Speculative reports of an impending third Mitt Romney presidential run notwithstanding, the Republican Party today is no longer the domain of the genteel patrician with a passion for frugality, as it was for much of the 20th century. Today, the GOP belongs to former Dixiecrats, fundamentalist Christians and devotees of the philosophy of the free market. To put it bluntly, Texas Gov. Rick Perry — who in 2012 ran one of the most disastrous presidential campaigns of the modern era, but who’s also an ex-Democrat, evangelical Christian and deregulator par excellence — is taken seriously as a threat to win the GOP’s 2016 nomination for a reason.
If you take a longer view, though, the distance between the GOP today and its previous incarnations becomes even more striking. This was the party of Lincoln, after all; it was Republicans who rejected an absolute right to property (meaning: owning other humans), who initiated the first income tax, who argued government could be used to promote opportunity, and who waged a revolutionary war against the smokescreen of states’ rights. How did the party that was formed in large part to fight the Slave Power become the chief guardian of today’s 1 percent?
In her new book, “To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party,” Boston College professor and historian Heather Cox Richardson offers an answer, claiming that the historically Janus-faced GOP has struggled to reconcile its purported belief in equality of opportunity with its passionate defense of the right to own property. Salon recently spoke with Richardson about her new book as well as the way the GOP’s internal contradictions mirror those of America itself. Our conversation is below, and has been edited for clarity and length.
Why write a book about the GOP instead of the Democratic Party?
I’m a historian of American politics and the economy generally. And if you want to understand American politics and the economy, you simply have to understand the 19th century. So much hinges on the Civil War and the Reconstruction years. You must understand that if you’re going to understand anything else. You have to understand the Republicans because they ran politics for the majority of that century.
For the most part, the major political parties are simply tools that groups of Americans use for political ends; but do you think the GOP has any distinctive characteristics or consistent themes that have endured throughout its whole history?
The Republican Party is part of a larger American discussion about the tension between equality of opportunity and protection of property — which is sort of the point of the book, that this is a much larger American discussion — and Republicans began under Lincoln with the attempt to turn the discrepancy between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution into, at the time, a modern-day political solution. The Republican Party would manage, they hoped, to turn the principle of the Declaration of Independence, that everybody should have equality of opportunity, into a political reality. The Declaration of Independence was, of course, a set of principles; it wasn’t any kind of law or codification of those principles.
The Constitution went ahead and codified that the central idea of America was the protection of property, so the Republicans began with the idea that they would be the political arm of the Declaration of Independence’s equality of opportunity. Throughout their history, three times now, they have swung from that pole through a sort of racist and xenophobic backlash against that principle, tied themselves to big business, and come out protecting the other American principle, which is the protection of property. That tension between equality of opportunity and the protection of property, both of which are central tenets of America, played out in the Republican Party.
You put a great emphasis on the roles Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower played within the GOP and how they pulled the party, for a time, at least, toward caring about equality of opportunity as much as the protection of property. But did these men change the GOP of their respective eras, or was it that they happened to be around during moments when the GOP was in general more devoted to equality? Or perhaps it’s not so much an either/or?
The simple answer is that it is both. It’s a reflection of the fact that in each of their times they lived in, the majority of Americans believed that government was controlled by the very wealthy and they were manipulating the government and laws to put more money into their own pockets. Wealth was very stratified in each of those periods, and there were a lot of really angry people. When those conditions were right, you got these three great leaders — and in each case, they were really bucking a trend. They were bucking a world where too many Americans felt that they no longer had the opportunity to rise and to support their families.
All three men were concerned about political extremism in their time, and all three men considered tamping down extremism by promoting widely distributed economic growth a core principle. To flip the coin, are there any figures from the GOP’s history that come to mind when you consider the other half of the American and Republican equation — namely, a “small-government” focus on private property?
There was great — and I hate to say fun, but I am a historian and I do love to see the way patterns work out — there was great fun when I got into the Republican reactions to the Depression. When you hear about the Depression, you always hear about the Democrats; but, in fact, the Republicans don’t roll over and die. They’re still very much there.
When I started reading what they were saying back then, I was gobsmacked, because it was the exact same language that you heard [during the economic crises of the] 1890s and after the crash of 2008: The only way you can fix the Depression is to cut taxes, stop the greedy government employees from making such high salaries, cut the salaries of people like teachers, and people need to go out and be more moral and work harder. If I put quotations in front of you from 1890s, the 1930s and the 2000s — and didn’t tell you when they were from — you honestly could not tell.
I want to emphasize: These people are not evil. They don’t wake up in the morning and say, “We’re going to screw somebody over!” Their belief in the principle of the protection of property, they hold it as firmly, and rest it on the Constitution just as firmly, as people like Lincoln, Roosevelt and Eisenhower rest on the Declaration of Independence and the idea of equality of opportunity. This is a legitimate, in their minds, position, and they are defending America by holding to it.
To name some people who embody that other tradition, it would be people like Mark Hanna, a senator nobody’s ever heard of who runs for Republican Party in the late 19th century … Somebody from the Harrison administration — or better yet, President McKinley. McKinley was all over this. In the 1920s and 1930s, it would have to be Andrew Mellon and Herbert Hoover, who are both active in the administrations of Harding and Coolidge.
And in the modern era, you know, start picking. It starts with Buckley and Goldwater, and Reagan … in the present day, I guess I’d go with George W. Bush or Dick Cheney.
Has the GOP ever before been as far along the property side of the opportunity/property spectrum as it is right now?
Sure. It was absolutely this way in the 1920s. In fact, much more strongly [than now] because there are regulatory systems in place now that nobody has been able to dismantle, although they would like to very much … So the 1920s Republican Party was even more “pure” than it is now; as was the case during the 1890s. In each of those periods, the Republican Party was even more strongly dedicated to the protection of property.
That being said, there is a new piece since the ‘80s in the Republican Party, and I would argue that what we have right now is not the true Republican Party. The true Republican Party is a very different construct than where we are right now. The modern-day party has done something the party has never done before — and this kind of throws a monkey wrench into seeing where it’s going to go because the Republican Party has always stood for education. It has always believed that central to American democracy was the idea of education, that you must have an educated population and that the country will only get better if more and more people have access to better and better education.
But if you look at policies in America since the 1980s … rather than focusing on education, Republicans have focused on sort of a populist, religious, in many ways anti-education, anti-science, group of voters and that will change how the next generation of the party plays out.