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.