Some Analogous History Lessons? A Picture of the Future Republican Party?
Friends were recently thinking about what it is that we may be discovering in the current Presidential Campaign. One person observed that there are always “…major ebbs and flows in party orientation,” but “…we may be currently seeing one of the biggest shifts ever.”
Indeed, there are people talking about the destruction of the Republican Party, while others are talking about it finally becoming what it always should have been, the Conservative Party. But what does “conservative” mean? If the Conservative Movement succeeds in co-opting, or even replacing, the Republican Party as it has been constituted in recent memory, will it be a united and coherent force with a clear and unequivocal platform for the future?
Thoughts turned to history: considering the successes and failures, and even the rising and the falling, of political parties in the history of the United States. Jay Hakes, retired from serving different White Houses and most recently as Director of the Jimmy Carter Library, pointed out that it is useful to remember that Teddy Roosevelt was more progressive on race than Woodrow Wilson and that Eisenhower appointed better judges in the South than Kennedy. The “Reagan revolution” fused religious conservatives of the Bob Jones type (often less educated than average) with business interests both large and small (often better educated than average), always a potential train wreck. Now, many big corporations want openness to gays, etc. (all potential customers) and unhindered trade (access to even more customers); the other side of the party wants the right to discriminate and shut the door to foreigners.
Perhaps it will help to consider the foundation and subsequent development of the Republican Party into what is now is threatened with radical change or even a new identity. The GOP emerged largely from the demise of the Whig Party. Whigs were, by and large, the party of the elite with land and new commercial interests, combined with southern protectors of states rights, and a range of particularized “special interests.” By the late 1840’s it was trying to keep the peace and stability desired by the fiscal conservatives, while satisfying the anti-slavery movement of the north but supporting the states-rights proponents of the south. When their leadership produced the compromise of 1850 in an attempt to hold together antislavery Whigs and proslavery Whigs, the latter split to join the more congenial Democratic Party.
The Republican Party came into existence as a combination of most northern Whigs, which included fiscal conservatives and business interests determined to modernize the economy, and anti-slavery citizens that were becoming more radicalized. Abolitionist church leaders in the north became a major force in the new party. The anti-slavery forces became dominant over the period of two elections and during the time of civil war the radical wing soon took over the party.
Afterward, Reconstruction failed as a program, and it did not take terribly long for the old wealth and business interests that had transferred to the Republican Party from the Whigs to move back into control, leading directly to the Gilded Age. Soon, in the name of national unity and business interests, the Jim Crow Laws of the south were an accepted reality both within the dominant Republican Party and the periodically successful Democratic Party.
With the identity of the Republican Party almost entirely captured by the old Whig landed wealth and business interest, the Party of Lincoln no longer represented the interests of black Americans any better, and finally worse, than the Democrats. It was within a remarkably short period of time that the Republican Party lost the entire black vote. Indeed, it took a period of time no longer than that which has passed for us since WWII for the Republican Party to lose the constituency of the slaves, and heirs of the slaves, freed by Abraham Lincoln, and lose them to the party of Stephen Douglas.
Has the Conservative Movement of the last forty years which has succeeded in making Americans blame government for all that is wrong — most recently by a radical refusal to cooperate with the disagreements and compromises necessary for productive legislation, together with insistence on trickle down economics — produced the fiscal responsibility, smaller government, and success in foreign affairs so long touted as the aims of the Republican Party?
In reaction to globalization and the internal growth of minority populations since WWII, is the Conservative Movement to become a middle-American-white-supremacy-international bully-isolationist Nationalistic Party, politically supported by the anti-regulation wealthy?
What is the dynamic to be observed in today’s electoral politics as the Conservative Movement strengthens its hold over the Grand Ol’ Party? Where is it headed?