The rise of dictators-in-waiting Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz has left political observers bewildered. How did the establishment wing of a dominant American political party end up with a radical extremist carrying the party's banner? Will the Republican Party split and die? More important, how will this crisis play out for the nation?
There is a precedent for the emergence of an extremist leader from the collapse of a dominant political party in America.
The leader was John C. Breckinridge. The party was the Democratic Party. The year was 1860.
In that year, the southern slave owners who had dominated the American government since the beginning felt their control over the nation slipping. While large planters made up only about 1 percent of the population, they were the wealthiest people in America. But their very success endangered them. They had promised poor white men that they, too, could rise to prosperity, then they had monopolized the land and the resources that made rising possible. Only rich families lived in fine houses, only rich sons got educations. When poor men called for the government to provide free Western land for farming, or for the government to dredge rivers to make it easier to transport goods to market, or even for schools, slave owners recoiled. Such projects would cost tax dollars, they complained, and thus would prevent them from accumulating the vast amounts of money that enabled them to direct society efficiently. Worse, if the government started doing anything to mess with the economy, it would only be a question of time until it started interfering with slavery. Any interference would destroy the system that made them dominant. It was unthinkable.
But as economic doors closed, a growing number of white Southerners resented the planters who dominated their region. By the 1850s, slave owners kept them at bay by harping on the sanctity of the slave system. They defended it as a positive good, sanctioned by God, providing the world's most perfect society, economy, and government. All their elevated language, though, could not disguise that the slave system concentrated power in a small group of white slave owners, and that such a system did not work in the best interest of the majority of Americans. Slave owners knew that, and it scared them.
In the 1850s, pressure on the slave system got worse. Good cotton land became harder and harder to come by. Slave owners began to insist that they should have the right to move their slave economy into Western lands that the national government had reserved for freedom. But Northerners objected to the spread of slavery. If slave owners took over the new lands with their vast gangs of slaves and seemingly unlimited wealth, small farmers would not be able to compete. Slave owners would dominate the new state governments, where they would pass laws that enabled them to consolidate their power, just as they had been doing all along in the Southern states. Those new Western slave states would join with the Southern slave states to outweigh free states in the national government. They would make the slave system that privileged the wealthy 1 percent national.
Northerners opposed what they saw as an attack on the American principle of equality of opportunity. They organized a new political party, the Republican Party, to stand firm against the expansion of slavery into the West. Instantly, slave owners insisted that it was Republicans, not them, who were changing the rules of the nation. The Constitution protected property, they pointed out, and slaves were certainly property. Democrats, they argued, not Republicans, were the ones who stood for equality. Equal rights in America meant that Southerners must be allowed to carry their property into the new territories, no matter what other laws had been passed or expectations nurtured in the past. Democrats rallied voters against the upstart Republicans by insisting that only local folks, far from Washington, should determine the fate of local government. The people were sovereign, they insisted. Voters eager to move into the new territories liked the idea of determining their own fate... but they missed the loophole: once a slave owner moved his chattel into a territory, the Constitution required that the new state constitution must protect slave property. Popular control sounded good in theory; in practice it meant the 1 percent would solidify its control of the nation.
As pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates struggled for control of the West, Democrats harped on the idea that the Republicans were attacking the culture of traditional America. Republicans were trying to force racial equality on the superior race. America, they insisted, was a white man's country, and African-Americans had "no rights which a white man was bound to respect," as Democratic Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney put it in the Dred Scott decision. Republicans wanted to rip the government out of the hands of the Democrats. They would marginalize Southern whites in the country they had ruled with such success for generations. Soon, the argument went, Southern whites would be forced to bow down to Northern rule, humiliated in their own region. The Republicans had set out to destroy America. The only way to stop them was to join together and fight back. This inflammatory Democratic rhetoric worked. It unified Southern whites behind the party in the 1850s.
But in 1860, Democratic leaders discovered that they had created a monster.
In that year, the party establishment backed Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas on a platform that continued to call for local control to decide the fate of slavery in the West. But Southern insurgents wanted no part of a government that might compromise with the Republicans they had come to believe wanted to destroy them. Slave owners bolted the Democratic convention. They nominated their own candidate, Vice President John C. Breckinridge, and demanded nothing less than that the federal government protect slavery across the West. When horrified establishment Democrats accused them of trying to destroy the nation, insurgents retorted that they were the only ones truly trying to protect it. The split in the Democratic Party permitted the election of the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Breckinridge came in second.
When it was clear Lincoln had won, Breckinridge's men railroaded their states out of the Union. Their supporters had listened to years of rhetoric about fighting and dying for democratic principles. Riled up to believe their very lives were at stake when Lincoln was elected, they picked up guns to save what they had come to believe was an America under attack.
But those men had never experienced a war and had no idea what they were signing up for. They launched a war that looked nothing like the one Breckinridge's men had promised. Rather than being a romp that reinforced white southern dominance, the American Civil War took 620,000 American lives and left the South shattered.
Today the parties have swapped sides, but the pattern is the same. Once again, political leaders have for years used inflammatory rhetoric to bolster a system that favors the very wealthy. Once again, their rhetoric has created an insurgency that they cannot control. Once again, that insurgency appeals to Americans who have never actually had to grapple with what it might mean to fight for an ideology.
Let's hope we don't find out.