America’s Revolutionary Party
It’s always been the Republicans
November/December 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 6
Republican radicalism, that is.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who followed reports of a September Oval Office press conference George W. Bush gave for a group of selected columnists. “I got into politics initially because I wanted to help change a culture,” President Bush asserted, according to the conservative journalist David Brooks, who was in the audience. Bush went on to reiterate his conviction that he was at the forefront of “a series of long, gradual cultural transformations,” including a new “religious awakening” and “a generations-long struggle” against international terrorism. “He said the events of weeks or months were just a nanosecond compared with the long course of this conflict,” Brooks reported admiringly.
A cultural transformation and a war that will make weeks and months seem like nanoseconds: Has any American President ever set so ambitious a course? And not only has President Bush committed the nation to this struggle, he has even decided to fight it in a radically different way, steadfastly backing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s concept of a smaller, more flexible military (at least until the day after the election) and becoming the very first President (and perhaps the first ruler of any nation, anywhere) to fight a war while institutionalizing tax cuts.
President Bush has long backed up such rhetoric with action. Since taking office, this administration has indeed sought radical, cultural change in any number of areas, fighting with varying degrees of success to privatize Social Security and transform other entitlement programs, deregulate much of the economy, end abortion rights, lower some of the barriers between church and state, curtail civil liberties and transfer vast new powers to the Executive branch for the purposes of fighting the war on terror, and disengage from long-standing American treaty commitments, from the Kyoto Agreement on global warming to the Geneva Convention. Others in and around the administration have even talked of being able to create their own “reality” and of the formation of an American “empire.”
Whatever one thinks of such ideas, there is no denying that taken altogether, they would drive a vast reshaping of American society. But then, the Republican party was born as a radical movement and has remained—for better and for worse—the true radical party in American politics since its inception in the 1850s. The very first Republican President would turn another national crisis into a transformative moment, throwing over a series of painstaking compromises worked out in the course of decades—and launching a crusade to give the nation “a new birth of freedom” even if it meant that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” To win his war, he would resort to the suspension of habeas corpus; the first U.S. military draft; the arrest and deportation of an elected congressman; even—most radical of all for the times—the arming of tens of thousands of freed black men. After his death at the hands of an outraged citizen, the original Radical Republicans would push through the first amendments to the Constitution in more than 60 years, ending an age-old American institution (slavery) and endowing African-Americans with full rights.
While all this was going on, the Democrats were relegated to insisting that a house divided against itself could so stand, and they were identified by Republicans as the party of treason. The price they would pay for their conservatism would be to spend the better part of six decades in opposition.
But this was not all that surprising either. The Democrats had already established themselves as the more conciliatory or ameliorative national party, a characterization that is accurate to this day, again for better and worse. Democrats have often taken more liberal or “left” stands than Republicans over the years, but the fact remains that ever since the passing of Andy Jackson, with his populist crusades to expand the franchise and crush the Bank of the United States, every major liberal/populist movement has begun outside the Democratic party and only then been co-opted or enticed inside the two-party system.
After the Civil War, Democrats would attempt to recoup by catering to the hordes of new immigrants pouring into the country and by building urban political machines that were the very embodiment of wheeling and dealing. The GOP, by contrast, often became the home of more uncompromising, radical theories that supposedly had the blessing of both God and science, such as laissez-faire economics and social Darwinism.
William Jennings Bryan broke out of this mold by running the nation’s first great populist campaign, but populism was an authentic grass-roots movement that Bryan and the Democrats had swallowed up only belatedly, after witnessing its enormous power. And for all its bold new proposals, populism was at heart a conservative movement, animated by nostalgia—an attempt to alleviate the country’s perennial agricultural crisis and runaway corporate and political corruption by forcing a return to a more egalitarian, rural America. Republicans, typically, would respond to this challenge with progressivism, a political philosophy much better suited to the urban, industrialized country that America was rapidly becoming with its emphasis on technocratic reforms, such as replacing urban machines and mayors with professional “city managers” and attempting to regulate (rather than necessarily break up) the massive new industrial trusts.
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.