STOCKBRIDGE >> An ancient Chinese curse is: may you live in interesting times. Congratulations these are interesting times.

Some call this election period unsettling, others call it exhilarating, but no one calls it boring. Eminent political scientist Walter Dean Burnham calls Election 2016 a "critical election".

Burnham defines a critical election as one that causes major shifts in political party membership, collapses a political party entirely, and/or spawns a new party.

Many have speculated that the 2016 presidential election may do all three. Alternately it is reported that the Republican Party will come together or fall apart. Major political figures including Gov. Charlie Baker say they will not vote for the presumptive Republican Party candidate. Former presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush say they will not attend the convention. House Speaker Paul Ryan said he could not commit to supporting Donald Trump before he said they will work to unite. Anything could happen.

The Democratic Party is being challenged as well. Bernie Sanders claims he will pull off the biggest upset in American politics or failing that, he and not the nominee will write the party platform.


Is there a parallel in American history? Burnham identifies the election of 1856 as the one that most resembles 2016.

"We are in the midst of a glorious and victorious popular revolution and we are in it to the end."

Bernie Sanders, 2016? No, New York Herald editorial, Sept. 10, 1856.

"Indiana the key"

Ted Cruz, 2016? No, Cleveland Herald headline 1856.

"The vote will divide by native-born and naturalized Americans."

CNN commentator, 2016? No, New York Times, Nov. 1856.

The mid-term election of 1854 saw a massive realignment. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed that year. The act, sponsored by the Democrats, allowed the Nebraska territory to decide whether to enter the union as a slave or a free state. Unfortunately it also reignited tensions over slavery by nullifying the Compromise of 1850.

The mid-term election saw the ouster of many Democrats and Whigs. In the wake of defeat, former Democrats and Whigs fled to the new splinter parties: the Know-nothings and the Republicans.

In 1856, the Whigs joined the Know-Nothings and for all intents and purposes were no more. Each of the three remaining parties elected a candidate. The Democratic Party candidate was James Buchanan, John C. Fremont was the Republican nominee, and Millard Fillmore was the Know-Nothing candidate.

Formerly called the American or Native American Party, the Know-Nothings had the most moderate platform. It soft-pedaled its former opposition to immigration and advocated compromise between those who supported and those who opposed slavery.

The Republicans maintained a vehement antislavery stance. Their campaign slogan was: Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men and Fremont. They carried most northern states.

Warning that abolition of slavery might lead to the dissolution of the union and war, Buchanan won the south and enough northern states to become president of the United States.

The Whig party was gone. The Know-Nothing party did not survive the devastating loss. The Republican Party lost by a slim margin and saw the possibility for victories in 1858 and 1860. They were right: Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won in 1860.

1856 met all three of Burnham's criteria: the membership of the extant party changed; one party was destroyed and another created. It also exposed the social and cultural conditions that produce a critical election.

In 1856 the issue that divided was slavery. The extreme division was not along party lines as much as along geographic lines. It exposed and reflected an irresolvable polarization in national politics.

Today commentators claim the divide in the Republican Party is over style, but it may actually be over substance. Democratic candidate Bill Clinton, president from 1993 to 2001, said "it's the economy stupid." Perhaps it still is.

As different as Trump and Sanders may appear to be, to those who vote for them, both may appear to be speaking for the forgotten middle class. Voters in both parties may be saying: it's about time.

The country might see a great political realignment over bread and butter politics in 2016 just as it did over slavery in 1856.

A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.