US & Canada

Conservative rift: Republican Party can learn from history

Tea Party activists rally at the US Capitol on June 17
Image caption Could the Tea Party movement cause a Republican Party split?

As Republicans analyse the fallout from the recent government shutdown, conservative politicians and commentators are warning that the party could fracture if it doesn't change course. Is the 159-year-old political party facing an existential threat?

The last time a major American political party disappeared was in the 1850s, when the Whig Party - which had elected two US presidents and held majorities in Congress during the 1840s - self-destructed over the slavery issue.

Now, some conservatives are using the "W" word to describe their own party's plight.

"The Republican Party was born because the Whig Party would not stand up for all Americans," writes conservative activist Judson Phillips for the Tea Party News Network website.

"If the Republican Party sells America out one more time, a new party will be born, and the Republican Party will join the Whig Party in the Smithsonian Museum."

Solomon Yue, a Republican congressman from Oregon, wrote to the Washington Times that if Republicans don't stand by their principles, they "could become Whigs".

According to Duke University Professor John Aldrich, however, the Whig analogy doesn't really fit.

While the issue of slavery split the Whigs, today's Republicans generally agree on policy.

The source of their internal conflict is over whether or how to compromise their ideological principles in order to achieve legislative objectives.

"Standing on either side of slavery in the 1850s - that divides the party," says Mr Aldrich, author of Why Parties? "Tactics is not a principle that divides the party."

Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan says he sees the current split in the Republican Party as the latest faceoff between the party's establishment in Washington and its insurgent wing, currently embodied by the Tea Party movement.

Image caption Senator Ted Cruz is a leader in the conservative Tea Party movement

"The battle between the populist, conservative, traditionalist right - however it manifests itself, whatever its political expression - and the establishment is eternal," says Mr Buchanan, a two-time Republican candidate for president who received the Reform Party nomination in 2000.

"The establishment party is interested in money and power, so they've gone south on social, cultural and moral issues."

According to Buchanan, the establishment wants to move away from issues like gay marriage and abortion because they're too divisive.

"But if you do that," he says, "you tend to lose fire, energy and the people who will go to the wall with you."

Roosevelt's rift

Today's confrontation, according to Mr Aldrich, is a mirror image of the revolt that took place among Republicans in the early 20th Century.

Progressive Republicans chafed at the more conservative policies of House Speaker Joe Cannon and ended up aligning with Democrats to reduce his power.

"The only thing that's different was that the radical extremists were centrists," Mr Aldrich says. "They were challenging the establishment and felt they weren't getting their due."

The discord within the Republican ranks didn't destroy the party, but the damage was significant.

Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives in the 1910 elections.

Two years later, former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt broke away to start the Progressive Party and ran against Republican incumbent William Howard Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

In the three-way race, Wilson won, and Republicans lost control of the Senate to the Democrats for the first time in 20 years.

"That's what happens in a two-party system when a party fractures," says Indiana University Professor Marjorie Hershey, author of Party Politics in America. "It throws the election to the other candidate."

The other modern example of a fractured party occurred in mid-century, when Democrats divided over racial segregation in the South.

In 1948, the issue led Southern politicians to walk out of President Harry Truman's nominating convention and field their own presidential candidate, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

In 1968, Southern Democrats would again break away over civil rights, with former Alabama Governor George Wallace as their nominee.

According to Ms Hershey, regional imbalances like those created by segregation or the presence of a charismatic candidate like Mr Roosevelt are what can split political parties. In the end, however, the rebellious leader leaves the scene, the party adjusts and stability is restored.

Different this time?

With the Republican Party fairly homogenous and centred around its Southern base, a regional split is unlikely.

But could a charismatic Republican decide to break ranks and lead a conservative splinter group?

Ms Hershey said Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who spearheaded the shutdown fight in Congress, might be a candidate for such a move, but his prospects are much brighter if he continues to operate within the party, rather than trying to build something new.

"I'm sure that Theodore Roosevelt's example isn't very far from Ted Cruz's mind right now," Ms Hershey said.

"But he wouldn't have the first preference of breaking away from Republicans. He's not that dumb."

If history offers some comfort to Republicans - that American political parties are fairly durable and have weathered every storm in the 160 years since the Whig Party foundered - Mr Aldrich says that there is still cause for concern.

For the first time in nearly 100 years, both parties are so evenly balanced that the presidency and both houses of Congress are in play almost every election, which makes tactical decisions all the more important.

Add to that the fact that insurgents have the ability to amass vast sums of money through grassroots channels, and it has a destabilising influence on the party structure.

This time really could be different.

"Everything's more democratised, and Republicans should come to terms with that," said Matt Kibbe, president and chief executive of conservative activist group FreedomWorks, during a television interview last week.

"They still want to control things from the top down, and if they do that, there will absolutely be a split."