Foner is not only an expert in American political history, the early years of the Republican Party and the life and premature death of Reconstruction. He wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2010 book, "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery," and manages to think and talk about history in a way that makes its meaning for modern audiences quite clear.
What follows is a Q&A with Foner focused on party revolts and turmoil. It has been edited only for clarity and length.
THE FIX: So, there have been a lot of stories written about tensions inside the GOP and the possibility of a very, very messy convention, a nomination fight or even a fracture. Have we ever been here before?
FONER: Well, it depends what you mean by a "fracture." If you mean events that totally destroyed a major party and created a new one, the last time that happened would have been in the 1850s. Before that, the country had two major political parties: the Democrats and the Whigs. Since then, we have had basically two major parties -- the Democratic and Republican Parties -- with some short-lived breakaway and one-election-cycle movements that sometimes deeply influenced election outcomes. But we have not seen an actual party die or a new one born and continue since 1854.
Isn't that when and how the Republican Party itself was born?
Yes. In the 1850s, there were a lot of things creating a lot of conflict inside both parties. Somehow, the Democratic Party managed to hang together. The Whigs didn't, and out of that came the Republican Party.
I think most people know that the major issue -- the issue that ultimately killed the Whig Party in the United States -- was the question of what was happening with slavery. There were very few people advocating the immediate abolition of slavery at the time. The issue was really whether or not slavery would be extended to the territories out West. There were some other issues tied to this. But at the time you had two parties -- the Democrats and the Whigs -- which competed with each other in every region of the country.
There were Northern Whigs who differed on a lot of things. For example, some believed in a high tariff and others believed in a low tariff. But lying beneath that, for just about everyone in the party, was the sense that the South had dominated the federal government since the drafting of the Constitution. Most of the presidents had, at that point, been from Southern, slave-holding states. There were a lot of people who felt that the South had too much political influence at the federal level, in part because slave labor gave it some distinct economic advantages [i.e. free labor].
That's why, in its earliest days, the Republican Party was a Northerners' party representing northern political and economic interests and the North's position on the expansion of slavery.
Of course, once you say that, you have to also acknowledge two things. Slavery proved to be the issue that the political system could not handle, or the issue that could not be resolved within the political system. It was a question eventually settled by Civil War. And you also have to say that the Republican Party we've discussed is not, of course, what the party is today, when a lot of its voters are down South.
Okay. Let's talk a little about those third-party breakaways -- those short-lived political movements you mention. Can you walk us through the major ones?
Well there are actually quite a few of these moments in American history. We have generally had a two-party system, even though there's nothing requiring that in the Constitution. But we've certainly seen splinters. Then, those third parties have merged or fallen apart again and again.
In 1872, a group calling themselves the Liberal Republicans split off from the Republican Party and ran a candidate against President [Ulysses S.] Grant.
Now, keep in mind that "liberal" meant something else then. It meant [being in favor of] free trade and a few other things. But it's also important to remember that in the 1870s, Republicans had tried to introduce an interracial democracy, giving black men the right to vote. That, of course, created conflict and violent responses in the South. There was also a sense that Grant was running a fairly corrupt administration, which he was. And most of the people who fled for the Liberal Republican Party were people who had been cut out of political power.
In the end, those voters went off, over to another party for that election and then, most of them eventually returned [to the Republican Party].
In 1912 [former U.S. president] Theodore Roosevelt split with the Republicans. He went off and founded what was actually called the Progressive Party, and this enabled Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, to be elected [president] that year. And interestingly, in that election, you also had the Socialist Party candidate in the presidential race. That created a four-way race for the White House in the election of 1912. I guess you could say that would be the precursor, of sorts, to Bernie Sanders [who describes himself as a socialist democrat].
Then, in 1924, Robert La Follette ran as the Independent Progressive Party candidate for president, appealing to both Democrats and Republicans and getting some of those votes -- about 17 percent. At that point, only Roosevelt had done better in a third-party run.
In 1948, you get Strom Thurmond, when Southern segregationists began splintering from Democrats and essentially walked out of the convention because the man who became the Democratic nominee, [President Harry] Truman, had made certain civil rights issues part of his campaign. Truman, of course, was elected, but Thurmond did pull together most of the pro-segregationist white Democratic vote in the South and formed the States Rights Party. Of course, the States Rights Party fell apart pretty shortly thereafter and those voters went over to the Republican Party.
In 1980, [Rep.] John Anderson [of Illinois], a liberal Republican, ran as a more moderate option. Anderson ran as an independent. I think most people know what happened there. [Republican Ronald Reagan was elected]. Then, of course, there's Ross Perot's 1992 bid. He ran as an independent and got 19 percent of the vote, which is pretty good for a businessman who, like Trump, had never held public office and kind of came out of nowhere. [Only Roosevelt has done better in an independent run.]
But again, these third parties tend to rise and fall pretty quickly. You'll notice that not one of the groups we've talked about is around and posing a formidable challenge today.
To really find an example of a situation that led to the actual destruction of a party -- and the birth of something entirely new that replaced it -- well, you have to go back to 1854.
The Republican Party is created in the 1850s, and by 1860 the party put a president in the White House. Based on what you have shared thus far, isn't that unusual? How did the Republican Party avoid the short-lived fate of most of the country's third parties?
Well, there are again a list of reasons. But the primary one is that they had a very clear ideology, and it held them together. That was that slavery should not be allowed to expand any further. But really, a lot of the credit for party's survival also has to go to Lincoln.
Lincoln only got 40 percent of the popular vote in 1860, but he won the Electoral College because he carried all the Northern states. Now, during the Civil War, there were radical and moderate Republicans, but Lincoln was a very, very savvy politician. Not every politician is, how shall we put it, adept at politics. As Doris Kerns Goodwin put it in her book, Lincoln put together a "team of rivals." He put the key factions that didn't always agree with one another in the Cabinet. Lincoln was not afraid of having strong people and strong minds around him. And he knew how to work with Congress very well. He was just very good at ultimately getting people to agree or compromise, which isn't something that we have a lot of today.
Now, when was the most recent brokered convention?
We haven't had a contested convention since maybe 1952. That year, the Democrats went beyond one ballot on the convention floor.
What do you think the odds are that any of the things you have described will in some way repeat themselves this year?
Historians like to talk about things after they happen, but I think in the next few weeks we will begin to see which direction this situation may take.
In the 19th century, the party system was much more fluid. You had many elections where people were breaking off and then going back and coming back together. And the issues, the sources of conflict that led to those breakaway parties, were generally more substantive than the potential causes of any split we may see today.
Today, because of money, now you could have a man on a white horse, a total outsider -- a millionaire or billionaire or access to one billionaire donor -- ride in and take over the party apparatus as a route to the nomination, even if that means a fight on the convention floor. Or they could try the Ross Perot route to a nomination and form a third party.
The parties, both the Republicans and the Democrats, are certainly weaker than they have been in some time -- really it seems than they have been ever before. Of course, that's partly because of outside money [that] comes in [from PACs and super PACs] and parties don't control that. With enough money and the right moves, those outside groups really can change the whole configuration of an election. Also, there are also so many more independents today, people who aren't really wedded to either party and have to be truly convinced.
On the other hand, the structure of our political system does seem to be shaped, at this point, with two parties in mind. This isn't something that's in the Constitution, but it's what has developed over time. At this point, we have a winner-takes-all approach to distributing most states' Electoral College votes. And that means, practically, if you vote for a third party or a third-party candidate you are very likely wasting your vote.
No third-party candidate has ever and possibly cannot ever gain enough of the Electoral College vote to actually win the White House. As most people know, because of Bush v. Gore in 2000, a candidate can even win the popular vote but lose the election. So, unless a third-party candidate has some sort of plan or ability to dominate some key winner-take-all states with a lot of Electoral College votes, it's almost impossible to take the White House.
As for what's happening to the Republican Party right now, I don't think the Republican Party is cracking up -- I mean, not permanently. I think its very possible that, if Trump is nominated, a lot of Republicans will say, 'I cannot vote for this guy, I cannot.' It will be like [Sen. Barry] Goldwater [in 1964]. The party didn't die, not by any measure.
The Republican Party survived. And then, in that next election, you got Nixon as the Republican nominee. And he was seen as a candidate that both some of your super conservative Westerners and your more socially liberal, business-minded Republicans from the Northeast could live with. [Alabama Gov. George Wallace also ran as an independent on a pro-segregation platform.]
Maybe we should talk a little more about Goldwater and the 1964 election. As you said, it did a lot to create the current coalitions that exist within the major parties. And there are a lot of people who have compared Trump to Goldwater in terms of being a polarizing figure. Is that reasonable?
Yes. Yes, there have been some comparisons that are probably apt there. At the time, there was a rising conservative movement inside the Republican Party that felt that a lot of what the party was doing and stood for under [President Dwight] Eisenhower was really no different than the Democratic Party.
Eisenhower came into office and basically accepted the New Deal -- Social Security and all these things that Eisenhower basically said, these things are part of the system now. There is no point in trying to eliminate them and it would not be so easy. To put that in terms that have meaning to people today, imaging if you had a Republican say, 'Oh, we're stuck with Obamacare. I don't like it, but we are not going to be able to do anything about it. We can't get rid of it now.' That would rile up a lot of Republicans. Well, that's the kind of thing -- something of that magnitude -- that was causing a lot of conflict in the Republican Party in the early 1960s.
Goldwater came out of Arizona and said, on a lot of fronts, all of this change -- the New Deal, the civil rights effort -- is not good. Because he came from out West, he had access to money from aerospace and oil. And that combination was enough to really take over the party.
The 1964 convention was a very raucous affair, where the man that a lot of people had at one time expected to be the nominee, [New York Gov. Nelson] Rockefeller, was shouted down when he stood to speak. It was sort of like a Republican [presidential primary] debate these days. And I think that's the thing that some people are expecting to see this year, a real effort by Trump and Trump voters to take control, to shout down, or take over from the party establishment.
But for all the enthusiasm for Goldwater from conservatives inside the Republican Party, for the ultra conservatism that Goldwater represented, the results were disastrous in the general election. Republicans who didn't agree with Goldwater either didn't vote or voted for Johnson. Johnson won in a landslide.
Which is more likely now: A short-lived break-away party, an organized effort to keep Trump from becoming the Republican nominee, or a Trump nomination and party takeover?
The thing is, putting together coalitions of dissidents is not all that easy. You notice that all these Republicans keep saying we have to stop Trump, but no one is willing to step aside, to fall in line and do what's necessary to unite the opposition behind one alternative.
I'm a historian, so I don't like predictions; they aren't my game. But I would say that history tells us that it's often not the voting that determines the election. It's whether or not an important or big part of your base is alienated.
With or without a third party, if a big portion of either party's voters just stay home, that's a bigger problem. And that is certainly possible if Trump is nominated. But unfortunately for the Republican Party, that's also true if Trump is not the nominee or somehow someone else is. I think that's also a situation where voters have in the past stayed home, where you could expect that people galvanized by Trump and his campaign would just stay home, making a Republican win unlikely too.
Interestingly, this is a year where that really could be an issue for both parties -- the Republicans and Democrats. We'll have to watch and see what happens in the coming months. But, I think there is some talk and some belief that something similar could happen with Sanders's voters if Clinton is the nominee.
I don't know that that is a situation we've seen before in both parties at the same time. Then, when you add to that the fact that in the 19th Century people were far more likely to vote a straight-party ticket and ballots were structured accordingly, there are also some very unpredictable things that could happen in November. In the 20th Century and certainly the 21st Century, that's far less common. So, I wouldn't be completely surprised if a number of people show up, cast no vote for president, but cast a vote for their [congressional] district seat.