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Government Of Paralysis - A brief history of the Republican Party


In this age of "fake news" and corporate-friendly tax bills, there are dialogues in my head that keep me up at night. The conversation below is one of these.

“Hello, Father. I have a question for you. Did I hear you say the other day that there were once liberals in the Republican Party? Is that true? How is that even possible?”

“It’s true, all right. If you want to know more about this, I need to give you some history.”

“A history lesson? Great!”

“Stop being snide. And listen up. You see, the Republicans didn’t even exist as a party until the mid-18th century. They sprang up out of the old Whig Party, and one of their main policies was economic development—building roads, creating railroads, and enabling land grant colleges. But the party’s most prominent and heroic goal at that time was the abolishment of slavery. And of course, the first Republican president was Abraham Lincoln.”

“That sounds great. So what happened to them?”

“Well, during the last decades of the 19th century and into the 20th century, long after slavery ended, there was still a strong current of racism in the country on both sides. But because of their previous policies, Republicans were preferred by African-Americans who were able to vote. The party also had a strong pro-business wing, but even so, there were progressive leaders as well. Theodore Roosevelt was the most prominent of these.”

“He broke up monopolies, created national parks . . .”

“Exactly. He came from an extremely wealthy family and had a conservative side to him, but as president, he did take the side of consumers, laborers, and the environment.”

“It sounds like his policies were based on what was good for the country, not for himself.”

“I think he would probably have agreed with you.”

“So then what?”

“After Roosevelt, the next few Republicans were ardent pro-business advocates, and it could be argued that their policies helped lead to the Great Depression. But again, there was nothing to distinguish them as more racist than Democrats. In fact, Democrat Woodrow Wilson was among the most anti-Black presidents. And Democratic elected officials throughout the South enabled Jim Crow laws, segregation, and violent lynching of Blacks.”

“I think if I were around at that time, I would have been a Republican.”

“Maybe. But in the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress enacted a number of New Deal policies that benefited people from the lower classes, including African-Americans. That was among the many reasons that Black voters started to identify with the Democrats. Still, FDR’s coalition was made up not only of Blacks and people in urban areas, but still also retained the segregationists in the South.”

“So there were conservative Democrats.”

“That’s right. And at that time there was a whole wing of the Republican Party that was progressive and liberal.”

“How did that end?”

“I think historians may differ, but my explanation starts with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968.”

“Wait, I remember you telling me that Nixon had some decent policies.”

“True. The Environmental Protection Agency started under Nixon. And he made famous visits to our Cold War enemies China and the Soviet Union. You see, at that time, there was a culture within both parties that elected officials’ responsibility was to govern on behalf of their citizens. Still, there were a lot of negative sides to Nixon. I’ll avoid Watergate and his secret sabotaging of Vietnam peace talks for now…”

“Wait, what was that?”

“Something we’ll talk about another time, because you asked about what happened to the Republican Party. You see, to get elected, Nixon pursued a strategy that served to bring the racist white voters into his Party and demonize African Americans. So, starting in 1968, more Southerners started to turn from Democrat to Republican. And Nixon named a number of judges who stopped enforcing many laws and prior rulings that were supposed to limit segregation.”

“So all the Republicans in the South became Democrat.”

“Not so fast. The story continues in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected President. Both as a candidate and as president, he made it even clearer that the Republican Party was no longer on the side of African American voters. He demonized people in urban areas, and created the fiction that Blacks were living high off of government handouts. He said, ‘Government is not the solution. Government is the problem.’ So over time, the Republican Party came to believe that most government policies were bad and needed to be resisted. Along with that came the idea that lowering taxes would benefit the economy. Even though this was proven to be false, that notion, connected with their anti-government stance, became core expressions of Republican policy.”

“So they flipped from what they were when they started.”

“You could say that. In addition, Reagan and Republicans following him were able to bring a number of evangelical, conservative voters into their fold. They came to take the position that they were operating from a moral high ground in advocating for limited government and the notion of ‘freedom’ from governmental interference. Along the way, they came to be bankrolled by a number of rich donors, who see that Republican philosophies help the mega-rich keep their power and influence.”

“But what about freedom? That isn’t bad, is it?”

“Not by itself. But as used in current Republican philosophy, it means that people on that side of the fence don’t want government to get involved in most roles it normally would have played. So they continue to advocate for lower taxes, limited to no regulation of guns, and a reduction of regulations in general (even for things that benefit us, such as environmental protection). And there is a strong element of racism that exists in the party, as you can see with such people as Roy Moore and Donald Trump.”

“I guess it has mostly worked, right? They have majorities in most states, and Trump is president.”

“Yes, but at the cost of the shared belief in government, that we can fix our problems together. It seems to me that current Republican belief is that we should do it on our own, and that elected officials should get out of the way as much as possible. This helps the wealthiest citizens maintain their influence at the expense of the middle and lower classes, who could actually benefit from smart policy making on both sides.”

“This story makes me sad.”

“It is sad. And it is destructive for policy going forward. There are a number of legitimate criticisms of Democratic positions, as well as good reasons to think that well-designed conservative policies can help the country. But when one party doesn’t even believe that government should seek solutions, that’s a problem.”

“I have one last question.”

“Yes?”

“What happened to those liberal Republicans?”

Silence. For the first time, I don’t know what to say.

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