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 …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.