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.