program that enraged the majority of Americans and caused national disaster. Republicans in 2021 seem to be following that same strategy: punishing dissent, expelling moderates, and favoring ideological purity over practical policy. Moreover, just as Democrats in the 1850s tried to force slavery on anti-slavery populations, Republicans today are forcing their minority agenda on the majority through voter suppression laws, gerrymandering, and illegal activity. And just as Democrats tested party loyalty through votes on slavery, Republicans are determining devotion via votes on the January 6 attack. If Republicans value the health and future of their party, and the nation, they need to examine the past and reconsider their path.
In our current moment of hyper-partisanship and militant, polarized opinions, political leaders must provide opportunities for productive argument and respectful debate. When partisan groups, regardless of their ideological bent, stifle dissent or enforce doctrinal discipline, opportunities for policy innovation and national consensus-building are lost. Embracing diversity of opinion and perspectives enhances a party’s attractiveness and smooths the way toward effective governance. In a two-party system such as the United States, moderation and cooperation are essential.