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Party of the Rich and Well-Born

Fall from Grace: The Republican Party and the Puritan Ethic

by Milton Viorst
New American Library, 227 pp., $5.50

The Republican Party 1854-1966

by George H. Mayer
Oxford, 604 pp., $9.75

The Republican Party began as, and is again, a minority party. It originated as a third party in 1854, when the slavery issue was splitting the Democrats and the Whigs. It is, according to Dr. Gallup, really a third party again today. In 1940 a poll of between-election leanings showed that 42 percent identified themselves as Democrats, 38 percent as Republicans, and 20 percent as independents. When Gallup repeated the same poll last Fall, there were more independents than Republicans. The Democrats still held at 42 percent but the Republicans had dropped to 27 and the independents risen to 31 percent.

Neither party can win without this floating independent vote, but the Republicans must get more of it than the Democrats. It is indicative that the only two men to be elected President on the Republican ticket in the last forty years had not been identified with the party when they entered politics. Herbert Hoover had been a strong Wilsonian while Eisenhower only four years before had been wooed by the ADA. Both Hoover and Eisenhower won because their appeal was wider than the party’s. To paraphrase Sholom Aleichem, it’s hard to be a Republican in American politics, a real one that is.

The statistics would seem to show that in 1968 the best way to elect a Republican President would be to pick a candidate who looks and sounds as little like a Republican as possible. By that standard the candidate least likely to succeed would seem to be Richard Nixon; the one who best fills the bill would be John Lindsay. The Republicans would do best if they went underground, with a crypto-Republican candidate who could if necessary swear that he had never really carried a party card.

This is as extraordinary a reversal as may be found in American history. From 1860 until 1932—a space of 72 years, more than two generations—only two Democrats were elected President, Cleveland and Wilson. All the others were Republican. A flood of election-year books seeks to explain or change this history. Most of them are as dull as the party itself; except in the days of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, the Republicans have always been the duller of the two parties. The best books I have found in this tidal wave of ephemera are George H. Mayer’s The Republican Party 1854-1966, a new edition brought up to date of a book which first appeared in 1964, and Milton Viorst’s Fall From Grace: The Republican Party and the Puritan Ethic. The former is a definitive and scholarly work, astringently realistic but rather plodding in style, as if the author himself couldn’t help getting bored by his subject; the latter is short and lively, a swift and engaging synthesis of the work in the field, including Mayer’s, but with many fresh insights—Viorst shows real gifts as an historian.

THE MYTHS about the Republican Party these two books explode were exploded a generation ago by Charles Beard in his moving and stately Rise of American Civilization. Miller and Viorst depict the Republicans as the party of business and of the Wasp. Viorst tries to make the story a little more interesting by linking the party with the Puritan ethic, though it is hard to tell where Puritanism ends and plain acquisitiveness begins. This is no novel thesis. The surprise is that at this late date it should be attacked as “outrageous” and “audacious” by a Republican newspaperman who is a Washington correspondent. In the Washington Post, Robert D. Novak called Viorst a “super-liberal” and accused him of overlooking the party’s Left-wing!*

In some periods of their history and on some issues, the two parties seem indistinguishable. Foreigners often fail to tell them apart, and Americans in some periods have spoken of them as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Both parties are loose coalitions, warring multi-party systems, held together by habit and convenience. An operative definition of the Republican Party is that it is the one which doesn’t have a left wing, but only an occasional, slight and passing protuberance left of center, like a La Guardia or a Wayne Morse. Herbert Hoover, on his return from Europe in 1920 to enter politics, announced that he objected “as much to the reactionary group in the Republican party as to the radical group in the Democratic party.” One cannot imagine his reversing this language and attacking the radicals in the Republican Party. The last time the Republicans had a faction which could properly be termed Radical was a century ago during Reconstruction. The only Republican President whom Wall Street ever regarded as a dangerous fellow was Teddy Roosevelt. In 1904, running against a conservative Democrat, Judge Alton B. Parker, the mercurial and demagogic Teddy sounded incendiary, even if his assaults on “malefactors of great wealth” were largely verbal. In retrospect the first Roosevelt, with his cult of war and masculinity, his imperialist adventures in Latin America and his naïve racism, sounds less like a Radical than a premature Fascist, an American Mussolini before his time.

The men who practice politics and those who write about them are two different breeds. The former are concerned with power, and with interests and ideas as means to achieve it. The latter tend to overemphasize the ideas with which the scramble for power is rationalized. Our party system calls for treatment by an anthropologist. It is a form of sport, especially a spectator sport. It is a variant of what William James sought when he called for a moral equivalent of war; the party system is an easy way of working off aggressive instincts. It resembles gang warfare, in that it is a means by which the bold and power-hungry, recruiting a handful of followers, can rule the territory they have staked out and enjoy the combat for dominion against rival gangs. They hand out favors and sell protection. Politics is also a form of business; the same division of labor which produces bankers and bus drivers also produces politicians and office holders.

Perhaps the American two-party system seems less mysterious when one observes that traces of two parties can be found in almost all societies, though in one-party dictatorships you may have to look for the other party in jail or concentration camps. The purges in the hierarchies of the Communist states reflect the fact that even these One-and-Only parties are really two. Common to all societies are the same two types, the hards and the softs, the standpatters and the reformers, those who believe in coercion and those who believe in persuasion, those who think stability is best preserved by holding fast to the past and those who would bend a little with changing events and aspirations. The Democrats may waver but the Republicans stand with the former in all these pairs.

From the standpoint of interests and classes, the American two-party system may be seen as a division between the more and the less favored, the older stock and the newer immigrant, the businessman and the farmer, the creditor and the debtor, the employer and his workman. The Hamiltonians, the Federalists, the Whigs, and the Republicans appear as the spokesmen for the former, the anti-Federalists, the Jeffersonians, and the Democrats as the spokesmen for the latter. The big money has favored the former but also bought influence in the latter. But it is the Jeffersonian and Democratic strain which has constantly widened democracy and in periods of hard times responded to the needs of the poorer elements. The welfare state is the creation of the Democrats and the bane of the Republicans. This is no small difference.

THE REPUBLICAN PARTY was born of the slavery issue as a sectional party after slavery split both the existing national parties, the Democrats and the Whigs. Most farmers—except for a rich handful, who tended to be Whig—were Democrats until the free soil dispute split the free farmer from the slave farmer. The two could not exist side by side. When the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision destroyed the Missouri Compromise and threw open all the Western lands to colonization by slave holders, the Democratic Party split. The Western farmer became a Republican. He remained a Republican out of inertia and filial piety until the Twenties when hard times hit the Farm Belt and Republican Presidents vetoed three different attempts to give the farmer forms of crop control which would be the equivalent for him of the protective tariff for manufacturers. These vetoes were to give the West to the Democrats and the New Deal.

To say that the Republican Party was born of the slavery issue is not to say that it began as a crusade against slavery. This is a myth Mayer and Viorst easily dispose of. “At no point in its anti-slavery campaign,” Viorst writes, “was there any sign that the Republican party was moved by any compassion for the black man.” On the contrary, as Viorst points out, “In the Republican constitution of Kansas, adopted by the Yankee in the heat of the anti-slavery campaign, free Negroes were forbidden even to enter the State.” Illinois banned Negro immigration by a 2-to-1 margin in a popular referendum. From Ohio to California, in all that free soil territory, Negroes were excluded from voting. The Republican Press in the Northwest, Viorst relates, “proudly supported the politics of what it called with much precision, ‘the white man’s party.’ ”

The story is one the black, or Afro-American, must read with despair. The Abolitionists were almost as hated in the North as in the South. The two predecessor parties of the Republicans, the Liberty and the Free Soil parties, though they concentrated only on keeping slavery out of the Western territories, were handicapped, Mayer writes, because “they could not sell the moral arguments for the containment of slavery.” The Republican Party succeeded by soft-pedaling the issue of slavery altogether and concentrating on economic issues which would attract Northern business men and Western farmers.

Perhaps the temper of the Republican convention” which nominated Lincoln “can best be established,” Viorst relates, “by nothing that the delegates baldly rejected a proposal to endorse from the Declaration of Independence the statement that ‘all men are created equal.” Later they reversed themselves “but only after a bitter fight on the convention floor.” The platform, with its equivocation on slavery and its espousal of protective tariffs, free homesteads, and internal improvements “abundantly demonstrated that the Republican party had safely made the shift from a coalition held together by the fear of slavery to one united by a common vision of material gain.”

LINCOLN, the Great Emancipator, looked to the radicals of his time—as he begins to look to ours—as the Great Equivocator. The American Anti-Slavery Society, in commenting on his nomination, saw it as “a convenient hook whereon to hang appeals at once to a moderate anti-slavery feelings and to a timid conservatism.” Ambition had led him, Viorst notes, “to align himself with the Whigs, ‘the better people’ of the community, rather than the Democrats, the party of the Southern poor.” He became a Republican after 1856. His philosophy of the fluid society “captured the essence of middle class Republicanism.” Lincoln summed this up when he said, “I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich. It would do more harm than good. So while we do not propose to war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else.”

Privately Lincoln felt an abhorrence for the oppression of the Negro but in public he found it expedient to take an evasive position. In the Douglas debates he denied that he had ever favored “the social and political equality of the white and black races.” Viorst completes his portrait of Lincoln by saying “It is probable that he was at least a step ahead of the Republican party generally in his sympathy for the Negro as a human being. But on one point he was in firm accord with the Republican position. Lincoln would by no means risk war to free the slaves.” It was only ” the shells which fell on Fort Sumter” which “ended the equivocation.” Today’s racial turmoil springs from the fact that the Negro was a side issue in a conflict between two classes of propertied white men, the Southern planter on one side and the Northern business man and farmer on the other.

Lincoln’s humanity, imperishably expressed, lifts him beyond detraction. But his compassion was mostly for white men, and only a little for black. “After years of fighting,” Viorst writes with painful justice, “he remained faithful to the view that the Negro was less a human being than a divisive factor between the sections.” He had no desire “to envenom further the hatred between North and South by emancipating the slaves.” His attitude seemed if anything, Viorst goes on, “to have hardened over the course of the war.” He spoke of black men “as of a military commodity, of no more intrinsic importance than cavalry horses.”

The Radical Republicans themselves saw the Negro as an instrument. Viorst quotes a speech by Sumner of Massachusetts in which that Radical Senator warned that only through the vote of enfranchised black men “can you save the national debt from the inevitable repudiation which awaits it when recent rebels in conjunction with Northern allies [Democrats] once more bear sway. He is our best guarantee. Use him.” The Radicals’ objective, Viorst writes, “was to make the Negro into a tool, not into a productive, self-reliant human being.” Without land the Negro could not attain full citizenship. There was talk for a time “of confiscating major rebel estates for the distribution of parcels among the Negroes, but the Republicans were too devoted to the sanctity of private property.” The conflict ended with the Negro half serf, half free. We are only now beginning to pay for the full consequences.

Those sins of the fathers have set our teeth on edge. Suddenly those half-forgotten battles during Reconstruction over “forty acres and a mule” loom up as the one immediately relevant episode in the dreary and familiar annals of the party. The years which stretch from Grant to Eisenhower—two victorious and easy-going Generals, only dimly aware of what was going on around them in the White House—are years of smugness and enrichment. Nothing more fully discloses the nature of the “party of Lincoln” than the fact that the Negro made his greatest advances under the Democrats, and that Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson recruited him into the same party with the Southern white supremacist. Political history shows few stranger alliances.

The corollary may be a Republican return to power as the whiter of the two white men’s parties. For the first time the GOP may become the party of the working-class white and the non-Wasp. Recently Richard Nixon envisioned himself as the leader of a new coalition made up of “the Republicans, the New Liberals, the New South and the black militants.” No other candidate has gone into so splendid a trance. The “new coalition” will more likely turn out to be coalition of white against black.

The Republican Party has always seen itself as the party of the self-made man. Usually nobody is readier to step on those below him than the man who made it upward on his own. The psychology of the self-made man now finds its counter-part in the psychology of whole classes who think they made it on their own—so why can’t the Negro? Whether they join the Republican Party or not, the urban white working class, the second and third generation of non-Wasp immigrants who have hitherto been Democrats because they felt like underdogs are acquiring the Republican outlook with success and turning rightward in reaction against the rising revolt of the Negro. Their movement upward from proletarian slums to mass-produced suburban villas, their fear of Negro violence and their aversion to Negro neighbors may make them Republican for the first time in their history. The white American working class had been split historically by the prejudices of the native Yankee against the foreign immigrant, whether Irish or East European. The Know Nothings were the Birchite wing of the first Republicans. The immigrants, while hostile, like white workers generally, to the Free Negro and the abolitionist, stayed with the Democrats as the party which welcomed the new arrival. White workers may now close ranks against the black.

THUS the GOP’s failure to reconstruct the South in 1868 and set the Negro wholly free may pave the way for its return to power in 1968. If so this will be the prelude to fresh disasters. It will only demonstrate again the GOP’s utter incapacity for any task that requires social revolution. It can no more carry out basic changes at the expense of the well-to-do than an elephant can fly. With the end of the Civil War, its brief flirtation with idealism was ended. Big business rose to undisputed dominance. The Republican Party was its instrument. Politics became secondary to acquisition. Business made the fundamental decisions, helping itself liberally to the public lands and public treasury in the Hamiltonian tradition white recommending laissez-faire and rugged individualism to the worker and farmer it exploited. That era ended in 1929 with the Great Depression, but the mentality of that earlier period not only lives on beneath the surface of the welfare state but is showing signs of revival in the current emphasis among Democrats and Republicans alike on the need to “enlist” free enterprise in the war against poverty.

Babbitt is making a come-back. Viorst quotes from Sinclair Lewis a speech by that archetypal Republican small town businessman of the Twenties to show “how little the Puritan-social Darwinian ethic had changed after more than a half century of wear.” Babbitt angrily tells his children, “the first thing you got to understand is that all this uplift and flipflop and settlement work and recreation is nothing in God’s world but the entering wedge of socialism. The sooner a man learns he isn’t going to be coddled, and he needn’t expect a lot of free grub…the sooner he’ll get on the job and produce, produce. That’s what this country needs.” That is indistinguishable from Goldwater or Reagan.

Neither Nixon nor Rockefeller are quite so naïve but both share the belief that somehow “free enterprise” can again be our salvation, cleaning up the slums and making jobs for the poor, with subsidies and tax benefits from the public treasury. So for that matter does Bobby Kennedy, at least at times and in some sections of the country. Suburbia, with no desire to be taxed for the benefit of the poor and blacks, sees this as a painless way out.

But there is no painless and certainly no profitable way to correct a century of plunder and neglect. A whole spectrum of problems from the slum to air and water pollution were created by giving free rein to free enterprise to make a buck any way it saw fit. Those conditions are not going to be corrected by the same entrepreneurial forces which created them. These exhortations to business to create jobs recall Hoover’s pathetic exhortations to business during the Great Depression. Bank presidents are built to resist evangelism. There has been no rush to invest money in Watts or Harlem, and in Washington in the wake of the latest ghetto riots it’s suddenly hard even to get insurance in lily-white neighborhoods. There is no more sensitive plant than the buck. The party of business is even less likely than the Democrats to engage in such heretical observations. Not less but more public funds and social planning are required. Unfortunately the white middle class is not in the mood and that mood is determining the minstrelsy of this presidential campaign.

Rockefeller would no doubt appear in Novack’s eyes as the “Republican left wing” that Viorst perversely overlooked. But there is no sign of a different tune from Rockefeller. On the contrary he has just discovered that no ideological barrier divides him from Reagan, the TV Tarzan of Republican politics. In foreign policy, Rockefeller has just suggested that we take over the protection of a whole arc of Asia from Iran to Japan, as if we did not already have enough trouble in Vietnam. He is as imperialist as Teddy Roosevelt; counter-insurgency and the Green Berets had their origin in the Rockefeller reports of the 1950s from which the Kennedys borrowed them. In domestic policy Rockefeller is giving ever more emphasis to “crime in the streets” notably, as Sidney E. Zion of The New York Times has just shown in Ramparts for June 15, in the shape of a program extraordinarily insensitive to constitutional safeguards, complete with wiretapping and allowing the police to stop-and-frisk, enter without knocking, and shoot-to-kill. So the grand old party from right to “left” is firmly united again.

Recent events have magnified the occupational hazards of prophecy. The only surprise would be if there were no more surprises ahead. Something like a race is on between bigotry and apathy. The latest Gallup poll as this is written shows an almost equal loss of faith in both parties. The answers to the question which party could best handle our problems show that the largest number, 42 percent, see no difference or have no opinion. Thirty percent now think the Republicans would do best, only 28 percent the Democrats. The general lack of enthusiasm for any of the candidates reflects this same mood, compounded of the disillusion created by Johnson’s peace promises in 1964—how believe anyone after that?—and an instinctive feeling that the issues raised by the Negro revolt are beyond solution by normal politics. But even Lyndon Johnson may stir nostalgia after four years of Nixon, or a combination of Rockefeller and Reagan. The Republicans are even less prepared than the Democrats to deal with the debacle of American imperialism in Southeast Asia and the beginning at home of racial war.

  1. *

    Novak collaborate on a syndicated column which sometimes seems to specialize in uncovering hidden left-wing influences nobody else had noticed.

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