As America went to the polls in the fall of 2008, the spirit of Abraham Lincoln and the agenda of his Republican party loomed large. The image of Lincoln as a young lawyer was invoked on a snowy afternoon as a young senator declared his presidential candidacy in Springfield, Illinois: “He tells us that there is power in words. He tells us that there is power in conviction. That beneath all the differences of race and region, faith and station, we are one people. He tells us that there is power in hope.”
The notion that any American could, by dint of hard work, achieve success and wealth was presented as a receding but worthy dream. The right to vote was under assault by the forces of a vague oligarchy intent on locking in privileges unjustly acquired. But amazingly, in 2008, the images and themes used to build the Republican Party were being wielded not by the Republican candidate, but by the Democrat. Indeed, Barack Obama’s emergence as the nation’s first black president seemed simultaneously the realization of Lincoln’s promise and a nightmare of the Southern plutocrats who were his bitterest rivals. As Obama began his campaign, the Republican Party’s leadership was dominated by white men with backgrounds of privilege, mostly hailing from the old slave states.
The electoral map in 2008 also seems in many respects a historical inversion—in fact, a nearly perfect reversal of a typical Republican electoral victory, such as that of 1908, which had brought William Howard Taft to the White House. The Democrats had not only seized the political agenda of Lincoln’s GOP, they also had secured the electoral fealty of key chunks of the once-solidly Republican heartland in the Northeast, Midwest and West, while surrendering their own historical base in Dixie to the GOP.
The party began to break down in the 1960s when traditional Republican Toryism in the Taft mode gave way to a radicalized, highly ideological mutation, Movement Conservatism—hostile to minorities and women, socially conservative, and committed to a mantra of small government but in fact to policies that yielded unprecedented deficits particularly due to pork barrel defense contracting and tax relief for the wealthiest.
One key question hovers over the history of the GOP, namely, how did the party Lincoln built come to totally repudiate its founder and all he stood for? Over the last 50 years, the party of Lincoln steeped itself in the pious bigotries and anti-intellectual values of the Confederacy, and ultimately began to display contempt for democracy itself, clinging to an ever whiter, ever more Southern and ever shrinking electoral base.
The GOP of Lincoln’s age was audacious and intellectually vigorous. It crafted a political message of the broadest possible appeal and it transformed America in a way that few observers of the first half of the 19th century would have imagined possible. By contrast, the GOP of Mitt Romney is an unwieldy alliance of Mormons, right-wing Catholics, white Southern Evangelicals and embittered citizens of the plains, whose combined numbers shrink as a proportion of the total population with each passing election. It turns to gerrymandering and political disenfranchisement in an effort to cling to its last vestiges of power. It repudiates science, detests public education, and can barely control the xenophobic and indeed racist rants of its elected officeholders. It has become the most detested political party in America. Though once America’s natural party of government, the question increasingly is how the Republicans can survive without expanding their electoral base. Be that as it may, America’s two-party system and its system of disproportionate representation (in large part rigged by the GOP in the 19th century and further secured by aggressive gerrymandering by Republican legislatures since 2000) guarantee the party a share of power, particularly when voter turnout dwindles.
GOP’s Ideological Mutation
Heather Cox Richardson’s history of the GOP, To Make Men Free, at its best gives us a rich portrait of the thinking and times of Abraham Lincoln and those closest to him in the founding of the Republican Party. She sifts the material for strands that have the most lasting significance both for the party and for the country. Richardson also does an impressive job of summarizing the thinking of the Southern firebreathers who were Lincoln’s archrivals, in particular contrasting Lincoln’s thoughts with those of the slaveholding (and niece-molesting) South Carolina Senator and Governor James Henry Hammond.
Lincoln had used powerful words and images to demand the economic freedom of the working man and to push back against the political dominance of the slaveholders. “It is the eternal struggle between two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world,” Lincoln said in his debate with Stephen Douglas. “It is the same spirit that says, ‘You toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.” But Hammond saw that tyrannical (or at least oligarchic) principle as natural, and the notion of equality (whether at birth or of opportunity) as anathema. Indeed, he openly embraced the notion of a class of menials good for hard work but entitled to few privileges: “In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill.”
There is remarkably little distance between Hammond’s view of a nation of the naturally privileged and the serf class, and the talk of the 1 percent and the 47 percent that came to overshadow the Romney campaign in 2012.
Richardson gives an impressive summary of the GOP’s full economic and social platform as it launched its journey—the sweeping advocacy of freedom and democracy through a broad electoral franchise were matched with a series of detailed policies that poured the foundations for a much more robust state committed to social mobility. Republicans introduced progressive income taxation, liberalized monetary policies that sustained a strong dollar, granted impressive rights to veterans, advocated universal education as an essential tool of socialization, demanded the steady expansion of voting rights, and gave America a higher education system that was soon to be the envy of the world. They also championed the rights of immigrants, who were essentially a constituency for their political opponents. On point after point, the party’s stances are both brilliantly articulated and diametrically opposed to those of the current GOP.
Readers of Richardson’s history of the GOP will come away with a good sense of the complex path that led the party to the abnegation of the Lincoln legacy. At the core of her narrative is a bridge between the three great Republican presidents who, in her view at least, reflect the party’s proud moderate-progressive legacy: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight David Eisenhower. Alongside this trio are arrayed the Republican also-rans who often deviated from Republican progressivism in favor of economic special interests—most notably those of Wall Street. This cycle began to break down in the 1960s when traditional Republican Toryism in the Taft mode gave way to a radicalized, highly ideological mutation, Movement Conservatism—hostile to minorities and women, socially conservative, and committed to a mantra of small government but in fact to policies that yielded unprecedented deficits particularly due to pork barrel defense contracting and tax relief for the wealthiest.
GOP’s Death Spiral
There is not much pretense of historical detachment in this book. The author is clearly an engaged observer—filled with admiration for the party of Lincoln, and only a little less enthusiasm for Theodore Roosevelt and Eisenhower. On the other hand, her disdain for the Southern Democrats who championed slavery is matched only by her withering review of Movement Conservatism and its attempt to supplant the Lincoln-Roosevelt-Eisenhower legacy with an altar to Ronald Reagan. These attitudes serve to make the book sharper and more engaging, though they are also likely to enrage Movement Conservatives, whose cherished fantasies she repeatedly punctures.
While Richardson’s description of the historical trajectory of the GOP is generally perceptive and persuasive, I see at least one significant failure. Richardson has underappreciated the important role that Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy played in the party’s transformation. Kevin Phillips served as an advocate for the GOP’s turn south, as a campaign advisor to Nixon, and later came to realize that his strategy had resulted not in the Republican Party’s capture of the South, but rather the South’s capture of the Republican Party. No doubt the Republican Party always had its demons, as all political parties do, but its radical transformation can be laid directly at the feet of election strategies hatched in the 1960s, matched by tedious party governance mechanics (which Richardson fails to discuss) that gave white southerners a disproportionate say in party governance over the last 50 years. The result is a GOP filled with high-profile figures who would never cross the threshold of a Lincoln Day Dinner.
To Make Men Free is in turns tremendously inspiring and seriously depressing. It bears witness to the remarkable dynamics of American political parties. And it leaves a reader wondering whether the party of Lincoln cannot indeed pull out of its current death spiral by refashioning itself into a party to which Lincoln would choose to belong.
Scott Horton is a fellow at The Nation Institute and a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, where he covers legal and national security issues.