America’s Revolutionary Party

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Teddy Roosevelt would eventually follow this path almost all the way to the corporate state, with his backing of a New Nationalism that would have barely differentiated between the public and private sectors. His Republican successors in the 1920s, many of whom had once considered themselves progressives, presided over a conservative variant of TR’s big idea, one that was designed to put an end to almost all societal conflict. The GOP’s manufacturing backers sought to institute “the American plan,” a system of “company unions” that were supposed to sweep any labor unrest under a carpet of corporate paternalism. Thrifty workers were encouraged to invest in the flourishing stock market, while Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, the first supply-sider, liberated the incomes of their bosses with massive tax cuts. Just to make sure that no discretionary income was being wasted in the nation’s saloons, Republicans, with some Democratic allies, pushed through what was perhaps the most radical idea in all of American history, Prohibition. Surely, under the progressive “Great Engineer,” Herbert Hoover, a brave new world awaited.

The Depression put an end to the bull market of the twenties and drove the country back to legal drink. But even then the solution the Democrats offered was no single new philosophy but rather a crazy quilt of nostrums that had been around for years: populism and progressivism; Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and Louis Brandeis’s New Freedom; scattered ideas plucked from Socialists, Communists, even Fascists. Thanks to the political talents of the Great Improviser, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it worked, and the Democrats would largely hold sway for the next 50 years. During this period of liberal hegemony one liberation movement after another— civil rights, civil liberties, women’s rights, gay rights, et cetera—would find a home in the Democratic party. But none of them began there, and they were invited in only after much handwringing.

In the radical 1960s the only radical movement to begin within a major political party took place in the GOP. Barry Goldwater’s capture of the party’s nomination in 1964 was less the populist, grass-roots movement it has subsequently been depicted as and more a confluence of right-wing ideologues and savvy campaign professionals, a pairing that would become a Republican trademark. But their rhetoric of deregulation, privatization, and Cold War confrontation was no less radical for all that, and it was soon empowered by recruits from George Wallace’s neopopulist politics of resentment and by what President Bush rightly sees as one of the great tidal movements in American history, the entrance of Christian fundamentalists into partisan politics. Democrats were once again forced into reaction, trying to organize and reconcile the vastly disparate groups that would take exception to one aspect or another of this Republican agenda.

What will become of modern Republican radicalism depends, of course, on how well it matches the challenges of its time. Abolitionism and progressivism, to name a couple of examples, were ideas that came to suit not just Republican voters but also the needs facing the nation. Social Darwinism, Prohibition, and company unions, on the other hand, were disastrous notions. How will radical, Republican nation-building in Iraq come to be regarded? The verdict is still out, although this past November it did enable Democrats to reassemble a remarkably diverse coalition, pushing an array of ideas that are, typically, both pragmatic and reactive at the same time. If they can find the right improviser to weave them together, the current age of American radicalism may last no longer than a few of President Bush’s nanoseconds.