Abraham Lincoln defeated the forces of disunion and persuaded the
country to abolish slavery and to guarantee equal rights to all male
citizens with the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Despite
the demands imposed upon him by the Civil War, Lincoln signed into law
the Homestead Act in 1862 that made available millions of acres of
government-owned land in the West for purchase by settlers at
substantially reduced costs. That same year, he also signed into law the
Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, which provided government grants for
creation of agricultural colleges in every state in the union. The
Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864 provided federal
support for the construction of the United States' First
Transcontinental Railroad which, upon its completion in 1869, linked all
the United States from coast to coast.
the First Gilded Age, Theodore Roosevelt pursued policies designed to
curb the excessive economic power wielded by the Robber Barons and their
trusts, condemned predatory practices by corporations, and spoke out in
support of organized labor. Theodore Roosevelt
successfully lobbied Congress to pass the Meat Inspection Act of 1906
and The Pure Food and Drug Act. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was
the expansion of the national park system and the subsequent transfer of
the administration of the park system from the Agriculture Department t
to the Department of the Interior. As his successor,
Republican President Howard Taft continued Roosevelt's progressive
domestic policies and vigorously enforced antitrust legislation.
In the early decades of the twentieth century also, Wisconsin Governor and later U.S. Senator Robert LaFollette, Sr. enjoyed the loyal support of unionized workers and farmers as a populist. An elected Republican office-holder, he condemned laissez-faire and emphasized the need for government to serve as an advocate for ordinary citizens, as opposed to corporations and other moneyed interests. He later challenged Teddy Roosevelt unsuccessfully for leadership of the Progressive Party and thereafter founded the Farm-Labor Party of Wisconsin.
Congressman and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia burnished his
credentials as a reform politician and as a progressive who, appalled by
the excesses of the 1920s and the misery caused by the Great
Depression, championed the policies of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. At
the beginning of the Roosevelt administration, he and Nebraska
Republican Senator George Norris successfully co-sponsored the
Norris-LaGuardia Act. That act declared yellow-dog contracts illegal,
forbade the federal courts from issuing injunctions against unions in
non-violent labor disputes, and prohibited interference by employers
against workers trying to organize trade unions.
success of Franklin Roosevelt and New Deal subsequently changed the
direction of the GOP. Beginning with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act
in 1947, the GOP, prodded by reactionary interests committed to undoing
the legacy of the New Deal, became increasingly hostile to unions and
supportive of business interests and Wall Street.
the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a new Republican agenda
was cobbled together. Nixon's cynical and craven decision to adopt a
Southern strategy required that the GOP abandon its historic commitment
to civil rights to attract the support of hard-scrabble, disaffected
white Southerners who felt threatened by the elimination of Jim Crow.
rest is history. Within a decade, the "Solid South" became the preserve
of the GOP, whose rank and file members, despite their increasingly
straigtened circumstances, have become unabashedly anti-intellectual,
anti-science, and hostile to unions, minorities, women, public sector
employees, and to the idea that government should be used as a positive instrument to promote the public good.
Reagan delivered the coup de grâce. He successfully refined a winning
political strategy for the GOP by intentionally appealing to the basest
instincts of Americans. With his attacks on welfare queens and
"'strapping young bucks' using public assistance to buy T-Bone steaks,"
Reagan further stirred the pot of racial animosity. His insistence that
government was the problem, not the solution, and his endorsement of
trickle-down economics was a repudiation of the GOP's venerable heritage
as an opponent of Social Darwinism and was at loggerheads with the
observation Republican jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. that "Taxes are
what we pay for civilized society."
Lee Atwater, who was Reagan's campaign strategist, described how and why this strategy worked: "In
the 1980s campaign, we were able to make the establishment, in so far
as it is bad, the government, in other words, big government was the
enemy, not big business. If the people think the problem is that taxes
are too high, and government interferes too much, then we are doing our
job. But, if they get to the point where they say that the real problem
is that rich people aren't paying taxes...then the Democrats are going
to be in good shape. Traditionally, the Republican Party has been
elitist, but one of the things that has happened is that the Democratic
Party has become a party of [rival] elites."
Reagan's divisive rhetoric, which appealed to an increasingly distracted, unsophisticated base
of white males, enabled him to attract "Reagan Democrats" and other
low-information voters who did not understand that the policies that he
set in motion - the destruction of traditional pension
plans, and the privatization of pension risks through the creation of
defined contribution plans -aka 401K plans - with the enactment of the
Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) - and the out-sourcing
of jibs were inimical to their own best interests. Reagan also
successfully waged war against public unions with his destruction of the
Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATC) during their
strike in 1981.
Since the Reagan era, the template has remained the same. But, with the advent of Roger Ailes and Izvestia-like propaganda outlets such Fox News, as well as the onslaught of private, undisclosed 501C interests unleashed by Justice Scalia's 5-4 decision in the Citizens United case, the GOP strategists have become vastly more sophisticated and cynical.
The cascade of unaccounted and unidentified money has crippled the
ability of the government - at the federal, state and local level - to
gather data, to promote the general welfare, to regulate in the public
interest, and to fulfill its duties with adequate funding. Grover
Norquist's oft repeated desire to reduce the size of government so that
it could be drowned in a bathtub now resonates as craven Democratic
officeholders, equally beholden to business interests and concerned
about their own political futures are, with precious few exceptions,
afraid to challenge the GOP's absurdities head on.
success of the GOP's wedge politics has been replicated throughout the
South as GOP Governors and Republican-controlled legislatures have
prevented the extension of Medicaid to the uninsured, eliminated or
substantially reduced taxes on businesses, gutted the public sectors of
their states, and imposed every conceivable obstacle to dissuade
students, minorities and the poor from voting solely because they tend
to vote Democratic.
Northern states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania,
Kansas, and Indiana, GOP Governors and their legislatures have uniformly
supported legislation to emasculate the rights of employees to unionize
and to bargain collectively, and they have successfully demonized
public employees and attacked their pension benefits while
simultaneously transferring control of many public goods - such as the
prisons, roads, and schools - to private, for-profit entrepreneurs.
This past week, in an extremely low turnout, off-year Congressional election in Florida's 13th
Congressional district, a majority of eligible voters, possibly
overwhelmed and confused by the tsunami of negative advertisements,
failed to vote, while large numbers of older white voters, concerned
that Obamacare threatened their Medicare benefits, voted for the GOP
candidate David Jolly, a former Washington lobbyist. The Huffington Post quoted
Irene Wilcox, a 78-year-old retired waitress and Republican from Largo
who voted for Jolly, "No more big government. We've got to stop."
Wilcox's comment underscores the reasons for the GOP's singular
success. It has been able to persuade large numbers of poorly-informed
voters that, rather than protect or uplift their standards of living,
the primary role of government should be to empower the private sector
and to promote its interests, irrespective of the adverse effects that
such policies may have upon the environment, the nation's
infrastructure, the social safety net, or the country's past commitments
to the ideas of progressive taxation and equality of opportunity for
to Mitt Romney, Rand Paul and other GOP illuminati, the problem is not
increasing economic misery in the United States or wage stagnation.
Rather, there are too many takers and moochers who are getting too much
"free stuff" from the government. In the words of Congressman Paul Ryan,
Americans need to relearn the discipline acquired through of hard work.
is in that context also, the GOP's incessant criticisms school lunch
programs, food stamps, unemployment benefits, minimum wage and the
litany of other "entitlements" should be understood. They are
intentionally calculated to distract attention from the increasingly
wealthier elite and poor performance of the U.S. economy by appealing to the envy and resentment of voters: "You would be better off if it were not for these free-loaders."
late British philosopher and former Labor Party advisor A.D. Lindsay
proposed a vision of government that was inspired by the wisdom of the
ancients and is one which stands in stark contrast to the GOP's
minimalism. In The Modern Democratic State, Lindsay argued that
the purpose of the state was to ensure conditions for the full
development of human potentialities: "That the end of all state activity
is the development of human personality can never be sufficiently
emphasized. This is to assert the moral basis of the
state....Personality develops in a fellowship or a common life and if
men are to be treated as persons, they must be enabled to share in a
common life." The purpose of the state "is to serve the community and in
that service to make it more of a community."
By contrast, the GOP's vision is utterly pessimistic. It insists that we are all on our own, and that government can and should do nothing - except to protect the rights and prerogatives of those who already have and their descendants. To the extent that the GOP's vision controls the public discourse in the United States today, our capacity to care for one another is eroded as is our collective belief that, as citizens in a democracy, we have the ability to improve social conditions through concerted government action. We are all diminished as a result.