America says it wants a third party. Why not the Modern Whigs?

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Dec. 14 2009 4:35 PM

Big Whigs

America says it wants a third party. Why not the Modern Whigs?

The Modern Whig party logo.

Third parties are in right now. A recent WSJ/NBC poll found that "nearly one-third of Americans are strongly in favor of the creation of a new, independent political party that could run a presidential candidate in 2012." What better time for the resurgence of an obscure, long-forgotten, anti-Jacksonian 19th-century political party?

The Modern Whig Party held its first-ever national council meeting this weekend in a small conference room at the Arlington Courtyard Marriott. The party is small but, they insist, growing: It now boasts a national headquarters in Washington, D.C., 20,000 "members" (more on that later), and 28 official state chapters, including one in Florida, where the party is a registered political organization with ballot access.

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Among the attendees was Conor Boland, 14, who rode the Amtrak from Delaware with his father, Kevin. "I'm here with a future Whig voter," said Kevin, a former Marine who has not yet taken the plunge into the party himself but wanted to encourage his son's civic interest. Other attendees were serial third partiers. "I've seen my fair share of third-party flops," said William Cerf, 63, a New York restaurateur who, previous to the Whigs, was a member of the Libertarian Party and the Peace and Freedom Party. But that didn't stop him from jumping on the bus from New York to Washington for the conference. "I hope this will be the first new mainstream political party," he said. "It could be a historical occasion."

The Whigs have fallen in and out of politics for the last four centuries. The term Whig originally dates back to a 17th-century anti-Royalist party that opposed James II's hereditary ascension to the English throne. In 1834, opponents of President Andrew Jackson recycled the name to protest "King Andrew's" attempts to expand presidential power. These Whigs eventually coalesced into a national party that supported the Second Bank of the United States, congressional checks on the presidency, and a protective tariff. The party had a brief Golden Age in the 1840s and early '50s, putting four Whigs in the White House—William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Millard Fillmore. But by 1856, the party split over the issue of slavery, and Whigs such as Abraham Lincoln abandoned it for the newly formed Republican Party. The Whigs limped along until 1884, the year of their last national convention in Baltimore.

The Modern Whig Party is like its namesake, only with fewer frock coats. The party was conceived in 2007 by active-duty service members in Iraq and Afghanistan, who then started recruiting nonmilitary members when they came back home. They resurrected the old Whigs' symbol, the owl, and chiseled out a platform centered on fiscal responsibility, energy independence, education, states' rights, separation of church and state, and support for veterans. In other words, a Republican head with a Democratic heart.

By the time the meeting started on Saturday morning, only 13 people had taken their seats. National Whig Party Chairwoman Elaine Stevens pointed out the historical significance of the 13 attendees—one for each original colony. But the symbolism ended a minute later, when No. 14 walked in late.

Stevens kicked off the proceedings, calling the meeting a "pivotal" and "historic" moment for the party. Stevens then introduced Gene Baldassari, the only Whig in the room who'd run for office. In 2009, Gene ran as a Modern Whig candidate in New Jersey's 14th Assembly. He lost badly, picking up only about 1.5 percent of the vote. But other Whigs have fared better—well, one of them has. Ken Belcher, a Whig, won a local election for constable in Alabama in November 2008, although it's unclear whether he actually ran as a Modern Whig or Democrat. But most members put their hopes in "Big Whigs" like Clayton Schock, John Annarumma, and Paul McKain, all of whom are running for Congress on the 2010 Whig ticket in Florida.

Next up for discussion was the party's official color. One of state leaders said he had been using buff, a kind of off-yellow. Turns out buff and blue were the Whig Party's original colors. The color went unchallenged and—with that—the party made the only real decision I witnessed in four hours.

Stevens then delved into the Modern Whigs' online marketing efforts, a must for any upstart third party these days. The party boasts 20,000 members. Then again, entering contact info on the Web site qualifies you as a "member." Furthermore, Stevens admitted that many of those 20,000 had probably been "lost" due to the party's failure to engage them. The party should be more proactive, she said, particularly by using Twitter, Facebook, and virtual meetings. Hence the video camera in the middle of the room, streaming the meeting live on the Modern Whig Web site.

The afternoon planning session was for Whig members only, so I went home to watch it online. (Apparently, the meeting was closed to press but open to everyone with Internet access.) Fortunately, any sensitive information that might have been disclosed was kept safe by the webcast's spotty sound.

Needless to say, the Modern Whig Party has a long way to go. They've ironed out some of the state-level details but currently lack the vision, leadership, and video streaming capability necessary to sustain a competitive national party. Past attempts to repackage the Whigs' name haven't turned out so well:  John Watts ran for governor of Alabama in 1970 and lieutenant governor in 1974 as a Whig candidate. He didn't win.

But that doesn't mean it can't happen. After Whig candidate Zachary Taylor's presidential victory in 1848 *, one Whig announced a prophecy of sorts: "The Whig Party has safely passed through … a transition state and will be as enduring as the union itself. … Its perpetuity as a great national party is placed beyond doubt." Great may be a stretch, but the Whig party certainly is enduring.

Correction, Dec. 15, 2009: This article originally gave the wrong date for Zachary Taylor's presidential victory. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Andrew Dubbins is a Slate intern.

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