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“We Had a Great History, and We Turned Aside”
A long-time Republican-party insider and close student of its past discusses how the party has changed over the years—for better and for worse —and where it may be headed.
October 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 6
Very few people have really looked at Abraham Lincoln’s economics. But Professor Gabor Boritt of Gettysburg College has, and in his book Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream he notes that Lincoln hardly ever gave a speech in which he didn’t talk about the Declaration of Independence, never gave a speech in which he didn’t talk about upward mobility, about the desire of people to work and be able to save and hire someone to work for them and ultimately own their own business.
Entrepreneurial capitalism was Lincoln’s theme even though he didn’t call it that, and this whole sense of ownership, entrepreneurship, improvement, and upward mobility had a radical appeal to people. In a secular and political sense, it touched their innermost souls.
The core of the Republican party was this conviction that it should appeal to all people. With the Emancipation Proclamation and the Homesteading Act in 1862, then that same year the Morrill Land Grant College Act, the Republican party offered a combination of property ownership, entrepreneurial opportunity, educational opportunity, and the vision that any poor man in America should be able to own his own land and climb the ladder to what we call, loosely, the American dream.
So that was the party’s soul, and it was lost in 1932. Herbert Hoover caused irreparable damage. I am a fan of his humanitarianism and a fan of his integrity—but not of his economic policy. But about 1932 the electorate began to re-imagine the party of Lincoln as the party of the recession/depression.
It’s interesting: Clinton ran his whole campaign on the premise that we were experiencing the worst economic performance since Herbert Hoover. Now that is not true, but rhetorical excess aside, it was a good political attack on the Republican party. I believe the old Republican party saw the goal of American economic policy not as liberals do, as the construction of a safety net under which people should not be allowed to fall, but as the construction of a ladder of opportunity upon which people can climb. Yes, we need a safety net, but it should be a trampoline, not a trap. And right now it’s a trap. I think Mr. Lincoln would be turning over in his grave if he could know that his party is debating whether there should be a safety net or a ladder. We need both.
But the measure of the compassion of the party of Lincoln should not be how many people need help, but how many people do not need to be on government assistance because they’re now on that ladder of upward mobility that Lincoln called the desire to improve one’s lot in life.
But when you talk about the party of Lincoln, aren’t you up against bigger obstacles than Hoover? A lot of people believe that the New Deal coalition that was able to depict the Republicans as the party of depression was finally broken up by the race issue. Barry Goldwater’s rout in 1964 disguised the importance of the regional base he’d used to capture the nomination, and the swing of that base foreshadowed Nixon’s extremely successful Southern strategy. What about the role of race in realignment and the building of the eighties Republican majority?
First of all, as I said earlier, it used to be a sin to vote Democratic and be black. Preachers preached against the Democratic party: it was the party of the poll tax, the party of segregation and the Black Codes. After the Civil War it was against the law for blacks to own a business in the South. I think of how my father started a business in Los Angeles in the 1930s. He didn’t have to go to Sacramento, California, from Los Angeles and file a government application; he just started a business. The Republican party was by far the majority party among blacks. Now, that having been said, to think that George Bush and Republicans in the last election got only 10 percent of the black vote is a disgrace. People of color, be they Hispanic, or black, or Asian, want the same thing for their lives and their families as the vast majority of all families do.
Goldwater got tagged with a kind of exclusionary conservatism in 1964 because he voted against the civil rights bill with regard to public accommodations and housing. I don’t think Barry Goldwater is, or was, a racist. I think he cast the wrong vote. That’s easy to say as a Monday-morning quarterback. But there weren’t many conservatives on the side of the civil rights movement.
And I’m convinced that the civil rights movement was necessary. You don’t have to agree with every tactic, or everything that happened, to recognize that the civil rights movement in America was a necessary reform of our laws to bring us closer to the original meaning of our Declaration of Independence. I believe that, and I also think that we have suffered because of the failure of the party of Lincoln and conservatives—other than maybe Everett Dirksen and a few others—to preserve that legacy.
We should have been there with Dr. King on the streets of Atlanta and Montgomery.”
I’m sure there were many fine men and women in the Republican party all for civil rights, but the party was not associated with it. I give credit to the Democratic party for its role. I don’t necessarily agree with everything it did, but I recognize that some of the errors came out of championing civil, human, legal, and voting rights for all people. The Democrats had a terrible history, and they overcame it.