Joe Biden and the Whig Restoration

Having pledged to “restore the soul of America” in his victory speech, Joe Biden and his congressional allies are moving rapidly to enact his domestic agenda. After ramming through a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, they have moved on to bills to nationalize voting rules, spend $2 trillion on a variety of projects including infrastructure, and further other progressive priorities. Although the Senate parliamentarian permitted the stimulus to pass under reconciliation rules and is allowing the Senate Democrats additional rounds of reconciliation, many of these new measures are ineligible for this method. Egged on by some party members, Senate Democrats are considering actions to weaken or remove the filibuster entirely. But Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have each announced their opposition to these moves. 

This is not the first time that an American political party has campaigned as a curb on their opponents’ tyrannical impulses and immediately tried to remove safeguards against majoritarian rule to enact their economic agenda. The early Whig party did as well, and it bears a strong resemblance in other ways to today’s Democratic Party. Despite their posture as the party of reasonable, disinterested statesmen, the Whigs made catastrophically shortsighted decisions in their haste to pass bills once they gained control of the federal government. Much may depend on whether the Democrats learn from the Whigs’ example.

Like the modern Democrats. the Whigs cobbled together their party out of a motley assortment of constituencies, many of whom had little in common. The party leadership mostly came from the remains of the National Republicans, who in 1832 ran a negative campaign against Andrew Jackson but failed to court disillusioned third-party voters, a strategy that failed as abjectly for them as it did for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Humbled by defeat, the National Republicans rebranded as the Whigs—the English political party that stood opposed to monarchical excess—and reached out to voters horrified by Jackson’s abuses to assemble a coalition of New Englanders, Evangelicals converted during the Second Great Awakening, and the planter class in the South. Although there were strong intraparty disagreements over slavery and other issues, the Whigs combined the Evangelical’s fervor for moral causes, the New England Puritan’s penchant for regulating others’ behavior, and the Southern planter class’ distaste for popular politics and affection for the administrative state. 

Although both the Democrats and Whigs were split on slavery, the issue that would soon tear the country apart, the two parties quickly developed intense mutual hatred. The Whigs were the party of economic development, social reform, and respectability. Their signature economic priority was “internal improvements,” or infrastructure, which they proposed to fund by raising tariff rates and increasing the sales price for federal lands. They complemented this ambitious program with a social platform that included laws enforcing Sabbath observance, raising taxes for public schools, and opposing alcohol consumption, which they associated with the lower classes who needed to be taught the values necessary for the modern world. 

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Comments (27)
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  • This is a great great great article. I have been trying to convince my progressive friends that the filibuster is there for everyone and that right now it just HAPPENS to be a tool of the right. The very instructive example of John Quincy Adams' (played by Anthony Hopkins here) failed effort to prevent the annexation of Texas and what amounted to a decade (the 1850's) of southern expansion and the end of compromise is kind of example number one of what damage can be done.

    Nuking the filibuster helped the cause of slavery and sent us hurtling toward war. I will have to examine this even closer.

    Thank you for this article

  • "Perhaps... the bill will become more popular once it makes its way through the drafting process, and once enacted it will unite the country. But that seems unlikely."

    A strong contender for understatement of the month.

  • Interesting piece, but count me as suspect that Democrats will head the lessons from the Whig party. It’s pure power politics these days. Democrats have been generating and, importantly, more successfully messaging their policy proposals compared to Republicans. Seems to me that right wing media is more concerned with grievance issues than substantive policy debates; let alone conservative ideas on how to solve real world problems (the occasional Mitt Romney proposals notwithstanding).

  • Not to defend scolds (the history of alcohol criminalization speaks for itself), but as a historical note I would point out that alcohol abuse in America as well as the human suffering it caused was really bad in the 19th century— shocking by modern standards. There is a reason we tried to ban it with an amendment to the constitution.

  • "a successful Democratic attempt to force more partisan bills through with a slim majority is unlikely to reduce social divisions. For example, the Democrats’ top priority is now the spending bill that is being marketed as an infrastructure measure. Although individual parts of the bill are popular, the entire package attracts support from only about 70 percent of Democratic voters and is far less popular among independents and Republicans, according to a recent poll."

    For this to matter, the legislation in question will have to be more divisive than "bloated infrastructure bill." The ACA could be weaponized by Republicans because it directly affected huge numbers of Americans in ways they could personally observe. Repeating "geez, look at the price tag on that bill" over and over again isn't going to have the same effect.

  • "The Senate Republicans are publicly salivating about the bills that they could pass once retaking the majority, such as a border wall, reduced Medicaid funding, nationwide relaxation of firearm laws, and pro-life bills."

    Good! Then the people will be able to judge their actions accordingly.

  • If the Dispatch advertised its commitment to Whig-history it could EASILY accumulate a subscription base that rivaled the New York Times.

  • Did the Whigs get more votes in the Presidential 6 of 7 elections and then just disappear.

    This strained analogy is more shortsighted than the argument that Democrats are being shortsighted.

  • I am not sure how much relevance this history actually has for current politics, as I certainly see Biden to be more competent than Tyler, who I got the impression had a chip on his shoulder for his entire time as President because many saw him as just "acting President" not President in his own right, and in this sense he actually reminds me of Trump's reaction to the widespread sentiment on the Left that he wasn't a truly legitimately elected. Note that Biden himself has not reacted in the same way to the widespread sentiment on the Right that he is illegitimate.

    I still found this history fascinating, I actually did not know until today that the House once had unlimited debate rules, and that this allowed JQA to defeat Texas annexation. I also got the impression that individual House members had much more power back then, and that answers part of my "why did JQA even bother with being a lowly House Rep after being President" question.

    Indeed I do wonder when exactly it became a political norm for ex-Presidents to just shuffle off the political stage into a retirement of book / paid speech tours.

    1. Relatively recently, insofar as I can tell. Truman wrote a book but essentially had to in order to keep from being entirely broke (and was later given a pension along with all other ex-presidents - largely because he was still quite poor). Eisenhower almost entirely retired, apart from some Republican power brokering. LBJ wrote a couple of books (ghostwrote really, but that’s typical) and died relatively quickly. Surprisingly (to someone who simply hadn’t studied the man’s post-presidency and wasn’t alive for much of it), it appears to have been Richard Nixon. Wouldn’t have been my first guess.

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