Mugwumps, Half-Breeds, Stalwarts, Blue Dogs, and More
News coverage of political struggles over health care, the environment, and bailouts in Obama-era America has often focused on the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiftysome conservative House Democrats. As the conservative wing of the liberal governing party, and with the opposition party both marginalized and monolithic, the Blue Dogs have become a crucial swing group courted by left and right. What precedents in American history can we find for such a party-within-a-party situation?
In a recent post, the statistical politics site FiveThirtyEight pointed out that the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee has a similar makeup to the House as a whole in one important respect: “Membership on the Energy and Commerce Committee consists of 7 Blue Dog Democrats (12%), 29 ‘regular’ Democrats (49%), and 23 Republicans (39%). This is nearly identical to the overall House, which has 52 Blue Dogs (12%), 204 non-Blue Dog Democrats (47%) and 178 Republicans (41%).” The Blue Dog Coalition has existed since the ’90s, but it is only now, with Democrats in control of both Congress and the presidency, that they are being treated, in reckonings like this one, as almost a separate party. The disappointment of Democrats expecting an easy ride after their victory last fall, the media’s love of identifiable groupings in the shifting sands of the House and Senate (“the Gang of Seven,” “the Gang of 14“), and the coalition’s political cartoon-friendly animal-inspired name have most likely contributed to the crystallization of the Blue Dogs as a party-like grouping in the House.
This has happened before, generally in similar circumstances: a party achieves relatively long-term dominance in national politics only to see a sizable minority of its members coalesce and threaten to support the opposition. It happened several times during the political era known as the Third Party System, which lasted from the Civil War through Reconstruction until the rise of the progressives at the end of the 19th century. The Third Party System was marked by the dominance of the Republican Party, which controlled the northern half of the country and, until the end of Reconstruction, much of the South. What follows are a few examples of intraparty parties from the Third Party System and later, grouped by the issue of the day that occasioned the split.
Corruption and patronage
In 1872 a group of Republicans refused to support incumbent Republican President Ulysses Grant and his corrupt administration, instead forming the Liberal Republican Party and nominating Horace Greeley, former U.S. Representative and publisher of the New York Herald, for president. The Democrats, not wanting to split the anti-Grant vote, unenthusiastically nominated Greeley in the shortest major party political convention in U.S. history. Greeley lost the election and died before the Electoral College could even meet, and the Liberal Republican Party disappeared, with members rejoining the Republicans or defecting to the Democrats.
Later that decade, the issue of political patronage split the Republican party into two factions, the Half-Breeds and the Stalwarts, who nominated competing candidates at the 1880 Republican National Convention and finally settled on a compromise candidate, James Garfield, for President and a Stalwart, Chester A. Arthur, for Vice President. This compromise kept both factions in the party, but four years later another Republican faction, the Mugwumps, deserted Republican candidate James G. Blaine over the same issue of political patronage and instead supported Democrat Grover Cleveland, arguably proving the decisive factor in Cleveland’s election. Many Mugwumps subsequently became Democrats or independents.
Cleveland himself was a member of a faction known as the Bourbon Democrats, a group of pro-business, anti-imperialist, reformist conservatives. Although the group was identified by that name at least as early as the election of 1876, the Bourbons were in no danger of deserting the party until the 1890s, since their man Cleveland was President from 1884-8 and 1892-6. In the 1890s, the debate over the gold standard and bimetallism (using silver as well as gold to back currency) surfaced as the defining issue of the time, despite it being completely incomprehensible to modern people. The Bourbons, including Cleveland, strongly favored the gold standard, but at the 1896 Democratic National Convention, William Jennings Bryan and the agrarian silverites captured the nomination. Some of the Bourbon Democrats reacted by forming the National Democratic Party, known as the Gold Democrats, whose supporters included Cleveland, future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, and future President Woodrow Wilson. The Gold Democrats hoped to draw enough votes away from Bryan to give the victory to Republican candidate William McKinley, a fellow gold standard supporter, and even the Gold Democrats’ presidential candidate, John M. Palmer, said at one rally that if “this vast crowd casts its vote for William McKinley next Tuesday, I shall charge them with no sin.” Meanwhile, Western Republicans who disagreed with McKinley formed the Silver Republican Party and supported Bryan. After McKinley’s victory the Bourbon/Gold Democrats mostly returned to their home party, gritting their teeth through Bryan’s renomination in 1900 (his embrace of anti-imperialism in the wake of the Spanish-American War helped) and winning the Democratic presidential nomination for their own Alton B. Parker in 1904 before effectively disappearing as a faction. On the other side of the aisle, most Silver Republicans returned home after 1896, but some, including at least two U.S. Senators, became Democrats.
In 1948, the New Deal coalition suffered its largest blow to date when Southern Democrats deserted the party to form the so-called Dixiecrats. They were upset by that year’s Democratic National Convention, where President Truman, who had integrated the armed forces and supported a civil rights plank in the party platform, was renominated and future Vice President Hubert Humphrey gave his famous speech urging the party “to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” The Dixiecrats’ candidate for President, Strom Thurmond, managed to replace Truman as the Democratic Party nominee on the ballot in Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi; these were the only four states he ended up winning, although he also received one electoral vote from Tennessee. In other states Thurmond was on the ballot as the nominee of the States’ Rights Democratic Party, which disappeared after Truman’s unlikely reelection (the left wing of the party having been partly lured away by the Progressive Party, led by Truman’s former Secretary of Commerce). Afterwards the Dixiecrats mostly folded back into the Democratic party, but a decade and a half later, in 1964, the South voted Republican for the first time since Reconstruction, with Thurmond himself switching parties to support Barry Goldwater. After one more third-party flirtation, with the American Independent Party in 1968, the South voted more or less solidly Republican for the rest of the century and beyond.
There are only a few data points here, but perhaps we can draw some tentative conclusions. First of all, as I said above, factions appear to be both more likely to form within and more likely to break off from a party that is nationally dominant. By “dominant” here, I mean structurally dominant, rather than for fleeting reasons; a party that nominates a highly electable candidate may be favored to win, but a party with a demographic advantage (age, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, etc.) has a claim to structural dominance. The Republicans were nationally dominant from the end of the Civil War through the 1890s, and it was from within the Republicans that the Liberal Republicans, the Half-Breeds and Stalwarts, and the Mugwumps appeared. After Grover Cleveland’s two victories, in 1884 and 1892, neither party could really claim national structural dominance, and in the 1890s both parties saw factions temporarily break off, the Gold Democrats and Silver Republicans. In 1948 the Democrats’ New Deal coalition was dominant—if there were any doubt, it should be sufficient to point out that Truman won despite the defection of both the party’s right and left wings. Accordingly, the Dixiecrats seceded temporarily, only to rejoin the party for the Republican years of the 1950s(1) and re-secede in 1964, the year of Johnson’s Democratic landslide.
In all of the examples above except one, the dissenting faction supported the opposition party’s candidate for president or nominated its own. That one exception was the Half-Breed/Stalwart dispute of 1880, when the two groups managed to compromise at the Republican convention. I don’t have the statistics on hand, but it appears that what was different in that case was that the two factions were numerically more or less equal, or close enough that neither could eke out a clear victory(2). In all the other cases, the smaller faction simply lost and left.
Another pattern is that faction defections often lead to realignments; even when the faction collapses back into the party it came from, politicians, minorities, and interest groups may wind up on the opposite side of the aisle when the dust clears. In a way, faction defections could be regarded as a sort of venting of accumulated ideological pressure; a dominant party is often also a big-tent party, and if that tent swells until it can no longer contain all its elements, any irritation will cause a small exodus.
The issues from the examples above, political patronage, bimetallism, and segregation, are now so hopelessly outdated that it is crystal-clear to us who, in hindsight, was right. Perhaps the same will someday hold true for the issues that today separate the Blue Dogs from the “normal” Democrats(3), like socialized health care and the environment. The Democrats of today do appear to be a big-tent party that has recently achieved structural dominance. Does this mean the Blue Dogs will continue to defy the Democratic Party line and eventually secede to form their own third party and/or defect to the Republicans? Not necessarily, but it’s instructive to look at examples from history, if for no other reason than to give us some perspective.
Questions for commenters: What should the non-Blue Dog Democrats be called? What other faction defections have I left out here, and do they fit the patterns? Do you think the Blue Dogs will leave the Democratic party, at least temporarily, and if so when?
(1) Not only did Eisenhower win the presidency in 1952, Republicans also took control of both the House and Senate. Although Democrats took back both chambers in 1954, they maintained only small leads until the Democratic landslides in the midterm elections of 1958.
(2) On the first ballot at the 1880 Republican convention, Stalwart candidate and former President Ulysses Grant received 304 votes, while Half-Breed candidate James G. Blaine received 284. It took 36 ballots to settle on James Garfield as a compromise, and that year’s was the longest ever Republican National Convention.
(3) As yet there is no standardized way of referring to non-Blue Dog Democrats; perhaps one will arise, as in the case of the Half-Breeds and the Stalwarts, or not, as in the cases of the Liberal Republicans, the Mugwumps, the Dixiecrats, etc. Notably these latter cases involved actual electoral defection, while the Half-Breed/Stalwart fight ended in a compromise.
Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.