Last week, Robert Reich wrote an article trying to explain, Why Republicans are Disciplined and Democrats Aren’t. Basically he argued that this is because of the kind of people who are attracted to the two parties. Republicans tend to lean toward authoritarianism, and thus it isn’t surprising that their politicians would be good at delivering the same brainless talking points over and over and over again. I don’t think there is much question of this. When I was a libertarian, I hated the Republican Party and still had a certain fondness for the Democrats for exactly this reason. (Sadly for the movement, most people are exactly the opposite, which ought to tell you all you need to know about libertarianism as a practical matter.)
What confuses me is that according to Reich, it ever was so. He quotes Will Rogers saying, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” He likely said that before the first World War. But I’m not sure it means what Reich claims. After all, people normally make that kind of joke about whatever organization they are associated with. But I do think the joke works because Democrats have long recognized themselves in it and Republicans have felt superior for that reason. But is that image correct?
In many ways, the Republican Party has always been conservative. When the party started in the 1850s, it had a very compelling slogan, “free labor, free land, free men.” The “free land” part of that referred to the fact that plantation owners tended to own all the good farm land in an area. As a result of this, free (white) farmers were kept down because the system was proto-feudal. But it’s clear that the slogan is laser focused on slavery. The first and third phrases are about slavery and the second is about slave holders. The truth is that from the beginning, the Republican Party was very much pro-business, although it is certainly true that business then was quite different from now.
Moving forward into the progressive era, Theodore Roosevelt would seem to push against the idea that the Republican Party was always conservative. But his liberal policy of trust busting was very unpopular within his party and he eventually went on to run as a Progressive. That can certainly be seen as a practical matter—he just wouldn’t admit defeat. But that was also true of Joe Lieberman, who has also stood outside his party on important issues.
Since I was a kid, I’ve wondered how it is that a liberal party becomes a conservative party. I think what I’ve talked about here is part of the issue—but not all of it. To some extent, the GOP has reached its current position by starting out as rather conservative—at least on economic issues. Equally important, in many ways the party simply hasn’t evolved. In the 1950s, there were lots of Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower who had made their peace with progressivism and the New Deal. But there was always a strong minority in the party that accepted nothing—people who wanted to return to 1880. During the beginning of Obama’s presidency, there was a wave of conservative concern about the 17th Amendment to the Constitution: direct election of senators. That was a movement that started in the 1890s that became law in 1913. This part of the party has been ascendant in recent years.
In many ways, the party has regressed. There is a tendency among all of us to learn narrow lessons rather than broad ones. For example, most Americans now think the Nazis were bad simply because they killed so many Jews and other “undesirables.” But even without the Final Solution and the racism, the Nazis were a terrible authoritarian political movement. I think the same thing is going on with Republicans regarding slavery. There is little doubt in my mind that if slavery were an issue today, most Republicans would be apologists for it. The Christians would rightly note that slavery is in the Bible; it wouldn’t be their fault; it is God’s law. The economic conservatives would make arguments like, “Slavery is not optimal, but eliminating it would be terrible for the economy.” Conservative economists would come up with complex models to show how slavery actually makes poor whites better off than they would otherwise be. Am I going too far here? Maybe, but I seriously doubt it based upon some of the outrageous claims that otherwise good economists have made over the last 5 years especially.
I’ve come to the conclusion that what ties conservatives together is authoritarianism. Their rhetoric is all about freedom, but you hardly need to scratch the surface to see what they really think. Tax cuts are not for the poor, they are for the power elite. And when taxes are cut to a point where the poor pay no federal income taxes, Republicans grouse about how outrageous that is. And that’s the best case they have for not being an authoritarian party. Certainly their positions on guns, war, welfare, abortion, and just about anything else you can think of are explicitly authoritarian. Does anyone really doubt that if abortion was a medical procedure done to men that it wouldn’t be controversial?
The Republican Party is doubtless more authoritarian than it has ever been. But for a long time it has been authoritarian and the roots of this have always been present. What’s more, there has been a steady trend toward authoritarianism in the Republican Party. And the opposite has been the case with the Democratic Party. And this is why, despite my great disappointment with it, I self-identify as a Democrat. It is also why any thoughtful person should distance themselves from the party of Abraham Lincoln. Because other than the issue of slavery, they weren’t so great. And today, it hardly stands out as a party that would end slavery.