Americans are currently bitterly divided over party affiliation, with each side seemingly identifying the other as its opposite, but this sort of polarization is unusual. It reflects that the current Republican Party leadership is far outside our democratic norms.
Historically, the Democratic and Republican parties are not two sides of the same coin. They formed in very different eras and for very different reasons. It is rare for them to stand as exact opposites in political contests; it’s more like they’re operating alongside each other to accomplish the shared goal of American democracy, but speaking different languages and bumping into each other a lot.
The Democrats formed to support Andrew Jackson for the presidency in 1828, organizing out of fear that the federal government had been captured by wealthy businessmen and bankers. They were determined to take it back for regular men. This was a rosy picture of what they were up to, of course: their arguments about democracy excluded African American men (and all women) and for all his talk of championing the common man, Jackson himself was a wealthy slave holder who enslaved as many as 300 African Americans. But the idea that they were reasserting the rights of regular men against wealthy bankers and businessmen shaped their ideology. Democrats believed the world was divided between the haves and the have-nots, and that the role of the government was to guarantee that the rich guys didn’t take everything.
The Republicans rose much later, in the 1850s. In that era, the Democrats had been taken over by the very wealthiest southern leaders, men who enslaved more than 50 people on their profitable plantations. The policies started under Jackson had brought valuable cotton land under cultivation in the 1840s, and by the 1850s, these men had become fabulously wealthy. As they bought up prime land and took over politics, they stayed in power by convincing poor white men that any move to limit their power was simply an attempt to free enslaved African Americans and, once free, those men would take white jobs and marry white women.
In 1854, with the help of a compliant president, these wealthy Democrats forced through Congress a law—the Kansas-Nebraska Act—which would enable them to establish plantations with enslaved labor all across the West, where slavery had been banned since 1820. New slave states would overawe northern free states in Congress, and slavery would become national. Poorer white men on small farms would not be able to compete with the plantation system, and oligarchy would replace democracy.
So Americans horrified at the loss of democracy organized to take the government back from the wealthy southern planters. By 1856, they had begun to call themselves “Republicans,” and gained supporters, although as yet their platform was simply that they would stand against the “Slave Power.” While their candidate, John C. Fremont, lost the 1856 presidential election, more Americans voted for him and for the other candidate promising to push back the southern elite, former president Millard Fillmore, than voted for the winner, Democrat James Buchanan.
In 1859, Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln, who had thrown in his lot with the Republicans, articulated a new ideology for the party. Drawing from the era’s rising political economists, he denied the Democratic idea that the world was divided between the haves and the have nots, and said instead that all Americans shared a harmony of interests. The government’s role was not to broker between two opposing forces, but rather to expand equality of opportunity and access to resources for poor men just starting out. As those men worked, they would produce capital—Republicans actually called capital “pre-exerted labor”—which they would use to buy goods, keeping the economy growing. When they made enough money, they would hire others just starting out, who would, in turn, begin to make money themselves. “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him,” Lincoln said. “This… is free labor — the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all — gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.”
Because all Americans shared a harmony of interest, the government’s role was simply to encourage economic development, because what was good for one sector of the economy was good for all.
So Democrats saw society as a contest while Republicans saw it as a web. Both of these traditional ideologies have been susceptible to misuse, for sure, but both have also been vital to America at different times. The Democratic vision of the nation as one of haves and have-nots has been crucial when wealth accumulates at the top of society, as it did during the 1920s, for example, leaving Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to lead Democratic Congresses in the 1930s to recalibrate our laws to make them fair. The Republican vision has been vital for reiterating that the nation is not, ultimately, divided, and that the government must expand opportunity, as it did under President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. As I say, it is rare for these two theories to be in pure opposition; more often they rub along, sometimes in tandem, sometimes uncomfortably. But they do rub along.
Today’s Republican Party falls outside of our normal political realm. In the past, with the exception of the 1850s, members of both parties have worked to defend our Constitution, operating within the boundaries of our laws (or pretending to, at least).
Today’s Republican leaders have abandoned the rule of law and the Constitution and are instead turning our democracy into an oligarchy. (Note that I am not including all Republicans here; I receive a lot of email from people who still consider themselves Republicans but loathe Trump and his supporters and want their party back.)
The road to this place started in the 1950s, as a small group of Republicans who hated FDR’s New Deal insisted that any government intervention in the economy to make sure the haves did not dominate the have-nots was “socialism.” As voters kept siding with government activism, these leaders became convinced we did not know what was good for us and began to suppress the vote and gerrymander our congressional districts so they could stay in power. They turned to racism and sexism to rally white male voters who liked programs that expanded opportunity until they became associated with people of color and women.
And now, our government is headed by a president who is dismantling the New Deal state, as Republican leaders want, even though it remains popular: Americans like roads and clean water and Social Security. Trump also claims he is above the law, which is in keeping with the idea that voters’ wishes are less important than staying in power.
This. Is. Not. Normal. It reflects neither our history nor our democratic values.
It is important to remember that it does not have to be this way– it was not this way in the past– and that we do not have to resign ourselves to it. For people looking at the storm of crazy coming out of Washington these days and thinking the end of our democracy is a done deal, remember that if Trump and this GOP believed they have won, they would no longer feel the need to fight.
Originally posted on Letters from an American. Re-posted with permission.
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