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Maybe we should revisit Whigs

or at least their business model

November 11, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

The Whig party in the United States spanned three decades, from 1834 to 1856. Both its beginning and its end leave us with more to contemplate today than anything that happened during its brief heyday - with apologies to fans of Millard Fillmore and Zachary Taylor.

The considerable number of people who find themselves fed up with Republicans and Democrats alike want to know this: What does it take to produce a viable party not allied with the Big Two?

For the Whigs to be born, it took a backlash against a president, Andrew Jackson, who ignored Congress, using executive fiat rather than the legislative process to get his way, one who staunchly dug in his heels against social, economic and moral change.

For the Whigs to be displaced, it took an emotional and divisive crisis, slavery, that split the party and prevented it from forming a coherent, unified policy in the face of rising public concern.

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So there's hope.

My personal view of modern politics is this: The Republicans wrecked the nation, so we elected Democrats to undo the damage and they failed miserably.

But that is to smear two great parties of the past, each of which can boast a long list of accomplishments. But those Republicans, those Democrats, those parties, are gone.

Those parties had dignity and principle. They had Everett Dirksen and Sam Rayburn. They had class.

If, 20 years ago, you had told me I'd me remembering the administrations of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter with fondness, I'd have considered you to be daft. But here we are.

Third parties aren't the answer. No matter what you think of John Anderson, Ross Perot or Ralph Nader individually, they ended up doing the process more harm than good. Too many people hang with the notion that they are "throwing away their votes" if they deviate from the mainstream. And in fact, an attractive and lucid third-party candidate will take votes away from the second-most attractive and lucid candidate, guaranteeing the race will be won by the least attractive and least lucid.

So no, I'm afraid that the only answer is that one of our two great and storied political parties has to die. It doesn't matter which, but one of them has to be killed.

The problem with the two existing parties is that they are so equally, so perfectly, so cosmically balanced in their incompetence that they effectively guarantee the status quo. The irrational extreme elements in both parties are like two moons - dry and barren of intellect, but sizable enough to effect the tides of the rational world.

We think of politics as a straight line, with the extreme left and extreme right as far away as can be. But actually politics is a circle and the extreme left and extreme right are right there together, back to back. They may see things differently, but fundamentally they are the same - unyielding, incapable of compromise and blind. Indeed, anyone who spent time in Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia would have been amused to hear that the communists and the fascists were supposed to be so very different.

One thing the Democrats and Republicans are quite good at, however, is self-preservation. They know when something is in the wind.

Libertarian leaning Ron Paul, the only Republican candidate advocating troop withdrawal from Iraq, made the establishment nervous when he raised $4.3 million in one day over the Internet. True, no one knows who he is at the moment, but those who do are voting with their wallets, which in many ways is more telling than the ballot box.

Then there was the curious case of Stephen Colbert, a mock-conservative talk show host on Comedy Central. Plenty of comedians have engaged in a "run for president" shtick, but Colbert actually tried to get on the ballot in South Carolina.

The $35,000 filing fee on the Republican side was too steep, but Colbert met the standards for Democratic inclusion on the ballot - until he was rejected 13-3 by the state central committee.

"Although I lost by the slimmest margin in presidential election history - only 10 votes - I have chosen not to put the country through another agonizing Supreme Court battle," Colbert said in a statement. "It is time for this nation to heal."

Even more amusing is that supporters of Barack Obama were said to have lobbied to keep Colbert off the ballot. Despite his stillborn candidacy, Colbert (and I am convinced he knows exactly what he is doing every step of the way) may have provided us with the most meaningful social context of the entire election: A significant group of people were likely to have put their faith in a chucklehead over a serious contender. The big guys were scared.

For some, potential Colbert votes may have been a lark, but for another block they would have been a statement that, no matter who is elected, it can't get any worse.

But the flaw in new-party theory, however, is that those who favor change always want to start at the top. That's not the way politics works. A new party, if one is to come along, will have to build its base across America, electing city council members and county commissioners, then state office holders and on up the ladder. Without organization, frustration alone is not enough.

But perhaps we can take heart from the Whigs, who ultimately failed at the national level, but were able to build up some semblance of state and local groundwork. And before they disbanded, their local machinery did produce one guy you may have heard of who had some degree of success.

Abraham Lincoln.

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