News Release

Party Divisions Today and the 1860 Presidential Race

51N3YwMmNxL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_DAVID S. REYNOLDS, reyn.sn at gmail.com, @reysn1
Reynolds is a distinguished professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center and is the author or editor of fifteen books, including, most recently, Lincoln’s Selected Writings.

He said today: “Polarization pulverizes parties and alters the political landscape. This is a lesson of the 2016 election season. A sharply divided Congress stuck for years in stalemate and inertia; the ever-deepening chasm between the top 1 percent and other Americans; warring Super PACs — these and other polarizing factors have shaken the party system to the core. In particular, Republican party leaders, appalled by the rise of the outlier Donald Trump, are frantically plotting strategies, including a third party or a brokered convention, to stop Trump.

“Could there be a silver lining to this murky scene? Yes, if we take the example of the 1860 election, where even greater polarization resulted in party divisions that in turn yielded America’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. That year, the country was so divided over the slavery issue that Lincoln’s opponents split into three parties with different presidential candidates: the Northern Democrats, under the moderate Stephen A. Douglas, the Southern Democrats, led by the secessionist John C. Breckenridge, and the Constitutional Union Party, with the reactionary John Bell as its nominee. Especially severe was the fragmentation of the Democrats, who split apart because they feared that Douglas, their presumptive candidate, was too liberal on slavery — comparable to the right’s suspicions about Trump today.

“As it turned out, this party division ensured the election of the antislavery Republican, Lincoln, who, though he lost the popular vote to his combined opponents by over a million votes, won the electoral college and thus the presidency. Lincoln’s victory saved the nation, for no other candidate had the skills to lead the nation during the bloodiest war in its history.

“Will polarization have positive results today? We can’t say. But we should recall that when Lincoln took office, there were many questions about this little-known, ungainly-looking frontiersman (called a ‘baboon’ or an ‘ape’ by his opponents) who seemed dangerously radical by Southerners and overly conservative by antislavery Northerners. While there’s no apparent Lincoln on the scene today, only time will tell if the party confusion will produce a figure of national healing and responsible governance.”