Republicans who question the most belligerent or outrageous statements from the party’s fringes will quickly find themselves branded a RINO, a “Republican in Name Only.” The accusation has become so pervasive that is begs the question – what is an authentic Republican?
In this confused climate, it may be impossible to understand what a Republican is without looking back at what a Republican was. Only by tracing our path to this point can we find our way back toward relevance.
Officially the Republican Party was formed in Ripon, Wisconsin in 1854, but that date more accurately marks a rebranding than a birth. Antebellum Republicans were a coalition formed by anti-slavery members of the recently collapsed Whig Party. Through the Whigs (and the Federalists before them), Republicans have a heritage that goes back to birth of the Republic and the influence of Alexander Hamilton.
From the beginning Republicans were the party of commerce. Democrats, through leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson built a core among farmers and laborers. Republicans, through Hamilton, were the party of townsfolk, business people, and capitalists.
In the long period between the Civil War and the Cold War neither party had an overriding ideological alignment. Republicans endorsed Progressives like Teddy Roosevelt and Conservatives like Herbert Hoover. Democrats harbored labor socialists like Eugene Debs and religious conservatives like William Jennings Bryant.
The ideological confusion that muddles modern Republican politics has roots in a decision made by President Truman in 1948 that scrambled the poles of political alignment. Moved by appalling incidents of unpunished violence against black veterans returning from World War II, Truman took the only action he felt was open to him at the time. Through an executive order, he ended racial segregation in the military.
Southern Democrats were furious at this threat to their values. South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond broke from the Democrats and staged a third-party challenge to Truman.
In his Presidential campaign, Thurmond sought to recast Southern white supremacist ideology to make it palatable for a national audience. Thurmond’s 1948 speech accepting the nomination of the States’ Rights Democrats (“Dixicrats”) laid out an ideological opposition to desegregation that still resonates in far-right rhetoric.
Since the earliest days of the Republic, Southern conservatives had been violently opposed to Industrialization. They were the country’s most powerful opponents of Capitalism and as such, were staunchly anti-Republican. The emergence of the Soviet threat offered an opportunity for a new alignment between Southern conservatives and the GOP that would have been previously impossible.
Thurmond outlined a case against desegregation that was technically independent of racism. In a beautifully contorted appeal, Thurmond positioned Southern segregationists as the nation’s truest patriots, protecting liberty from Communists in our own Federal government. Thurmond was exploiting a narrow opening, created by the Soviet threat, for Southern Conservatives to align with Hamiltonian Republicans on the basis of their common opposition to Marxism.
Thurmond’s political formula subsumed white supremacist rhetoric beneath religious and nationalist themes to which Republicans were generally friendly. His campaign failed, but the manner in which he cloaked the Southern defense of white supremacy in Cold War rhetoric would change our politics.
Republicans, as the party of Marx’s “bourgeoisie” were anti-Communist to the core. As Southern Conservatives grew alienated by the nation’s growing hostility to their values, they needed a new political outlet. They found that outlet in the nearly empty Southern GOP.
Grassroots Republican political infrastructure was virtually non-existent in the South before the ‘80’s. Taking advantage of that vacuum, Southern conservatives built the rough equivalent of a Neo-Confederate third-party beneath the national Republican brand. As the success of the Civil Rights Movement accelerated the white flight from the Democratic Party, Southern conservatives began to alter the political balance inside the GOP at the national level.
In 1964, South Carolina Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond joined the Republican Party. In 1989, Texas Democratic State Representative Rick Perry joined the Republican Party. Those two events could be considered the bookends that define the GOP’s pivot away from its commercial, Hamiltonian roots. This seismic shift was made possible by aligning Southern segregationists with political conservatives and religious fundamentalists elsewhere in the country. This influx changed the balance of power among Republican liberals, moderates, progressives and conservatives all over the country.
Between the ’64 and ’88 conventions, the new alignment sent the party careening rightward and Southward. By ’92 Republicans were beginning to lose in their historic strongholds in northern urban areas while building new support in Dixie.
As long as there was a Communist threat it remained possible to hold together this awkward alignment. Without the unifying force of the Soviet threat, there is nothing left to mask the racism that has glued the current coalition together since 1964.
The tensions that pit racial conservatives against the party’s traditional commercial interests are now hopelessly exposed. As Southern conservatives recruited over the past generation perceive a historic opportunity to cripple the Federal government, grounds for cooperation with Hamiltonian Republicans are becoming harder to find. Everyone is waking up to the absurdity of this alliance.
So, what is a Republican? Too often it is someone willing to let every political position be vetted and shaped by a small but powerful core of religious extremists and latent racists. The better question is what was a Republican and how can the party’s pragmatic majority restore their former influence?
Republicans were the traders, innovators, investors, and industrialists who built our urban landscapes and brought us our modern economy. Republicans were Progressives, Conservatives and Moderates united by their faith in the power of well-maintained markets to fuel prosperity, innovation, and freedom. Republicans understood that, for better or worse, business is the engine that powers everything else we value.
The Republican Party was not so much about less government or more government. The Republican Party was about making things work. Republicans were the sober, prudent voice in every debate. Those values still represent a majority in the country, more than strong enough to regain control of the GOP.
Restoring the party’s credibility will be easier than most people think, but it will require a few individuals to step out of line and risk precious political capital that they have accumulated over decades. Once a few people find the courage to break from the party’s recent history the tide may turn. Until then, what Republicans are will continue to be something less proud and promising than what Republicans were.