The Democratic sweep in 2020, after the successful 2018 midterms, means more claims of GOPerdämmerung, but these predictions, just like the older ones, are probably not worth the 2020 Republican Party platforms they’re printed on. This is a bleak era in American politics, but it has been a golden age for scholars of the Federalists and the Whigs, whose knowledge of party collapse is suddenly in demand with pundits and reporters. The problem with these historical analogies is that they don’t account for the radically different character of party politics in contemporary America.
As Jelani Cobb noted in a thoughtful New Yorker examination of party collapse this week, the Whigs, Federalists, and old Democratic-Republicans are only the largest and most successful American political parties to go extinct. “What we refer to as the two-party system has collapsed twice before,” he writes. “The Democratic and the Republican Parties have endured as long as they have because they have significantly altered their identities to remain viable; in a sense, each has come to represent what it once reviled.”
The Federalists relegated themselves to electoral obsolescence, handing one-party rule to the Democratic-Republicans, but the American system—first-past-the-post elections and (predominantly, and later statutorily) single-member districts—more or less demands two parties. The Democratic-Republicans split, producing a new two-party system, with Democrats and Whigs. Then the Whigs fractured over slavery, with some of them creating the Republican Party. Since Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860, the Democratic and Republican duopoly has been only fitfully and weakly challenged.
Jamelle Bouie, in The New York Times, introduces some reasons to be skeptical that the collapse of either the Federalists or the Whigs is an apt comparison, parsing the specific historical context for each collapse. But the best reason to doubt a Republican collapse comes from looking not at the past but at the present. Previous party collapses have occurred when parties have splintered, and there’s no sign that that’s happening in today’s GOP, because modern political parties are much harder to break apart than their historical antecedents were.
Trump’s Republican critics have not produced any significant movement toward a Republican Party schism, in part because there are so few of them. In 2016, Never Trumpers sought to run a candidate who better represented the GOP establishment. They settled on Evan McMullin, who came in fifth, behind the Green and Libertarian candidates, with just over 700,000 votes; Trump won almost 63 million.
McMullin has discussed forming a new party in 2021, but the Republican resistance to Trump has mostly fallen into three camps. Some, such as former Senator Jeff Flake and former Representative Justin Amash, have left politics altogether. Others, such as Senator Mitt Romney, Representative Liz Cheney, and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, have clung to the GOP even while bluntly criticizing the former president. A third group, encompassing pundits and public figures such as Jennifer Rubin and Bill Kristol, has become de facto conservative Democrats, supporting the Biden presidency.