The evolution of the Republican Party 

In 1860, a sharply divided electorate resulted in the election of the first ever president whose political affiliation was with the relatively newly formed Republican Party.  This party was generally opposed to slavery, although there were two major viewpoints within the party: those who wanted an outright ban on slavery throughout the United States and those who sought simply to prevent its expansion.   

The newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, was a smart lawyer and canny politician, which is why the pro-slavery forces were so afraid of what he would do.   Most of the southern “slave states” voted to secede from the union (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and a handful of counties in the state of Virginia didn’t join their slave-holding confederates), and, as the northern army sought to prevent this separatist movement, plunged the nation into a civil war.   

The official reason for the fighting was the argument over preservation of the union or autonomy of the slave states.   And that looks good on paper, of course, but that ignores the 800-pound gorilla in the room: we essentially had to go to war to end slavery.  

The war lasted about 4 1/2 years, with heavy casualties on both sides, and ended with a demoralized south and a now-constitutional ban on slavery (the 13th amendment passed congress and was sent to the states shortly before the confederacy surrendered to the Union forces at Appomattox Court House in Virginia).

It makes for a compelling narrative to say that the north won the war because they were on the right side of history and were the ostensible “good guys”.  After all, the leaders — Jefferson Davis, “Stonewall” Jackson, and countless others — of the confederacy were skilled military tacticians who were more than capable of waging the battle and who arguably had the easier job: holding the troops from the north at bay.   

But that narrative overlooks the fact that the confederacy misjudged one very important advantage the northern states enjoyed: economics.   While the ideological differences between the northern and southern states centered around slavery, there were several other differences that, simply put, favored the north in just about any other match-up, moral high ground be damned.  

The big non-ideological difference between the two sides of the war, was the contrast between industry (the north) and agriculture (the south).   The south may have relied too heavily on its perception that the goods that it provided to American trading partners around the world, were more valuable than those provided by the north.   Indeed, it’s not a surprise (at least in hindsight) that Egyptian cotton exports surpassed American cotton exports in 1862.   

The Republican Party rightly could claim victory in the management of the war and bolstered their claims on the grounds of both moral high ground and industrial acumen.   Beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s victory, the republican presidential candidate emerged victorious in every quadrennial election from 1860 through (and including) 1928 with only four exceptions in that entire time period (1884 and 1892 when Grover Cleveland won it, and then in 1912 and 1916 when Woodrow Wilson won), although many of these elections were extremely close (especially 1876, but it’s the stuff of a completely separate essay).  

Over time, the business interests that underwrote the victory in the war, started to gain power within the party.  It’s tempting to say that they didn’t care about the needs of the newly liberated slaves.  That is a bit harsher than the reality but not entirely wrong: as history has repeatedly taught us, apathy and indifference often do more harm than active antipathy.   The former slave owners never truly stopped resenting the loss of their slave labor and, in many cases passed that resentment onto their children and grandchildren.  Meanwhile, the business leaders started to focus more on growing their business interests, at most paying lip service to the needs of the former slaves in their employ.   

The contentious nature of the election of 1876 was only settled when the Republican Party agreed to end the reconstruction of the south in exchange for being able to declare victory. After all, the business leaders didn’t really care one way or another for reconstruction.  Some might have even seen it as an unnecessary expense anyway.   

By the time Theodore Roosevelt ascended to the presidency following the assassination of William McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901, the Republican Party focused less on civil rights and more on business and free market interests.   While Roosevelt himself was quite progressive on these matters, especially given the time period, his successor, William Howard Taft, was more of a pragmatist.   It’s why he vigorously prosecuted corporate monopolies under the Sherman Antitrust Act and prompted Roosevelt to come out of retirement, paving the way for Wilson’s victory in 1912.  

Wilson, only the second democrat to be elected president since Lincoln won the presidency more than half a century before, won re-election in 1916 on a platform of how he kept us out of the war that gripped Europe, despite the pleas for help from our allies.   As often happens with wars, though, by the time it ended, the world as a whole became a very different place from what it was when the first shots were fired.   We entered the war after the Germans sank the cruise ship Lusitania and, at about the same time, the Russians pulled out of the war, having fallen victim of a revolution that created many far more pressing needs at home.    

And the rise of socialism in Russia, complete with the upheaval aimed at the upper classes in the larger cities (especially Moscow and Petrograd) was more than enough to shake the wealthy businessmen and women who by now were both the power brokers and core constituency of the Republican Party.   The earliest “red scares” date to the 1920’s during another decade of Republican control over the White House.   And they played to the fears quite deftly: they could appeal to the ultra-religious by pointing to the official atheism of the Soviet regime and to the wealthy by pointing to the official economic policy.   We still see both of these fears in the rhetoric of the modern Republican Party, nearly a century later.  

The stock market crash on October 29, 1929 created the worst economic crisis in American history, now popularly known as the Great Depression.   Numerous factors made this economic downturn worse than previous ones but the increasingly globalized economy was certainly a factor.  (And if we thought things got bad in the US, that’s nothing compared to Germany, still hurting from the aftereffects of the war a decade earlier.   Stories of how a comfortable life savings one week became insufficient to buy a loaf of bread the next are not much of an exaggeration from the realities of what led to the rise of Hitler.)

When Franklin Roosevelt swept into the presidency in 1932, he rode a sentiment that correctly viewed the wealthy as having created the crisis but put the suffering on the middle and lower classes.   In purely economic terms, the lines separating the two parties had become well-defined.   The democrats focused more on workers and the republicans focused more on the wealthy.  

I recently wrote about how it’s impossible to predict the long-term consequences of any individual decisions made.   If FDR hadn’t sought a third term as president in 1940 (on a platform not unlike Wilson’s in 1916), we might not have the 22nd Amendment today, which limits a president to a total of ten years in office.  Since it came into effect, only 1980 stands out as an exception to the rule of eight years in the White House by one party followed by eight years of the other.   (And although this is unknowable, there is evidence that an event five years earlier is the reason why FDR sought a third term: the assassination of Louisiana governor Huey Long; had Long lived, FDR might have stood aside for Long to run in 1940.)

After the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, the republicans revived their anti-communist rhetoric, and it became much louder than it had been in the 1920s.   Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy personified this step-up in rhetoric.    With McCarthy, the very words “communist” and “socialist” became insults, extending far beyond the economic implications of these terms.  

(Side note: this is the stuff of another essay, but the true beauty of Karl Marx’s theories, is that he applied Wilhelm Friederich Hegel’s dialectic philosophy to history in purely economic terms.   He wasn’t wrong with the assessment of history even if his predictions for the future were overly idealistic.)

The election of 1952 is an interesting one.  The slow evolution of the Republican Party to what it is today took a bizarre turn that year.   Both the democrats and the republicans tried to recruit popular World War II general Dwight David Eisenhower to be their candidate and he chose the republicans because he wasn’t sure he liked the direction the democrats were moving in.  I don’t think this has much to do with the “Dixiecrat” revolt four years earlier when the more racist elements of the Democratic Party walked off the convention floor, but it definitely enjoyed the fruits of the aftermath.  Between 1948 and 1964, the KKK and other white supremacist groups had no political home, and this was good for both parties.  

But in the 1950s, the seeds were sown for the more undesirable elements to be welcomed into the GOP.   Sure, the business wing of the Republican Party saw the Soviet Union as an economic threat, but channeling this into something supported by the masses was … difficult to say the least.   Enter Billy Graham, who linked the economic platform of the USSR to something more easily feared by the populace: atheism as state religion.   

The United States has always had a bizarre relationship with religion.   In the realm of jurisprudence, we learned the hard way that the proper way of conducting a trial is to put the burden of proof of guilt on the accuser, not rather than putting the burden of proof of innocence on the accused.  Religiously-based witch hunts more than a century before our independence proved this.   The US constitution is a truly godless document as the only references to religion involve how there shall be no religious test for office and how the government can’t stop you from worshipping as you see fit.  Thomas Jefferson wrote of the “wall of separation” between church and state, and the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated during the presidency of John Adams, says that the US “is not in any sense a Christian nation”.

But there’s no denying that the majority of residents of this country are Christian and, as is true for any group that enjoys the privileges of the majority, it can be difficult to draw lines that separate the privilege from official government sponsorship.  It’s why they push back so hard when they sense losing their privilege.  

The 1950s saw a significant amount of blurring of the line between government and religion: the addition of “under god” to the pledge of allegiance and choosing “in god we trust” as the official motto.   See my recent essay on the Johnson Amendment for more on that topic.   But moves like that are highly symbolic and it’s fair to say that moves like these are more symbolic than anything with regard to actual day-to-day governing.  

When (democrat) Lyndon Johnson wrangled congress to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964 (a brave move, considering that it was an election year), he reawakened the racists in the deep south.  Indeed, he figured that this move cost the democrats the votes from that region for at least a generation.   He was right, unless you count the fact that he underestimated the amount of time.  

It’s fair to say that the election of 1968 may have been one of the worst choices Americans ever had to make.   Two incredibly flawed candidates who would have lost to a more energizing, inspiring candidate on the other side.   The chaos outside of the democratic convention in Chicago only underscores this.   Later that year, folksinger Phil Ochs reflected that “the saddest thing about Chicago — it was exhilarating at the time but incredibly sad afterwards — was that something truly extraordinary died there, which was America.”

You can hear a recording of this quote on the album There and Now: Live in Vancouver in the spoken word intro to the song “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed”.  We can debate the accuracy of this statement but there is a truth to the fact that the so-called “establishment” effectively emerged victorious over those who sought to upend it.   

But Nixon emerged victorious in 1968 and with his victory came a renewed influence of Billy Graham.   The 1973 Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision served as a mobilizing force for the religious extremists within the Republican Party.   This emboldened other members of the religious right, namely Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, culminating in the takeover of the southern baptist convention in 1979.   

In 1980, the Republican Party was still smarting from the corruption Nixon had ushered in and needed a charismatic populist who would appeal to the business wing, the religious wing, and the relatively newly emboldened racist wing.  They found it in an actor who had been president of the Screen Actors Guild during the Joseph McCarthy “witch hunts” of the 1950s, who later went on to be governor of California.   Ronald Reagan gave enough red meat to all three of these groups and it’s no surprise that many republicans today idolize him despite the damage he did to the country.   

For a truly fascinating read, check out the Wikipedia entry on Ronald Reagan in music.  Protests against Reagan didn’t have the same effect on the greater populace as the protests of the 1960s primarily because the 80s were a time of peace while the 60s were a time of war.  

Bill Clinton once looked back on the hippie movement of the 1960s, complete with civil rights actions and the liberation from prior roles and expectations and remarked that if you thought this was a good thing, you’re probably a democrat and if you thought this was a bad thing you’re probably a republican.   

Since Reagan, two Presidents Bush further emboldened the religious right and their racist peers.   Indeed, the power brokers in the so-called Bible Belt do their best to disenfranchise minorities and have been since the end of the civil war.  It’s just been a question of which political party they affiliate with.   

And now Donald Trump sits in the White House, his closest advisers not even hiding their racist, anti Semitic, neo-Nazi sentiments.   He may have his day, and he will do a fair bit of damage to the country.  But what emerges from the ashes may be stronger, kinder, and more humane than anything this great nation has ever known.   And maybe, in the process, the Republican Party will finally disavow the racist, sexist, theocratic notions to which they currently cling.   That’s my hope.  


The Johnson Amendment

Since 1954, it has officially been a law on the books that states that a church or nonprofit organization risks losing its tax exempt status if they openly campaign for or against particular political candidates.   This is one of the few laws that push back against what was the slow creep of religion into public policies in the 1950s.  After all, this was the time of the rise of Billy Graham, creating a national motto of “in god we trust“, and adding the phrase “under god” into the pledge of allegiance (one of my first entries on this blogging site talks about that point).  

The Johnson Amendment, so named because it was proposed and written by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, has been the bane of religious conservatives ever since.  They argue that having this law on the books somehow infringes on the freedom of speech of their pastors and have, for years, promoted what they call Pulpit Freedom Sunday in open defiance of the law.  

Their arguments are ridiculous on their surface.  Freedom of speech does not equate to the freedom to have a platform to speak as you wish and your desired audience is under no obligation to listen or take you seriously.  The Johnson Amendment is one of the few checks on the undeserved power already wielded by some churches on their gullible parishioners.   

And it’s quite toothless if you think about it.  A minister can’t stand in front of his church and make a sermon that says that “candidate A is against abortion while candidate B is for it, so you’re going to hell if you vote for candidate B.”  They can (and often do) make sermons talking about how evil abortion is and how god would send you straight to hell if you even think about taking the life of an innocent unborn baby…

I sometimes wonder how they reconcile this position against both Leviticus 27:6 and Numbers 3:15-16, both of which argue that someone isn’t even human until a month after they’re born.   I’ve got to admit that I’d love to see a candidate for political office use one or both of those bible verses when asked the question of “when does life begin?”

The Republican Party has long been allied with forces that seek to weaken, if not eliminate, the constitutional separation of church and state.  The constitution grants people the right to worship as they please.   They twist this right into claiming they have the freedom to impose their religious beliefs on others and then claim persecution when people push back.  

A few years ago in the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby vs Burwell, this argument went beyond the ridiculous when the court, expanding on a prior decision regarding corporate personhood, said that corporations can actually have their own religious beliefs and that those beliefs can be completely devoid of any factual basis or evidence because they had a “deeply held belief” that contraceptives are abortofascents and therefore shouldn’t be covered by employer insurance.   

The rational response to the Hobby Lobby ruling ought to be the repeal of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and negotiating a constitutional amendment that specifies the limits of corporate personhood.  (As taxpayers, corporations should be treated like people. In other arenas of life, such as actually having a birth and a death, they shouldn’t…)

But the less-than-rational modern incarnation of the GOP is eager to eliminate the Johnson Amendment now that they have control over both the legislative and executive branches of government.   While I think this is a bad idea — the amendment needs strengthening, not eliminating — part of me wants to encourage it.  

A repeal would free up the liberal churches too, from the same restraints.  Imagine if Martin Luther King had done overt politicking from his pulpit?  Or Jesse Jackson?  For every baptist or Pentecostal church preaching about fire and brimstone for voting the wrong way, imagine an AME, Methodist, or UCC church preaching about love and voting the right way.

Imagine an imam or a rabbi sermonizing about how to improve the American political process by breaking the stranglehold Christianity has on contemporary discourse.  

And it gets even more interesting than that.  Remember that the Johnson amendment applies to all non-profits, not just churches.  What would happen if the Freedom From Religion Foundation or Planned Parenthood or any of the scores of scientific educational foundations started doing this?   I think the only conservative non-church nonprofit that could come close to this level of clout, would be the NRA.

So it’s a double-edged sword.  I most definitely do not want to see the Johnson Amendment repealed unless it’s replaced with something with more teeth.   But if it is, I look forward to creating a “be careful what you wish for” mentality in the evangelicals who so vehemently want to see it go away entirely.  

The non-linear nature of history

The name Charles Guiteau is probably not the best known name in American history.  Over at Wikipedia, there’s one category that his entry belongs to, which contains exactly three other names, including Leon Czolgosz (another not exactly well known name to people who aren’t students of American history).   

But Guiteau ought to be more than just a footnote to history.   He was definitely delusional and probably a textbook example of a psychopath.   In 1880, he gave an impassioned speech at the republican national convention in favor of the man who would go on to win the general election, James Garfield.   

And he felt that Garfield won because of that speech.  As a result of more than a half century of patronage, first introduced by Andrew Jackson in the election of 1828, Guiteau felt he was entitled to a position within the cabinet of President Garfield.   When he didn’t get the ambassadorship he wanted, he decided to assassinate the president.   

I often use the case of Charles Guiteau as an example of how you can never tell when some decisions might have horrible, unforeseen consequences.   In hindsight, we can probably argue that there’s a degree of luck that Garfield was the only victim of a disappointed office seeker during the era of the “spoils system”.

There are countless other examples.  I’m torn about whether whether the blame for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 belongs more on decisions made by Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan.  Probably a little bit of both.   It was on Truman’s watch that we had our failed incursion into Korea under the notion of the “domino theory” that if one country became communist, then other countries would fall.   This, in turn, was Reagan’s justification for funding the mujaheddin in Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets in the 1980s.   And who got a lot of American money for that war?   Osama bin Laden.   Without that money, he wouldn’t have had the resources or the knowledge to train his followers…

Some decisions have consequences that don’t make themselves known for a long time, without regard to whether we might agonize over them for a long time or whether they seemed like no-brainers at the time.  Bill Clinton’s impeachment was only made possible after the Supreme Court rejected his argument that a civil lawsuit would detract from his ability to perform the duties of the president.   The court ruled (correctly) that there was no historical precedent for a civil lawsuit having the net result of harm to the presidency.   Well, that precedent surely is there now…..

You can draw an almost direct line from both Presidents Bush to the recent Russian incursion into Ukraine.   Bush 41 set the stage by not intervening when Saddam Hussein, his country harmed by a nearly decade long war with neighboring Iran, asked for help when Kuwait made oil sales even harder.   So Hussein invaded Kuwait and Bush intervened to drive the Iraqi army back.  Then Bush 43, hoping to salvage his father’s legacy, waged an ill-advised war to depose Hussein after he had gained some political capital in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.  Vladimir Putin, watching this aspect of history can make a valid argument that if Bush could do that, why can’t he do pretty much the same thing in Ukraine, where a fair amount of the local population might prefer to be subjects of Moscow rather than Kyiv….

It’s too soon to know what the consequences of some of the tumult of 2016 will be.   Between Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what will happen next, much less the longer term impacts.   Time will certainly tell on that one, but whatever it is, that’ll only mean that future leaders will have to deal with it when it does finally happen.