Though you may remember it from high-school history class, the Whig Party gave America some of the most utterly forgettable presidents of the 1800s. (If the names Millard Fillmore, Zachary Taylor and John Tyler fail to inspire much patriotic fervor in you, you're not alone.)
Nonetheless, a new Whig Party — calling itself the Modern Whig Party, or MWP — has risen from the ashes of history and is poised for a comeback. Robert "Heshy" Bucholz, a card-carrying MWP member, was elected last week as an election judge in Philadelphia, making him the first Whig to win any elected office in the city since 1854, according to Philly.com.
The unexpected resurgence of the Whigs is due largely to the efforts of veterans of recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "This whole party was the brainchild of active-duty servicemen, and nonactive [servicemen] that had a lot of time overseas to sit and talk about what they liked and didn't like about American politics," MWP official Rhonda Carsten told the Richmond [Mo.] Daily News. "They founded this party." [The 5 Strangest Presidential Elections in US History]
One of those servicemen, Capt. Mike Lebowitz — an attorney who also served with the 101st Airborne Division — took inspiration from many of his fellow veterans, who were fiscally conservative, socially liberal and completely disgusted by the partisan grandstanding that seemed a weak substitute for leadership in U.S. politics. He and his like-minded colleagues chose the Whig name because of its traditional, historical roots.
"Our whole goal when we started this was not to come across as weird or fringe," Lebowitz told the Wall Street Journal.
The original Whigs
The original Whig Party was founded in the 1830s to oppose what many believed were the overarching policies of President Andrew Jackson, whom they derided as "King Jackson." Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky and former President John Quincy Adams were early founders of the party.
The Whigs supported industrial growth spurred by a centralized monetary policy (as opposed to more agrarian economic policies), whereas Jackson opposed the federal banking system and shuttered the Second Bank of the United States. The Whigs also embraced educational reform and an expanded infrastructure of roads and canals.
And they succeeded, for a time: The party elected four presidents to office, and many more congressmen and state officials. But luck was not on their side: Whig President William Henry Harrison served just 31 days in office before dying of pneumonia, and successor John Tyler was kicked out of the Whigs for opposing their economic legislation.
Never a strongly cohesive group, the Whig Party splintered over the issue of slavery and states' rights, which "Cotton Whigs" in Southern states generally supported in opposition to "Conscience Whigs" in Northern states. Abraham Lincoln, an Illinois Whig, left the party when its fortunes appeared diminished, and joined the newly formed Republican Party instead.
Solutions over dogma
Like the original Whigs, Modern Whigs favor compromise over conflict, practical solutions over ideological dogma. By avoiding what they view as extremism from the political left and right, they position themselves as a centrist party, according to the Modern Whig Party website.
The MWP platform emphasizes fiscal responsibility and a balanced budget; energy independence; domestic economic development and manufacturing; local authority, including states' rights; social acceptance of minorities; educational and scientific advancement; support for veterans; and electoral reform, including campaign finance reform. [After the Battle: 7 Health Problems Facing Veterans]
"A lot of us are fed up with the big money and the big corruption of the major parties and the lack of choice when it comes to state and national elections," said Carsten, as quoted by the Richmond Daily News.
Though the Whigs have big ambitions, with only about 30,000 members nationwide and a loose party structure, they have no delusions about their prospects. Only two Whigs currently hold elected office: Bucholz in Philadelphia, and a member of the school board in Westfield, N.J.
The party has received some unexpected attention in recent years: In 2010, Time magazine listed the Modern Whigs as one of America's "Top 10 Alternative Political Movements."
Another shot in the arm came just last month, as Americans watched with dismay, disgust or outrage over the shutdown of the federal government. "That pretty much told us we can't trust either party, and the system is broken," Bucholz said.