Select Page

Popular Sovereignty and Party Polarization: A lesson from the Kansas-Nebraska Act on political fortunes

In the short term, Trump and his supporters appear to have won their fight to remain in power.

The initial position of his defenders in his impeachment trial was that he had neither abused the power of his office by withholding military aid to Ukraine in exchange for help smearing his rival Joe Biden, nor obstructed Congress by covering the scandal up. But the House impeachment managers’ masterful presentation, along with the leaking of material from former National Security advisor John Bolton’s forthcoming book saying that Trump himself had tried to rope Bolton into the scheme kiIIed that argument.

So Republicans pivoted. Yes, they admitted, Trump did what he was accused of. But pressuring a foreign government to smear the president’s political opponent, they say, does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. As House impeachment manager Adam Schiff warned Republican senators, if they acquit Trump, they will be part of the cover up, and they will be tied to Every. Single. Thing. That. Drops. From. Here. On. Out. And there will be plenty.

Just after Senate Republicans blocked testimony from witnesses and the admission of new documents, the Trump administration admitted in a court filing that it was withholding 24 emails from between June and September 2019 that describe “communications by either the President, the Vice President, or the President’s immediate advisors regarding Presidential decision-making about the scope, duration, and purpose of the hold on military assistance to Ukraine.”

There are nine months to go before the 2020 presidential election. Congressional Republicans have chosen to double down on their association with Trump to help them win in 2020, throwing overboard any hope of appealing to moderates. They know it is a devil’s bargain. As never-Trump pundit Rick Wilson warned the Republicans, they are now complicit, and as more and more evidence comes out, Trump will turn on them.

People are saying this is the end for American democracy, but I see the opposite. Radical ideologues who want the government to do nothing but protect property, build a strong military, and advance Christianity took over the Republican Party in the 1990s. They have been manipulating our political system to their own ends ever since. They want to destroy the government regulation of business and social safety net we have enjoyed since the 1930s.

But they have done so gradually, and not enough people seem to have noticed, even when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took the shocking step of refusing to permit a hearing for a Supreme Court nominee named by a Democrat. Now they have gone too far, out in the open, and it looks to me as if Americans are finally seeing the radicals currently in charge of the Republican Party for what they are, and are determined to take America back.

Americans are angry. Before the definition on Wikipedia was taken down, the entry for “United States Senate” read briefly: “The United States Senate was formerly the upper chamber of the United States Congress, which, along with the United States House of Representatives — the lower chamber—comprised the legislature of the United States. It died on January 31, 2020, when senators from the Republican Party refused to stand up to a corrupt autocrat calling himself the president of the United States, refusing to hear testimony that said individual blackmailed Ukraine in order to cheat in the 2020 presidential election.”

Ironically, the moment looked a lot like the moment that created the Republican Party. In the 1850s, elite slaveholders, who made up less than 1% of the population, took over the Democratic Party, which dominated national politics as their opponents kept squabbling amongst themselves. The slaveholders insisted that the government’s only job was to protect them and their property, and they stifled opposition as well as calls for government projects to spur the economy, getting poor white southerners to rally behind them with increasingly vicious racism.

Finally, in 1854, they went too far. In 1820, Congress had divided western lands evenly between slavery and freedom, but by 1854, the South had spread into all the lands reserved for slavery. So in 1854, planters demanded the right to take their enslaved workers into western land that was reserved for freedom. The proposed law, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, meant that rich planters would keep poor white men from moving west and taking up land. At the same time, adding new slave states in the West would break the balance in Congress. A few wealthy slaveowners would have the power to make slavery national. Free men would fall into poverty, and American democracy would end.

Surely, northerners thought, Congress would never pass such a dastardly law. It did. Under enormous pressure from the Democratic president Franklin Pierce, the Democrats passed the hated bill. Northern Democrats, who loathed the act, signed on, putting party before country.

In response, northerners came together to guarantee that the few rich slaveholders who had taken over the party would not destroy American democracy. Out in the frontier state of Illinois, Abraham Lincoln had given up politics for law, but the passage of the Kаnsаs-Nebraska Act shocked him back into the political arena. The Democrats “took us by surprise—astounded us — by this measure. We were thunderstruck and stunned; and we reeled and fell in utter confusion,” Lincoln later recalled. He came together with regular men and women from all parties to stop the takeover of the government, “[W]e rose each fighting, grasping whatever he could first reach, a scythe, a pitchfork, a chopping axe, or a butcher’s cleaver.”

In the elections held after the passage of the Kаnsаs-Nebraska Act, voters decimated the northern Democrats who had put party over country. There were 142 northern seats in the House; they put “Anti-Nebraska” congressmen in 120 of them. By 1856, the movement against the takeover of the nation had coalesced into the Republican Party, and in 1860, it put Abraham Lincoln into the White House. The party would do well to remember its beginnings.

“I want nothing to do with a party led by the deluded and the dishonest. I fervently hope our democracy survives this debacle. I fervently hope the Republican Party does not. Will I ever rejoin the GOP? No. Trump will leave office some day (I hope!), but he will leave behind a quasi-authoritarian party that is as corrupt as he is. The failure to call witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial revealed the GOP’s moral failure.” – Max Boot, conservative writer

© Photo

Library of Congress

Letters from an Аmerican: a newsletter about the history behind today’s politics by Heather Cox Richardson

About The Author

Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson is a political historian who uses facts and history to make observations about contemporary American politics. Her new book, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, is thought-provoking study of the centuries-spanning battle between oligarchy and equality in America.