This is an amazing article. I’ve been doing some reading about something that, frankly, has always puzzled me, namely, the ideological turnarounds of the Republican and Democratic parties in the later part of the 19th Century. The Republicans, who once carried all the Northern states and tended to speak of liberating slaves and equality and all that stuff, as we know eventually turned into the party that now carries all the Southern states and which has been encouraging Southern racists fairly openly (the “Southern strategy”) since the 1970s. The Democrats, on the other hand, which used to provide aid and comfort to the slave power, which used to carry the Southern states uniformly, and which used to dominate the Southern states with Jim Crow “Dixiecratic” governments, somehow became the party of liberation and equality after years of opposing same.
To some extent that is a superficial explanation, because the Republicans, as long as they have existed, have been a party warmly supportive of business interests and the middle class, while the Democrats, also as long as they have existed, have been a populist party more open to the working class and the poor. But that ideological flip did occur, and it’s often difficult to say either why it did or even _when_ it happened.
Really the answer is that it did in stages…the “progressive Republican” wing of the GOP chipped away and chipped away, eventually switching over to the Democrats, while the “conservative Democrat” wing chipped away and chipped away, finally accepting to cross the aisle as well.
But if you ask me, the first time I would identify the old Republican Party taking major steps to being the rather disturbing version of itself it is today, it was during the Grant Administration.
The positive view we have of the Republicans during Lincoln’s time and the “Radical Republican” period shortly afterwards comes from our assessment of what the Republicans did where the Civil War and stopping human slavery were concerned. After the war, however, the issues changed, as the Republicans gained control of a huge political patronage machine, at that point completely unreformed by civil service legislation. Those who controlled the machine referred to themselves as “Stalwarts” – that is, as ideologically pure Republicans supportive of the Grant Administration and protective of machine politics. Other Republicans they derided as “Half-Breeds” – that is, not real Republicans (sort of like today’s “RINOs”…Republicans In Name Only.)
Many of the old Radical Republicans who had done the country such a service in standing up for human equality also managed to find themselves among the “Stalwart” defenders of elite-driven machine politics, and those who had control of the wheels of government also had both feet in the private sector as well, making money off of the expansion of monopolistic trusts. Senator Roscoe Conkling, who had been a loyal Radical Republican during the war, was the acknowledged leader of the Stalwarts – and one of the things that meant was that Conkling, in protection of his big business cronies, went out of his way to forward the legalistic argument that corporations are people. You may remember a certain unsuccessful recent Republican candidate for president making that same argument. The radical Republican argument that all people are equal is turned into a modern conservative Republican’s argument that “people” includes corporations.
The person who shot James Garfield (a compromise candidate for president in 1880 accepted by the Stalwarts though he was associated with the Half-Breeds) did so specifically because he was an office-seeker who identified with the Stalwarts and who feared that Garfield might deepen civil service reform (which had been begun by his predecessor, Rutherford Hayes).
This may seem like a big historical pile-on where I make an argument about how the Republicans were going down the crapper as early as the 1870s – and I suppose I am saying that, more or less. Indeed, what’s interesting is that many of the Radicals were complicit in this, and moved seamlessly from being primarily defenders of human equality to being shills for corporations. However, the shooting of Garfield brought attention to the ugliness of the Stalwart office-seeking elite, and the new President, Chester A. Arthur, was smart enough to respond to this.
Arthur was put on the ticket precisely because he was a loyal Stalwart, and he knew that if he seemed to be in league with the person who killed Garfield, that would be a public relations nightmare. So he was actually quite proactive in deepening civil service reform. After that point, people stopped using the words “Stalwart” and “Half-Breed”…but that reality was still there under the surface.
Corruption, machine politics and influence peddling continued to be worries amongst Republicans. A shortlived party, the “Liberal Republican” party, bolted early on to run against Grant, but had problems because to seriously have a shot at winning, they would have to join forces with the Democrats, who were still (justly) regarded as the party which brought the country the Civil War. Some Republicans with strong instincts about corruption (like, say, the cartoonist Thomas Nast) still couldn’t stomach joining forces with Southern racists as a means of doing something about it. Later on, James Blaine, the leader of the old Half-Breeds, turned out later on to be as much of an influence peddler as any of the Stalwarts were, having concocted some unholy deals with the nascent railroad barons. An angry group of liberal Republicans, called the “Mugwumps”, bolted to vote for Democrat Grover Cleveland. (One such person who was asked to join the bolting group but ultimately decided not to was Theodore Roosevelt. Though Roosevelt thought party loyalty was his better option, he broadly sympathised with the group, and was held in high esteem by them.)
The Republican metamorphosis from anti-slavery party to big business party was to be slow and fitful, and Republican progressives did stick it out for a number of years. For a long time, the old Radicalism co-existed with the new Conservatism – not only in that radicals and conservatives shared the same party, but indeed, that they were the same people. The old egalitarians (where legalistic civil rights questions were concerned) easily drifted into becoming new elitists (by channeling their dominance into other areas, like control over the civil service and monopoly corporations, and rationalising it legally).
I see lots of echoes of that kind of stuff today – when Occupy egalitarians tell you the one Republican they really get is Ron Paul, a guy who has that art of rationalising elite domination legalistically, as if it somehow involved “freedom”, down pat…well, let’s just say I can see that path opening itself up again.
Anyway, I know I’m kind of going on and on about this, so probably I should just wrap up my comments, but suffice it to say this article seemed to encapsulate a lot of the evidence for why this shift occurred and how the Republicans became so much the party of the “ins” instead of the “outs”. Interesting reading.