17 May 2011

Whatever happened to the Party of Lincoln?

By now it may count as a cheap shot for anyone to note how far the Republican party has departed from the doctrines of its founding days. E. J. Dionne is the latest pundit to do this, and it probably isn't the first time he's done it, either. Writing this week, he quotes Abraham Lincoln's disparaging comments on state sovereignty to point out that no Republican today would be caught dead saying anything similar. Dionne also cites a Republican tradition of activist government (or as he calls, it "innovative national action") extending from the party's birth to the time of William Howard Taft. While Taft's term as President may mark the beginning of the Republicans' reactionary turn, given his break with Teddy Roosevelt's progressives, Dionne notes that Taft himself didn't consider his support for a federal income tax inconsistent with his own self-image as a conservative. The current columnist's main point, of course, is that, as the headline at his home paper puts it, "Lincoln would weep at the GOP's 2012 field" of presidential candidates.

That claim can be overstated. As I've written before, there's a core of consistency over the course of Republican history based on the party's founding belief in "free labor." Defending the North's factory system against the Southern description of it as a system of wage-slavery less humane than the plantation version, primal Republicans emphasized social mobility, denying, in effect, the existence of a permanent proletariat. Lincoln's faith was that any man who started out as someone's employee could end up as his own and, if he really applied himself, someone else's employer. Much of what passes for Republican thought today, I believe, still reflects this faith. It comes with a latent resistance to the notion of the working class as a permanent constituency with interests entitled to recognition and representation in government. On some level, I suspect, most Republicans assume that the worker who remains in and identifies with the working class for life is a failure or, worse, a loser. I don't think many Republicans believe this consciously, but if they confronted the implications of their core beliefs, they would probably reach the same conclusion.

While the GOP conclusively abandoned its "Party of Lincoln" heritage only in the 1960s, when Barry Goldwater put state rights ahead of individual rights and Richard Nixon pursued a "Southern strategy" of reaction, it had become the reactionary party of the Bipolarchy decades earlier. The Republicans advocated activist government as long as it benefited business, and for a long time that made them progressive compared to old-school Democrats. But they abandoned their original commitment, it seems, once it became possible that activist government could be used by labor in its own interest against employers. Not every Republican felt that way; those who sympathized with labor became Progressives and eventually, in many cases, Democrats. That left the party of "free labor" as the enemy of organized labor. Since they could not declare that enmity openly, or even admit it to themselves in many cases, they turned against activist government to limit the damage labor could do to capital through government.

The GOP may have evolved differently had the U.S. developed a strong labor or socialist party like almost every other developed nation. Had such a party emerged to seriously challenge both the Republicans or Democrats, each established party might have developed a more nuanced policy toward the workplace instead of the Republicans' antithetical reaction or the Democrats' paternalist welfare-statism. As things did develop, the Democrats became the party of labor, and later seized the mantle of Lincoln, pretty much by default. As a result, arguably, they exploited what they didn't earn, taking advantage of that sense of dependency among client constituencies that persists today. I paint history with a broad brush here, but this is just a sketch that historians will have to fill in with greater detail. It's my hunch that, when people ask whatever happened to the Party of Lincoln to turn it into the Party of Reagan, the answer has something to do with the other great question of American history -- why there was no Socialism in the United States.

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