Although it may sound strange to most people that know the Republican party now, the GOP was, historically, the party to be at. This is a party that was formed primarily to fight against slavery in the US. A party that provided solid support for civil rights, and even championed the cause of affordable health care.
But that sounds nothing like the Republican party we know today. So, how did the Republican party go from being a bastion of fairness, natural justice and civil rights to the Trump-loving mass of contradictions it represents today?
The original Republican party
While the Republican party has come to be known as the GOP, meaning the Grand Old Party, it is not the oldest party in the US. The Democratic party carries that record. And while the party has come to be known for its policies of intolerance, divisiveness and sensationalist outrage, the original Republican party was actually remarked for the distinguished statesmanship that characterized its ranks and platform.
The GOP rose to national relevance in 1854 on the back of opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a piece of legislation that sought to extend the practice of slave-ownership to the then territories of Kansas and Nebraska. The party quite literally came into being in active opposition to slavery. This platform powered the Republican party in its early years, and allowed it gain dominance in the industrial Northern states.
It was the first Republican president ever, Abraham Lincoln, who engineered the abolition of slavery and paved the way for the foundations of true equality in the US. The GOP also led the fight to reclaim the unity of the US and dismantled the Southern Confederacy that was threatening the future of the Union. We can say without doubt that were it not for the Republican party, the US may not even exist today.
The Republican party was so popular that it almost entirely dominated the US political scene until 1932. It produced an almost total majority of presidents during the era, and while the party had begun to experience seismic shifts in policy and identity by the 1960s, the conscience in the GOP was still strong enough for the party to champion both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
Although this is not to say that there were no “bad apples” within the Republican party at the time. But the important fact is that the party as a whole was functional, focused and had specific policies rooted in the good, old fashioned common-sense and traditional American values that were the pillar of the GOP.
Even as the party began to lose its way towards the end of the 20th century, it still had members of high personal integrity, people who reasoned for themselves and followed strong principles in determining what they truly believed was best for the US. According to Norm Ornstein, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and former Congressional Fellow, “They [the Republican party] cared about integrity in governance and personal rectitude. They believed in the independence of Congress and its need to provide a check and balance against corruption and maladministration in the executive branch, whether the president was from their own or the opposite party.”
“Unfortunately”, Ornstein laments, “they were unable to transfer those values to succeeding generations, or to overcome the regional shift in American party politics, the rise of manipulative leaders, and the growing influence of extremist tribal media.” And this, in many ways, has contributed to the decline of the Republican party.
What went wrong?
It’s hard to say exactly where the GOP began to lose its way. One could say the 1912 split in the party led by a breakaway faction loyal to Theodore Roosevelt played a part. The deeply unpopular Prohibition era policies also didn’t do the Republican party any favors.
But it was the Depression of 1929 that really led to the overthrow of the Republican party in 1932. Even at the time, the party was still largely principled and was widely considered to be the “Black party” because of its favorable stance towards progressive policies that favored inclusion and some form of social justice.
However, the party’s failure to take a firm stand against segregationist policies and put forward a comprehensive plan to empower the historically neglected Black community led to a mass movement of Black people from the Republican party to the Democrats. This was mostly caused a result of the GOP’s reluctance to further damage its already badly hit support base by taking a firm stance in favor of Black people. By 1940, most Blacks were voting Democratic.
From there, the Republican party has only continued to move further and further right by the decade. But with all this, it’s still hard to say how the GOP went from what it used to be then to what it is today.
To understand the sharpness of the fall and how far they have fallen from where they were, here’s what some experts think about the GOP today. According to Ornstein, “In recent years, the GOP has thrown away its guiding values and embraced its darkest instincts. It has blown up long-standing norms in the Senate, creating divisions that outstrip anything I have seen before, done nothing about rank corruption in the White House and the Cabinet…” Compared to when the party had firm ideas and convictions about the best and most prosperous path for the US, “the GOP now distinguishes itself by inaction.”
According to Tim Alberta of Politico Magazine, “It can now safely be said, as his first term in the White House draws toward closure, that Donald Trump’s party is the very definition of a cult of personality. It stands for no special ideal. It possesses no organizing principle. It represents no detailed vision for governing. Filling the vacuum is a lazy, identity-based populism that draws from that lowest common denominator Sanford alluded to. If it agitates the base, if it lights up a Fox News chyron, if it serves to alienate sturdy real Americans from delicate coastal elites, then it’s got a place in the Grand Old Party.”
Quite simply, there’s really nothing left of the old GOP in the one we’re forced to watch these days. As Brendan Burke, a senior congressional aide quoted by Alberta, puts it, “Owning the [liberals] and pissing off the media. That’s what we believe in now. There’s really not much more to it.”
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