Naturally, I find myself in agreement with Steve Benen’s take on David Broder’s latest outburst of third party enthusiasm. I feel like it’s worth mentioning here how little time third party enthusiasts ever seem to spend thinking about the rise of the Republican Party — the only actual precedent for anything of the sort. They often seem to talk as if Abraham Lincoln was just some kind of somewhat disaffected dude sitting around somewhere with this really insightful speech about a how divided against itself, threw his hat in the ring, and — bam! — tired old Whig and Democrat ideologies are shunted aside in favor of a bold new era of pragmatism and bloody civil war.
One can’t do justice to the actual origins of the Republican Party in a blog post, but suffice it to say that it didn’t work like that. The history of meaningful third party anti-slavery politics goes back to the abolitionists’ Liberty Party in 1840. They later moderated their agenda somewhat, added the support of many breakaway anti-slavery Democrats, and became the Free Soil Party starting in 1848. This party had some very substantial adherents, but still didn’t do very well. Then, as the national debate over slavery grew ever-more-intense, breakaway anti-slavery Whigs joined the movement that was now further reconfigured as the Republican Party. This new party did well enough to become a “second party,” polling 33 percent while the Whigs got just 21.5 percent. With the Whigs on the wane, more support flowed to the surging Republicans this time around, but even so Lincoln only got 39 percent of the vote in 1860 and won only because the Democratic Party fell apart with 30 percent of the population supporting its northern faction and 18 percent supporting its southern faction.
It’s very hard to imagine something like that happening in the United States, but more to the point it just can’t happen overnight or in a top-down way. The Republican Party had senators, members of the house, governors, etc. in its ranks before it won the presidency — it was a real political party put together with much effort over a couple of decades.