Friday, September 14, 2012
Did you know lincoln was third party? a little history
The line that now divides the starkly contrasting ethos of the two major political parties, liberal-progressive Democrats on the left and conservative- traditional Republicans on the right, cleaves cleanly through almost every aspect of today's economic, social and political life: federal oversight vs. local autonomy, regulatory control vs. an unencumbered marketplace, prolabor vs. probusiness, environmental protection vs. commercial profitability, reproductve choice vs. fetal sanctity, safety net vs. workfare, criminal rights vs. retributive punishment, debt reduction vs. tax relief, separation of church and state vs. God's presence in public life and so on. However, these perceptions that we associate with the principal parties bear little resemblance to their earlier forms. Indeed it would not be too much to say that the present Democratic and Republican parties have virtually exchanged roles from the ones they occupied at the outset of the Civil War one-and-one-third centuries ago when the Democratic Party was but a few decades old and the Republican Party had just come into existence. But perhaps it has always been thus. John Adams, lamenting on the unraveling of his life's work said, "Our two parties have crossed over the valley and taken possession of each other's mountain", as Federalism appeared to yield to the predations of his arch rival Jeffersonian Republicans and then began to emulate them.Jeffersonian Republicans, despite the name, were the progenitors of the Democratic Party just as the Federalists, by a more circuitous path, eventually became today's Republican Party. Under Jefferson's guiding hand and currents flowing from the new age of Enlightenment, Republicans were steeped in ideas that extolled science, reason, minimal government, a small army and navy, and exuded hostility towards a federal banking system and the Supreme Court.Federalists, appalled by the heresies propagated by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution that it engendered, set themselves against this new philosophy and all that it implied. In their view, these agencies had formulated a doctrine diametrically opposed to traditional Christianity. The two political philosophies were immediately and irrevocably locked in permanent combat even though the issues and sides taken were to suffer radical alterations over the years. Thus the skein of American history began its convoluted path towards the present.A recurrent theme known as States Rights gained in currency during the first quarter of the century as the political parties realigned and attempted to redefine themselves. States Rights, the terrible incubus that would bedevil the United States for the next 100 years, changed hands again and again, first Republican (a principle firmly held by Jefferson), then Federalist, then pausing for a lenghty residence in the Republican offspring, Democratic Party under Andrew Jackson. States Rights, hardening during the Civil War, provided the principal weapon and legal justification for slavery, secession, and the Black Codes during Reconstruction that remorselessly persecuted blacks without remission essentially up to the beginning of the second civil rights era of the 1950s.The Whig Party, a reincarnated form of Federalism dedicated to Union as opposed to States Sovereignty advocated by Democrats, emerged briefly in the dangerous and confused political milieu that inevitably resulted from the growing truculence over the issue of slavery. The new Republican Party took root as Whigs split philosophically along regional lines and then disappeared; former Whig Abraham Lincoln became the 16th president; political boundaries became more clearly drawn and the nation finally stumbled into civil war.The Republican Party, being largely the coalition of antislavery forces had inherent cohesion. Not so for Democrats, having been formed out of disparate groups whose main unifying link between north and south, if indeed there was one, was common cause with the working man. Slaves were also working men but to southern Democrats this fact was less than relevant. White working men in the north under prevailing conditions of the times were nearly as destitute and servile as southern slaves; unfortunately, this common thread did not seem to stimulate empathy for slaves among the northern underclass. Indeed the sentiment that issued from that sector was quite the opposite. The only political recourse for northern working men was the Democratic Party whose strength lay in the South which was culturally aristocratic and demographically semi-feudal. Thus, the Democratic Party was a forced union of antagonistic and dissimilar adherents whose sole bond was more historical than natural. It seemed there was precious little possibility that these inconsistencies could be resolved.Northern Democrats wishing the Union to be preserved were in basic accord to accept slavery as a rationale for a negotiated peace, slavery being of less consequence than their principal aims: soft money, free trade, low tariffs, shorter working hours and unions. However, true reformers, mostly Republican, faced a particularly acute dilemma, since they wished at once to improve the lives of white slaves in the North and black slaves in the South, a near impossibility given the political schism that the War and its aftermath had created.Under the aegis of the Democratic Party, conditions of black people in the South, Antebellum slaves, then Reconstruction freedmen, went from bad to worse. The most egregious abuses against blacks seemed to escalate with defeat, regional devastation and the imposition of northern laws intended to obviate such abuses. The government of the United States, firmly in the hands of Republicans during and after the Civil War, adopted the Lincoln doctrines of civil and political rights for all Americans, including freedmen. At the close of the Civil War and during the Reconstruction era Republicans held the moral high ground while Democrats performed every act intended to reverse the outcome of arms and thrust blacks back into slavery. In the latter they succeeded to a much greater extent than did the Federal government which attempted to ensure those rights and protect blacks from bodily harm; all this despite the enactment of Emancipation Proclamation; the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution; and the Civil Rights Acts of 1871-1875--acts collectively designed to ratify the outcome of the war and legitimatize the precepts enunciated by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.Reconstruction survived only as long as the staunch leadership of Ulysses S. Grant was there to maintain it. On the eve of Grant's second administration the Republican Party stood for enforcement of the new Amendments, civil service reform, a humane policy towards Indians and women's suffrage. However, it was not long before the party began to fracture and so-called 'liberal' Republicans began backsliding on strictures against the unrepentant South. Grant was increasingly alone among Republicans to enforce the Constitutional Amendments to protect black rights. The Republican moral high ground evidently had become an onerous inconvenience set against the allures of the burgeoning industrial age. Furthermore, Democrats north and south, were in no mood to alter their long-held hostility towards blacks. With neither party upholding aboriginal or black rights the late 19th century became a hard and unfriendly place for all subjugated races; nor was it kind to white working men in either political sphere.Only one of the twin debacles of the 19th century, black slavery, had been formally resolved by the Civil War. The second, white slavery, continued unabated into the 20th century as a new war began in earnest, the war between Capital and Labor. At the outset of this war, however, the main political parties took the same side as both Republicans and Democrats allied themselves with the most conservative reactionary forces in America, the giant corporations. Before the turn of the century Republicans had completely abandoned the lofty principles that had been their birthright. Decade after decade Republicans controlled the White House, largely in retribution for the scandalous behavior of Democrats before, during and following the Civil War.In the main, however, the Federal government in the hands of either party used its enormous power forcibly to suppress strikes fomented by largely unorganized workers attempting to protect their own interests against the rapacious policies of the corporations. Under both Republican and Democratic presidents, Federal troops were used to help break strikes, sometimes in concert with private armies such as Pinkerton detectives hired by the corporations. Nor was there relief or recourse for women, blacks or Labor in the Federal court system. By the 1880s liberal justices of the Supreme Court appointed by Lincoln or Grant had retired or died. Under conservative Republican presidents the ensuing reactionary courts reintroduced the mischievous doctrine of States Rights, eroding whatever legacies that remained from Reconstruction and, once again, crushing the aspirations of minorities, social reformers and Labor alike.With Theodore Roosevelt Republicans for the first time in more than a quarter century could register a modest but legitimate claim progressive government, not in the image of Lincoln to be sure but courageous enough to stand up againt the "malefactors of great wealth" of American industry. Facing down great corporations, however, was not the same as clasping the hand of Labor. Republicans, in their zeal to rein in the insatiable and grossly crass instincts big business expended little substantive effort at the other end of the scale in upholding the rights of Labor to organize and fend off the predations of Capital. Giant and destructive strikes continued to discomfit the country, essentially up to the Great Depression, with the exception of Woodrow Wilson, an unbroken Republican dynasty.In other respects Roosevelt's "Square Deal" introduced liberal concepts unthinkable during the previous century: a pure food and drug act; regulation of the railroads, banks and insurance; conservation of natural resources and a plethora of National Parks and Monuments; public health, child labor laws, workmen's compensation for injury or death. Meanwhile Democrats sullied what ever moral capital they had earned through their genuine efforts on behalf of white working men by continuing to insist upon the dogma of state's rights which effectively nullified the party's predilection to social and economic justice; moreover, Democrats never wavered from the belief that blacks were an inferior race, incapable of taking their place among whites as equals and intended by God to serve the White race forever.Presumably confident that a progressive agenda had become a permanent feature of the Republican Party TR bequeathed the office to his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft. Before long the GOP was back in the hands of old-guard conservatives freighted with ideas more reminiscent of regressive 19th century politics than a modern age. TR's abortive attempt to wrest power from the Party's conservative wing and reclaim the office of the president only ensured the election of the Princeton academic Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.Clearly with Woodrow Wilson in the presidency the Democratic Party had taken on an entirely new perspective. The real differences between former Republican progressives, now the National Progressive Party (but already a diminished force), and the newly constituted Democratic Party were astonishingly small. Despite the implacable and equally inexplicable animosity of TR towards the new president, it was as if one party's progressive wing had become the exclusive property of the opposition party, allowing the former to pass quietly out of existence. Social reform, undoubtedly on the minds of Wilson Democrats, was not the first priority of the resurgent party, however. An accumulation of highly visible neglects and deficiencies in the governing of the United States, now a world power, required immediate attention. Foremost among the legislative acts of Wilson's first term were tariff reform, a graduated income tax, and federal supervision of trade and the monetary system, allowing for currency and credit management necessary to a dynamic and growing economy. These reforms did not originate with liberal Democrats, however, but were the product of years of participation of populists, socialists, progressives, even so-called radicals, usually in the face of determined opposition from conservative factions from both parties.The end of the war with Germany and Woodrow Wilson's promise of a better world through his conciliatory Fourteen Points and the League of Nations, produced an almost insane effusion of joy among the victors and a cautious optimism among the vanquished. However for Wilson the triumph was short lived. Castigated for the failure of the Fourteen Points, blamed for the Treaty of Versailles which he vigorously opposed, and ultimately rejected by his own party and country, Wilson faded into temporary obscurity, sickness and premature death.Even before Woodrow Wilson retired from the presidency the Congress reverted to Republican control dominated by the old guard. Like the ancient medical practice of bleeding a sick man, the Republican remedy for a war-devastated Europe was to demand immediate payments of debt and to resume high tariff barriers; this by a nation unblemished by war and enjoying the benefits of an enormous trade surplus. Democrats likewise rediscovered their southern roots with its ingrained racism. It seemed the progressive administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were nothing more than passing fads, crude anomalies to be cast aside and soon forgotten.The 1920s were a time of unprecedented prosperity and boom mentality for a sizeable share of American society but not for the average farmer who never seemed to experience a time free of anxiety over crop failures and falling prices. While economists grew increasingly alarmed over the perils of overinflated stocks and rampant speculation Republican President Coolidge calmly advised the nation that the happy state of the economy, which he attributed to wise Republican management, would continue indefinitly--not to worry. His successor, Herbert Hoover, a progressive holdover, showed his deep distrust of cheap money and the endless optimism of investors, which only earned him rebuke from his peers. During the 1928 presidential campaign, while duly crediting Republicans for the continuing prosperity, Hoover also suggested that the government should begin to consider effective means to mitigate the sharp ups and downs of the economy that seemed to have become a permanent feature. In fact it was probably too late.The financial crash of 1929 was a tremendous coup for Communist theoreticians who claimed that it was not only completely predictable but that it was in fact consistent with their time table for the total collapse of capitalism. It was more likely a legacy passed from Coolidge to Hoover. In retrospect Americans can scarcely fault Hoover's actions for that calamity, but the plan that he finally developed to cope with the crisis was pure Republican, extracted from the past and prescient of the future. Thinking that the Depression was a temporary dislocation brought on by the war and Europe's struggle to recover the Hoover administration's main thrust was to provide relief by bolstering corporations, municipalities, and finanicial institutions--trickle-down economics devoid of direct aid to desperate families and individuals. Democrats drafted a bill to appropriate $1,000,000,000 in the form of public works to put the unemployed back to work. It was passed by Congress in 1931 and vetoed by Hoover on the grounds that it would be contrary to traditional American values of self reliance and plucky, rugged individualism.It soon became abundantly clear that no one--not the administration, not the industrial tycoons, not the financiers of Wall Street--had any idea how to cope with the deteriorating situation. A real threat of starvation gripped the nation and people turned to public exhibitions to demonstrate their dire needs to Washington. In the fall of 1931 a country-wide hunger march was organized to converge on Washington in December to petition for unemployment relief. When it arrived, instead of compassion the marchers were greeted by an armed police cordon. Congress received a small delegation but took no action. Less than one year later a similar march was formed, this time by unemployed war veterans prematurely seeking a promised bonus to help them through the difficult times. The Hoover administration's answer to these war veterans was to order the regular army to disperse the ragtag army of 10,000 jobless men and set their encampment on fire. A second Bonus Army expedition took place the following year, during FDR's first administration. This time, however, the veterans were welcomed by Congress and treated with humanity and respect.Franklin Roosevelt was no newcomer to the national scene during the 1932 campaign, having been a vice presidential candidate in 1920 and, following a debilitating polio attack, a respected liberal voice in the 1924 and 1928 Democratic conventions. He laid out his political philosphy in campaign speeches during his own run for the presidency in 1932 in which he admonished the country "A government that could not care for its old and sick and provide work for the strong could not or should not endure". Reiterating a theme by James Madison, Roosevelt expressed the conviction that government had a central duty to maintain a balance between the weak and the strong members of society in order to protect the former against ravages of the latter. In the impending effort to place the country back on its feet the Federal government was to have the central role. This was a clear notice to the states that they would now play a concerted but subordinate part in the recovery.The unprecedented and apparently intractable gridlock presented by the depression required that new paradigms of government had to be invented and Roosevelt demonstrated a willingness to engage in bold experiments in times of extreme national duress. The New Deal would face the depression utilizing the power of the Federal government to reactivate an idle workforce and revive a prostrate economy including, if necessary, deficit spending to create jobs thereby stimulating the economy from the bottom, something the Hoover administration was unwilling to do.And bold experiments tumbled out in profusion. Under New Deal management consumption could be raised to the level of production, taxation would be based on ability to pay, federal works would gainfully employ the jobless, bank deposits would be guaranteed, unions would be placed at the same bargaining level as management, prohibition was to be repealed, currency would no longer be slaved to gold, children's labor would no longer contribute to industrial profits, and old age would be freed from the spectre of penury and starvation through a broad social security net.It is sometimes argued that it was the Second World War that eventually rescued the nation from the grips of the depression. Though that imponderable cannot be quantified with any certainty it is equally arguable that the New Deal may have preserved the nation from the perils of a domestic cataclysm on an scale unequaled since the Civil War. At the distance we now view those events such conjectures seem beyond imagination but to the writers who lived the times and later reflected upon them, the country was on the verge of revolution in the mid 1930s. Unemployment was excruciatingly intractable, 20% in 1933 and 16% five years later under the New Deal. This modest success, nonetheless, has to be gauged against more horrific scenarios, e.g. Germany a few years earlier, which may have occurred in the absence of government intervention. Roosevelt, no doubt, sensed that grim possibility when he declared, "the proper policy of government is the only line of safety for our economic structures ... economic units cannot exist unless prosperity is uniform ... our basic trouble is an insufficient distribution of buying power, coupled with an oversufficient speculation in production".What the New Deal gave to America was hope and confidence that the power to raise itself lay within itself. But this accomplishment could not be achieved by individuals working at odds with one another, and stark experience amply demonstrated that large corporations either had given up the struggle or had not the wherewithal to effect a change. The Depression and the bold measures used to reverse it gave new meaning to the concept that government, specifically Democracy, was in reality the culmination of civilization which gave it not only the power to intervene in economic affairs of the people but that responsibility as well. No better example of this could be given than a near decade of economic disaster which sizeable population of living Americans can still recall.While Democrats had experienced a sea change in their attitude towards governing, Republicans had completely abandoned whatever enlightened policies they might have inherited from Franklin's cousin TR. Politics leading to the election of 1936 previewed the election campaign that unfolded sixty years later. Democrats supported the distribution of birth control information, active government participation in the conservation of natural resources, the concentration of power in the Federal government as opposed to concentration of power in state governments, minority rights, miniumum wage and so on. Republicans represented big business interests, ultra conservative causes, and imputed Democrats to be in league with Communists, the Devil, and if given the chance, certain to lead the nation into eternal damnation.Having, as a Party, divested themselves of the evils of racism Democrats at last could claim a moral equivalence to that which had been the sole property of the Republican Party more than a century earlier. To modern Republicans, despite their claims to Lincoln's legacy which was steeped in liberalism as no other in our history, the very name Liberal has become a sobriquet worthy of contempt. In counterdistinction, Conservatism no longer stands for fiscal responsibility, and legislative accountabilty. The myth of fiscal responsibility was shredded under presidents Reagan and Bush who managed to add $3 trillion to the national debt in a mere 12 years. Accountability vanished when the Republican dominated Congress decided that it was politically more profitable to focus obsessively on the sitting president's discomfiture over the disclosure of sexual recklessness and the subsequent coverup than to attend to real and immediate needs of the nation: education, health care, global economic chaos, campaign finance reform and international terror.Hidden agendas are the daily produce of today's Republican legislative acts. Almost without exception Republican bills now come freighted with shopping lists from their most valued constituencies, the large corporations, the affluent, and the Christian Right. Almost without exception the advertising that accompanies these bills is precisely opposite to their actaul content, e.g., "timber salvage" means gaining access to the remaining stands of old growth forest; "preventing partial birth abortions" means making all clinical abortions illegal; "patient protection" means curtailing existing law that protects patients from unscrupulous HMOs; "tax relief" means more Reaganesque trickle down economics. Almost without exception the constituenices that will or have suffered the most by these laws are the indigent, the ethnic minorities, the elderly, the very young, and the environment.One unexpected benefit of Republican's deliberate dismantling of government is that communities, perforce, have accepted the challenge to govern themselves in arenas where the federal government's role is either counterproductive, dimished or nonexistent. No longer predicated on racial bigotry States Rights is being reincarnated in a form that actually tries to benefit all of the people under local jurisdiction. Courageous State and local governments have endeavored to raise the minimum wage, enact campaign finance reform, improve working conditions, enforce environmental laws and do battle with the tobacco industry-- all Republican anathemas.Ex-President Gerald Ford's convoluted but apt observation 'If Lincoln were alive today he would turn over in his grave' may indeed express the how the first Republican would view the wreckage of his party, founded on charity for all, unlike the new Republican ethic which selectively bestows charity on the rich and the pious. Obscured by the bluster and truculence of today's political dialog the parties have taken possession of the other's mountain.