Bring Back the Party of Lincoln
Heather Cox Richardson
The New York Times September 3, 2014
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — FOR all the differences between establishment Republicans and Tea Party insurgents, their various efforts to rebrand the Grand Old Party tend to start from a common premise: the belief that Ronald Reagan was the quintessential Republican, and that his principle of defending wealth and the wealthy should remain the party’s guiding vision.
In doing so, they misunderstand the party’s longer history. They would do better to look to earlier presidents, and model their new brand on the eras when the Republican Party opposed the control of government by an elite in favor of broader economic opportunity.
The history of the Republican Party is marked by vacillation between its founding principle of opportunity and its domination by the wealthy elite. The party came together in the 1850s in opposition to the wealthy slaveholders who controlled the federal government. Democrats acting on their behalf insisted that America’s primary principle was the Constitution’s protection of property, and they pushed legislation to let planters monopolize the country’s resources at the expense of the working class.
Abraham Lincoln and others recoiled from the idea of government as a prop for the rich. In organizing the Republican Party, they highlighted the equality of opportunity promised in the Declaration of Independence and warned that a healthy economy depended on widespread prosperity. Northerners and hardscrabble Westerners flocked to that vision, and elected Lincoln to the White House in 1860.
Even as the Civil War raged, Republicans made good on their promise: They gave farmers their own land, created public colleges, funded a transcontinental railroad, took control of the national currency away from rich bankers, and ended slavery. To pay for their initiatives, they invented national taxes, including the income tax. The middle class grew, and the North and West, regions covered by the new programs, boomed.
But as soon as the war ended, wealthy Americans joined with those who hated African-Americans and immigrants to insist that slaveholders had been right: Permitting poor men to have a say in government had produced policies that redistributed wealth. Only a few years after building a federal system that cleared the way for equal opportunity, Republicans faced a racist and xenophobic backlash against an active government — and they folded. By the 1880s, the party’s leaders had abandoned their message of opportunity and tied themselves to big business. Like the slaveholders before them, they argued that the rich were the country’s true producers, directing the work of lesser men. The party strengthened laws that protected business and crushed laborers, then jiggered the electoral map to stay in power.
Republicans controlled the federal government for decades after the Civil War, and their policies funneled wealth upward — with dire consequences. In 1893, the economy crashed, and too few Americans had enough purchasing power to revive it. Lincoln had been right: Government that served the wealthy would ruin the country.
The party responded, and a new Republican Party emerged from the Panic of 1893, rededicated to Lincoln’s vision. Led by Theodore Roosevelt, the progressive Republicans recognized that government had to address the systemic inequalities of industrialization or no man could rise.
They cleaned up the cities, promoted public education, protected workers and regulated business. Their policies fed a strong and growing middle class; their vision resurrected the Republican Party.
But, as before, wealthy Americans pushed back. During the “Red Summer” of 1919, they whipped up riots against African-Americans, immigrants and workers, accusing them of sucking tax dollars from hard-working white people.
And again, the party folded: During the ensuing backlash against government activism, Republican leaders handed policy making to businessmen. In the 1920s, they slashed taxes and government programs and refused to address growing economic inequalities.
Then, on Oct. 29, 1929, the bottom fell out of the stock market, and Republican policies had once again concentrated wealth and destroyed purchasing power that might have put the economy back together. The Republicans looked finished.
It took a new leader who would embrace Lincoln’s principles to return the party to health. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s experiences in World War II convinced him that the only way to prevent the rise of dictators was to promote economic equality around the world. He used the government to desegregate American schools, promote higher education and start the largest public works program in American history, the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act.
Eisenhower’s policies were enormously popular, but they inspired the wrath of businessmen, who claimed that taxes funding public programs were an unconstitutional redistribution of wealth. They demonized minorities, young people, women and Democrats, and with the help of social conservatives, tied the Republican Party once more to big business.
The consequences were predictable: After Reagan’s 1980 election, economic stability turned into the Great Divergence, in which wealth moved steadily upward. In 2008, the economy crashed.
Twice in its history, the Republican Party regained its direction and popularity after similar disasters by returning to its original defense of widespread individual economic success. The same rebranding is possible today, if Republicans demote Reagan from hero to history and rally to a leader like Lincoln, Roosevelt or Eisenhower — someone who believes that the government should promote economic opportunity rather than protect the rich.