Many Democrats hope that a Hillary Clinton landslide next week will diminish the strength and viability of the national Republican Party. They should be careful what they wish for.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has warned about the dangers of the Republican Party being taken over by the “alt-right,” a set of far-right ideologies and groups. He knows the lessons of history and his warning about an alt-right takeover should be heeded. It happened once before to the Republican Party.
In the middle 1800s, the National Republican Party, to change its “elitist” image, changed its name to the Whig Party, from patriots who fought for our independence in 1776. It was formed primarily to oppose the policies of Andrew Jackson. The Whig Party believed in the protection of “minority interests against majority tyranny” and a government that followed the Constitution. It was a prototype of a conservative Republican Party not yet born. It became strong enough to elect four of its members to the presidency.
The disintegration of the Whig Party came in 1850 over the divide between Southern leaders who owned slaves, and those in the North who viewed slavery as inimical to a free-market economy. The Democratic Party rejoiced that the Whig Party was so split that it could not even agree on the nomination of its own incumbent president, Millard Filmore. But that celebration was short-lived. With the demise of the Whig Party, the Know-Nothing Party was created.
The Know-Nothings were rabidly xenophobic and purported to put “America First.” Their hatred was directed primarily at Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Italy, claiming they owed their allegiance not to America, but to the pope. Although our founders wrote about religious tolerance, this anti-Catholic message was effective — much as the anti-Muslim message of the alt-right movement resonates today.
Similar to today’s alt-right, the Know-Nothings were an informal movement with no central organization; however, under the banner of the American Party, their nativist message managed to elect 52 candidates to the House of Representatives, as well as state governors and city mayors.
The Know-Nothings violently contested elections they considered “rigged.” Similar to claims made today by the alt-right, they suspected Democrats were flooding the polls with non-citizens. In 1855, after losing a gubernatorial election, they precipitated an anti-Catholic riot in Louisville, Kentucky, where 22 people were killed. And the Baltimore mayoral elections, with claims of “ballot rigging,” were marred by riots in 1856, 1857 and 1858.
As slavery led to the fall of the Whig Party, the same issue gave rise to the dominance of a new Republican Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln, a onetime Whig. History teaches us that the preservation of that Republican Party is essential to the well-being of our nation and its two-party system.
This history makes Ryan’s warnings even more relevant. The Know-Nothing language directed by, among others, Steven Bannon, the chief executive of Breitbart News who is also the CEO of the Donald Trump campaign, tears at the fabric of the GOP. Typical is a recent article in Breitbart News that says Ryan favors foreign nationals over every-day Americans and accuses him of leading “the pro-Islamic migration wing of the Republican party.”
The Republican Party, of which I am a member, should never be marked by racism or calls to disregard the beliefs that are a part of our constitutional democracy: freedom from religious persecution, media freedom, and the obligation to abide by the results of fair elections. We must not allow a new Know-Nothing alt-right party of isolationist and intolerant bigotry become a regrettable part of our American history.
Sol Wachtler, a former chief judge of New York State, is distinguished adjunct professor at Touro Law School.