Today’s GOP going the way of the Whigs?

For decades now, whenever one of America’s two major parties has hit a rough patch, hyperventilating political pundits declare that they’re “going the way of the Whigs,” the 19th century party that disintegrated, more or less overnight. Remember how Democrats were said to be finished when President Reagan carried 49 states in 1984? Or how Republicans were supposed to be on life support after their disastrous 2006 mid-terms?

Such claims have always been nonsense. The two parties have been too deeply rooted, too resilient, too responsive to the American mainstream to collapse in a heap. 

Until now. 

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It is not hyperbole to say that the Republican Party is currently engaged in an act of political self- immolation unprecedented in our history. The GOP presidential primary campaign has been bad enough, with poseurs spewing bigotry and being rewarded for it with soaring poll numbers. Real-world candidates who know better have allowed themselves to be dragged into the morass. It’s as if they’ve all vowed to appeal only to the ugliest of reactionaries. Surely they know how suicidal that pact will be in the general election – but they can’t help themselves.  

Now, dumping more salt into a self-inflicted wound, there’s the dismaying spectacle of the House GOP leadership fight. Again, Republican leaders are allowing themselves to be held hostage by extremists. Members of the self-anointed “House Freedom Caucus” revel in impugning the integrity of any leader who dares to reach across the aisle or stray from their narrow ideology. Each day that the House GOP remains leaderless fuels the perception that Republicans don’t want to govern; they just want to throw temper tantrums.

In the early 1850s, the Whigs had good reason to fall apart. The hideous issues surrounding slavery overwhelmed them, just as they eventually overwhelmed the Democratic Party and virtually every other institution in mid-19th century America. 

Two diametric factions emerged from the wreckage of the Whigs. One group, which liked to collude in secret, defiantly called themselves “Know Nothings.” Picture the narrow-mindedness of today’s Freedom Caucus and you won’t be far off.  Know Nothings were right-wing nativists who despised immigrants and Catholics.

Fortunately for the future of the free world, it was the other band of refugees, the “Conscience Whigs,” who ended up winning the country’ confidence once they coalesced into the new Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, and other visionary leaders won the Civil War, saved the Republic, freed the slaves, enacted the Homestead Act, adopted a constitutional amendment establishing birthright citizenship, spurred the transcontinental railroad, acquired Alaska, and planted the seeds for America to become the world’s preeminent industrial power.

When the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism were exposed a generation later, it was another Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, who summoned the courage to corral them. Given the tenor of the times, a Democrat could never have accomplished the remarkable reform that TR spearheaded in the early 20th century. 

So what seismic issue or event – today’s equivalent of slavery – is triggering such turmoil and rancor among Republicans?

The economy? We all wish the recovery had happened sooner and that growth was broader and deeper, but the truth is the unemployment rate is now substantially lower than it ever got under Reagan.  And through seven years of Obama’s presidency, the value of equities – a key Republican benchmark if there ever was one – has gone up more than 75 percent, some 20-plus points higher than the Reagan era. By any objective measure, the U.S. is doing considerably better than the rest of the industrialized world.

Illegal immigration? Before they throw their next brickbat, Republicans might want to consult reports put out by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and scores of other business groups that spotlight the benefits that immigrants bring to the U.S. economy. Republicans who don’t have an electoral death wish also might want to study Hispanic-American voting and demographic trends. Does anyone believe that Californian Ronald Regan would have let his party get this crosswise on immigration? 

National security? The U.S. faces no shortage of serious threats in this world; at times, Obama’s foreign policy has been erratic, even wobbly. But only among hard-core right-wingers is there an appetite for a more muscular U.S. military response in the world’s trouble spots. The neo-conservative overreach in the last Republican administration has left the rest of us weary and wary. 

Republicans can still be what they were for a century and a half – America’s truly Grand Old Party. But they need to stop listening to the reckless demagogues that Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFrom learning on his feet to policy director Is Congress retrievable? Boehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush MORE (R-Ohio) accurately describes as “false prophets.” Instead, they should heed the words of the first Republican president, the one-time Conscience Whig who urged Americans to embrace “the better angels of our nature.”

If today’s GOP ends up “going the way of the Whigs,” let’s hope that somehow, someway there’s an Abraham Lincoln out there. Exactly who that would be at the moment is not readily apparent. 

Levick is chairman and CEO of LEVICK, a global strategic communications and public affairs firm.