those who forget the past

Will the Republicans nominate Chris Christie for president in 2016?  Not if my reading of historical forces is correct.

Christie’s landslide re-election victory in New Jersey should tell Republicans that they have a better chance of winning power with candidates who can reach out beyond the Republican base than with those whose extremism alienates Independents and Democrats.

But Christie has run afoul of the base’s adamant insistence on “purity” in adhering to the party line.  Even as he tacks to the right on issues like universal background checks for purchases of guns, the base is unlikely to forget how this New Jersey governor, with his state devastated by Hurricane Sandy and at a delicate moment in the 2012 presidential campaign, entered into a highly visible and congenial partnership with President Obama (A significant percentage of Republicans believe that Obama is the anti-Christ).

How will the base now weigh electability against purity?

The presidential politics of 1860 provide an answer, my premise being that the spirit that drives the Republican Party in our times is a re-emergence of the spirit that drove the South in the years leading up to the Civil War.


The re-emergence of those old patterns consists not just of calls for nullification and even secession but also deep attitudes, including antagonism toward compromise and intolerance of deviation from party orthodoxy.

The South’s treatment of Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois in 1860 gives a preview of how the GOP base is likely to treat Christie in the competition for the 2016 GOP nomination.

Although never president, Douglas was the dominant Democratic politician of the 1850s, when the Democratic Party was the dominant political party in the South.  During that era, Douglas had been a consistent ally of the South and its slaveholding ruling class.  He had no objections to slavery.  He was as racist as any American of that time.  His main goal was to prevent the battle over slavery from blocking progress on other policy issues (such as the building of a transcontinental railroad).

Douglas was instrumental in eroding barriers to the expansion of slavery through his policy of “popular sovereignty,” whereby the citizens of each territory could make the decision for themselves.

But toward the end of the decade, two major overreaches by the South hurt Douglas. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scot decision imperiled Douglas’s political survival in Illinois — in ways that Abraham Lincoln exploited in their famous debates.  And then the Buchanan administration’s embrace of the fraudulent constitution put forward by the pro-slavery faction in Kansas made a mockery of Douglas’s idea of popular sovereignty.

In dealing with these two challenges, Douglas departed from the complete loyalty the Southern Democratic leaders required.  When the Democratic Party nominated Douglas for president in 1860, Southerners  bolted the convention and nominated a candidate of their own.

This split in the Democratic Party created the opportunity for Abraham Lincoln to be elected president of the United States, running as the nominee of a Republican Party that was only a few years old and not even on the ballot in many Southern states.

How important was purity to the Southerners of that time?

Consider this. Southerners thought the election of Abraham Lincoln so terrible that they responded to it by breaking up the Union.  But those same Southerners were not willing – in order to prevent Lincoln’s election — to join forces behind the candidacy of an insufficiently pure Senator Douglas.

If I’m right that this same spirit now dominates the Republican primary electorate, Chris Christie will be rejected just as Stephen Douglas was.  Obedience to the party line, and damn the consequences.


Image: Currier & Ives print by artist Louis Maurer shows Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln and running mate Hannibal Hamlin about to destroy a Democratic party paralyzed by internal dissension. Horses with the heads of northern Democrats Stephen A. Douglas and bearded vice presidential nominee Hershel V. Johnson pull toward the left. A team with the heads of southern Democrats John C. Breckinridge and Joseph Lane strain toward the right. Library of Congress, PD
Andy Schmookler

Andy Schmookler

Andy Schmookler -- who was the Democratic nominee for Congress in Virginia's 6th District in 2012 -- is the author most recently of WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World-- and How We Can Defeat It.