Opinion: We could be witnessing the Republican Party break apart in real time

Editor’s note: Thomas Balcerski teaches history at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is the author of “Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King” (Oxford University Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

The United States has been without a speaker of the House of Representatives since October 3, and the situation doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

Thomas Balcerski - Courtesy Thomas Balcerski
Thomas Balcerski - Courtesy Thomas Balcerski

Democrats are aligned behind Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, with nine Republicans vying for the top spot in the House as they head into a candidates’ forum on Monday night. It’s unclear if any of them have the necessary support to replace interim House Speaker Patrick McHenry.

Once again, this House of Representatives is making history: It was the first to use a motion to vacate the speakership in 100 years, and now it has become the first Congress to need two speaker elections with multiple ballots.

With so much turmoil in Congress, I have been asked by my students and the general public nearly every day, what comes next?

As before, I think that history may provide some guidance, especially the study of political parties in the United States. To that end, let me introduce two more concepts from the annals of American history: political realignment and deadlocked conventions. Both are venerable terms among historians and political scientists, but how do they matter in 2023? More importantly, what can they tell us about what comes next in the House of Representatives?

The answer to that last question, in short, is more deadlock in the House and the possible collapse of the Republican Party as we know it.

First, let’s consider the concept of political realignment. Historically, political realignment has occurred when groups of voters change their affiliation to a new political party or candidate, especially around presidential and midterm elections.

Back in 1955, influential political scientist V.O. Key posited the idea of realigning reelections to explain how the Republican Party of his day had come to dominate most presidential elections from Abraham Lincoln’s surprise victory in 1860 until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ascendancy in 1932.

But in fact, realignment had been occurring much earlier, dating back at least to the deadlocked election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and continuing through the beginning of the modern Democratic Party in 1828 with the triumphant election of Andrew Jackson.

Yet the period between 1852 and 1860 is crucial here, for it saw the last time a major political party collapsed (the Whig Party in 1854) and the dissolution of another political party (the Democratic Party in 1860).

Let’s start with the Whigs, whose epic collapse is still the stuff of historical legend. Despite having won two presidential elections and counting such notables as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and Lincoln among their ranks, by 1854 the Whigs had become hopelessly divided into Northern and Southern factions over the issue of slavery.

The tipping point came with the passage of the divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act that permitted slavery in all western territories.

The result was electrifying. The anti-slavery Whigs felt that the party had not gone far enough to resist the expansion of slavery, and they eventually coalesced into the Republican Party.

Southern Whigs, for their part, joined an anti-immigrant party (the American Party) or switched to supporting the Democrats. Whig partisan William Henry Seward, who would go on to become Lincoln’s secretary of state, was content to let his party die: “Let, then, the Whig party pass. It committed a grievous fault, and grievously hath it answered [for] it. Let it march out of the field, therefore, with all the honors.”

The collapse of the Whig Party soon signaled more divisions to come. In 1860, the Democratic Party deadlocked in its national convention in Charleston, South Carolina.

Appealing to the “sovereign states of the Union,” Alabama secessionist William L. Yancey demanded further protections for the institution of slavery. When the Democratic convention refused to accept these demands, the Southern delegates walked out.

An effort to reunite the party in Baltimore in June equally failed to find consensus producing two candidates: Stephen Douglas of Illinois and John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. The Democratic rupture led in large part to the election of Lincoln and set the stage for later Southern secession from the Union.

Following the collapse of the Whig Party in 1854 and the Democratic Party’s splintering in 1860, American political parties have nearly collapsed numerous times.

The Republican Party split in 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt led a “Bull Moose” insurgency against Republican William Howard Taft; the result was the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

The 1924 Democratic Party famously went through 103 ballots before agreeing on a compromise candidate, John W. Davis of West Virginia.

In 1968, the pro- and anti-war Vietnam War factions in the Democratic Party ruptured over the selection of Hubert H. Humphrey as its nominee, leading to the election of Republican Richard Nixon in the fall.

More recently, in the election of 2020, the dissident “Never Trump” movement certainly sapped support from the Republican Party.

Of course, party realignment is a tricky thing since we only come to know that it has happened in hindsight. While some of these disputes led to realignment, often they only signal a loss of power for the party in question in the next election.

How does today’s House Republican conference fit these patterns of disfunction? For one, the viciousness of the arguments within the GOP conference and the threats to members reveal a party in disarray. What some have termed a “Republican civil war” seems aptly put, and as with the last Civil War, the consequences for the two-party system could be equally lasting.

For another, this intraparty animosity may well mean that we are witnessing the GOP break up in real time. Like the Whigs parted ways over the issue of slavery, Republicans today seem divided among those who wish to govern and those who wish merely to make noise.

If the Republicans of today remain deadlocked, they will suffer a fate similar to that of Democrats in 1860. A failure to reach a majority consensus signals the doom of an American political party.

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