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CONNECTIONS: Another ‘critical’ presidential election

The election of 1856 did all three of the things: the membership of the extant party changed; one party was destroyed and another created, and exposed were the social and cultural conditions that produce a critical election.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Walter Dean Burnham.

Pundits claim that every presidential election is critical, and 2016 is no exception. The difference this year is that Walter Dean Burnham, the eminent political scientist who coined the phrase “critical election,” agrees.

Burnham defines a critical election as one that causes major shifts in political party membership, collapses a political party entirely, and/or spawns a new party.

Many have speculated that the 2016 presidential election poses a threat to the party system as we know it. Major political figures including Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker say they will not vote for the presumptive Republican Party candidate. Two former United States presidents, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, will not attend the convention, and House Speaker Paul Ryan has not committed to supporting Donald Trump.

While the Republican Party appears to be in the most turmoil, many think the Democratic Party is being challenged as well. Bernie Sanders claims he will pull off the biggest upset in American politics or, failing that, will greatly influence the party platform.

Connections seeks comparisons in American history that illuminate our time and help us better understand it. Burnham identifies the election of 1856 as the one that most resembles 2016.

“We are in the midst of a glorious and victorious popular revolution and we are in it to the end.”

Bernie Sanders, 2016? No; New York Herald editorial, September 10, 1856.

“Indiana the key.”

Ted Cruz, 2016? No; Cleveland Herald headline, 1856.

“The vote will divide by native-born and naturalized Americans.”

CNN commentator, 2016? No; New York Times, November 1856.

James Buchanan (1791 - 1868) *oil on canvas *155.9 x 119.7cm *1859
1856 Democratic presidential candidate James Buchanan.

1856: It started during the mid-term elections of 1854. That period saw a massive realignment. The once-dominant Whig party candidates were defeated and many members defected in the wake of 1854 passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The act, sponsored by the Democrats, allowed the Nebraska territory to decide whether to enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. Unfortunately, it also reignited tensions over slavery by nullifying the Compromise of 1850. The mid-term election saw the ousting of many Democrats and Whigs. Former Democrats and Whigs fled to the new splinter parties: the Know-nothings and the Republicans.

In 1856 the Whigs joined the Know-Nothings and, for all intents and purposes, were no more. Each of the three remaining parties elected a candidate. James Buchanan was the Democratic nominee, and John C. Fremont was the Republican nominee. The Know-nothings nominated Millard Fillmore as their candidate.

john fremont
1856 Republican presidential candidate John C. Fremont.

Formerly called the American or Native American Party, the Know-Nothings had the most moderate platform. It soft-pedaled their former opposition to immigration and advocated compromise between those who supported slavery and those who opposed it.

The Republicans maintained a vehement anti-slavery stance. Their campaign slogan was “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men and Fremont.” With that stance they carried the most northern states.

Buchanan, warning that abolition of slavery might lead to the dissolution of the Union and war, managed to win the South and enough northern states to become President of the United States.

The Whig party was gone. The Know-Nothing party did not survive the devastating loss. The Republican Party lost by a slim margin and saw the possibility for victories in 1858 and 1860. It was right: Lincoln won.

The election of 1856 did all three of the things Burnham suggests: the membership of the extant party changed; one party was destroyed and another created, and exposed were the social and cultural conditions that produce a critical election.

In 1856 it was the issue of slavery and the election that exposed the extreme division not along party lines as much as along geographic lines. It exposed an irresolvable polarization in national politics.

Today, commentators claim the divide in the Republican Party is over style, but there is room to imagine that it is over issues. Who is the establishment and who is the outsider? Who is against trade agreements now in place? Who is for taxation of the rich? Who is for relief for the middle class?

William Jefferson Clinton, President 1993 – 2001, said “it’s the economy, stupid.” Perhaps it still is.

As different as Trump and Sanders may appear to be, to those who vote for them, both may appear to be speaking for the forgotten middle class.

The voters on either side of the aisle may be saying, “Someone should.”

2016, just as 1856, might see a great realignment.


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