The republican party is… It was started in…. Over the past- years, the platforms and values of the Republican Party have changed. In recent years, there has also been tension and fractures within the Republican Party.
In order to understand the origins of the Republican party, one must first understand the existing political parties of pre-civil war America. In the late 1700’s, right after the revolution against England, America was politically divided into federalists who advocated for a strong, centralized government, and anti-federalists, who favored limited national authority. The anti-federalist tradition, which emphasizes states’ rights and as little centralized power as possible, came to be known as the Democratic-Republicans or Jeffersonian Republicans. The federalists, which included founding fathers John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, were initially victorious in passing the bill of rights against the wishes of the Democratic-Republicans. However, they faded from influence in the early nineteenth century with the elections of prominent Jeffersonian Republicans like Jefferson himself, Madison, and Monroe. By the 1820’s, the United States was effectively comprised of only one dominant political party: the Democratic-Republicans.
The dominance of the Democratic Republicans did not last long, and the party soon split into two factions, mainly identified by their geographic interests. John Quincy Adams represented the Eastern and Northern interests, known as “National Republicans,” and Andrew Jackson represented the Southern and Western interests, known as “Jacksonian Democrats.” When Jackson won the presidency in 1832, the democratic republicans irrevocably split from the National Republicans forming the Whig party. From then on, the United States maintained a two-party system.
The ideas of the early Republican Party can be traced to the Whig party, while the ideas of the Democratic party can be traced to the Jacksonian Democrats, and ultimately back to the anti-federalist party of the early United States. The Democratic party remained dominant up to the mid nineteenth century, but there was an undercurrent of discord due to the abolition movement and growing anti-slavery sentiment of many politicians, especially Whigs. Northern abolitionists eventually left the Whig party and founded the Republican Party.
Only one time in American history has a “third party” won a presidential election, and that was with the election of Abraham Lincoln, the candidate of the new Republican party. The republican platform was notably anti-slavery. However, anti-slavery should not necessarily be confused with “egalitarian.” While campaigning against Douglas, Lincoln revealed his plan to free and then deport all blacks to their “native land” of Liberia they could not be made the political and social equals of other Americans. our equals.” Compared to the Democrats though, they were quite egalitarian.
Lincoln’s victory in 1860 was largely due to divisions within the Democratic Party. The democratic party was split over whether or not slavery should be legalized federally or on a state-by-state bases, which was a similar rivalry to what had been between the federalists and anti-federalists. This resulted in two democratic nominees and the splitting of the democratic vote which allowed Lincoln to win by only 40% of the national vote. Lincoln’s major accomplishments as the country’s first Republican president include the emancipation proclamation and the union victory over the confederate states in the American Civil War.
After Lincoln was assassinated, his vice president Andrew Johnson, originally a democrat, took over the presidency. Johnson quickly became very unpopular in the Republican administration. The intention of the Republican Party was to grant basic liberties to African-Americans, but Johnson, who valued state’s rights repeatedly vetoed Republican legislation. Tension between Johnson and the republicans reached a climax when Johnson pardoned Southern participants of the Civil War. When that happened, Republicans tried, but failed to impeach him. However, Republicans still controlled the presidency and were the dominant political party in the post-civil war period. In fact there was only one Democratic president between the end of Lincoln/Johnson’s term and the year 1900.
Slavery and race relations were a significant portion of the post-war Republican party’s efforts. The Ku Klux Klan, Louisiana Knights of the White Camelia, and other southern-democrat organizations against equal rights for African Americans attempted to resist Republican reign, sometimes violently. Their violence was not only aimed at African-Americans, but also at white republicans, who were preventing them from reestablishing white supremacy. President Grant, the former Union general who was became president after Lincoln/Johnson, moved Congress to pass Enforcement Acts, which were a series of laws aimed at protecting African American voting rights and other entitlements.
In addition to the racial unrest facing the Democratic south, there were economic concerns over how to repay the country’s debts and war bonds. This distracted from Reconstruction in the south. Both gold and greenbacks (paper money) were in circulation, and there was a political divide over what to use to pay back the nation’s debts, and what should become the standardize national currency. The value of greenbacks was lower than that of gold, making greenbacks a more preferred method of spending, which led to further circulation of them by the treasury. President Grant, however, encouraged equal value between the greenbacks and gold, and in 1875 the Specie resumption Act was passed which allowed greenbacks to be redeemed for gold. This caused political conflict and led to the formation of the Greenback party, as republicans gradually lost power in the House and Republicans began to lose faith in Grant. Economics continued to play a major role in American politics during the second half of the nineteenth century. The debate was not merely one of policy, but one of ideology, as well as tension between Jeffersonian-agrarian America and a newer, expansionist America. Supporting the gold standard and foreign trade with higher tariffs was Repulbican William McKinley, while Democrat-Populist William Jennings Bryan supported cheap money and the silver standard. McKinley won easily in 1896, and the continued affirmation of the Republican Party through his election at least symbolically signaled the end of the old south. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became the president who ushered in the progressivist era.
Roosevelt was a strong supporter of American internationalism. As Henry Kissinger wrote, “Roosevelt was a sophisticated analyst of the balance of power. He insisted on an international role for American because its national interest demanded it, and because a global balance of power was inconceivable to him without American participation.” Until this point, the United States had an isolationist policy which was based in building itself up rather than dominating over other countries. But now a hundred years in existence, having successfully overcome internal conflicts, expansionist views were becoming popular.
Under Roosevelt’s Republican Party, America first began to exert itself over other nations. He justified this by claiming a that as a civilized nation, America had the right to prevent wrongdoings in other areas. He put his views into practice multiple times throughout his presidency, particularly in South America. This was a notable shift for the Republican party which began as proponent against slavery but was now after international power and a position as protector of global freedom.
The Republicans maintained power in the first few decades of the twentieth century, with the exception of Democratic president Woodrow Wilson. But even Wilson’s administration, despite an attempt to return to isolationism, ended up getting involved in World War I. Wilson was actually not that different form Roosevelt, and viewed democracy as a universal, even though he was less devoted to spreading it. This was seen when he lent lent billions of dollars to the Entente powers before abandoning neutrality and joining the war in full force.
What was different about Wilsons administration, was his progressive values and emphasis on workers rights which foreshadowed the decline of the Republican Party and comeback of the democratic party. Around ten years after World War I, the Great Depression began and in 1932, the Democratic Party regained prominence under the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s New Deal was one of the most transformative political acts in American history, and lead to the expansion of the federal government.
Roosevelt’s New Deal seemed contrary to the historical principles of the Democratic Party. With their ideals tracing back to Jeffersonian agrarianism and a distaste for centralized government, it seemed unlikely that they would eventually advocate for and establish the
strongest centralized government the United States has ever had. Ironically, Roosevelt’s New Deal likely had its way paved by almost seventy-five years of Republican presidents, who by shedding the ways of agrarian America, gradually moved America from a loose confederation of allied states to a stronger, more unified collection of states under a powerful federal government.
Roosevelt’s New Deal played an important role in shaping the present political landscape. The new deal was a series of programs and regulations designed to revive a devastated American public, which was out of work, hungry, unable to care for their families, and resorting to criminal behavior. For the New Deal to be effective, the federal government had to become less passive in the legislation of the American people. Roosevelt’s New Deal, along with his fireside chats, began a more direct involvement which remains controversial even today.
Roosevelt’s presidency began a new successful period for the Democratic Party. He won three re-elections and was followed by another democratic president, Harry Truman. Republicans initially opposed the New Deal on the grounds of it bringing about too much government expansion and interference in American political life. However, twenty years of democratic dominance forced the Republican Party to a level of acceptance.
Dwight Eisenhower was the next Republican President, elected in large part due to his competence as general in World War II. Eisenhower was actually more of a centrist, and oversaw the expansion of social security, increase of minimum wage, and establishment of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Eisenhower dealt with racial discrimination and signed the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960.
The Republican Party of the 1950s is probably best known for “McCarthyism.” Communism had been spreading for years, and senator Joseph McCarthy of lead what is often described as a “witch-hunt” for communists, which he and the Republican Party believed posed a threat to American values and institutions. The McCarthy era Republicanism were viewed as being paranoid and persecuting those believed to be socialists, even though was some truth to their claims that Soviet spies were attempting to infiltrate American political systems. As a result, Republicans lost popularity and became viewed as something of an “old guard” standing in the way of social progress.
This lead to the Democratic victory of Kennedy in 1960, and of Johnson in 1964. Both presidents placing a great deal of emphasis on civil rights and social welfare, particularly Johnson. Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act angered southern Democrats who opposed racial equality, leading to many of them switching parties.
A Republican, Nixon, won the election in 1968. He ran on the promise of uniting a country in conflict over anti-war and civil-rights protests, stand of for the “silent majority” of American working class. and bring an honorable end to the Vietnam War. Although he won a second term in 1972, he did not end up being the hero the Republican party hoped would restore them as the dominant party. His Watergate scandal and disgraceful resignation showed how far the party had fallen.
The Republican Party’s geo-demograph shifted while the Party was out of power. The south, which had remained mostly democratic even after the New Deal, noticeably shifter after the civil rights movement. In the early seventies, the south began supporting Republicans. This change, along with the unpopularity of President Jimmy Carter, helped prepare the way for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Reagan’s America was and remains a bright spot for the Republican Party, who found its strongest leader since Theodore Roosevelt, if not since Abraham Lincoln. Democratic dominance was over, and Reagan’s tenure marked a reestablishment of what would become contemporary Republican values. Reagan introduced a moral standard as well as policy
enforcement against drug abuse, and passed tax cuts, strengthened the American Military, and oversaw the collapse of the communist Soviet Union. Reagan’s time as president also marked the beginning of a stark ideological division between political parties, and leaving centrism all but obsolete. Some argue that Reagan, was responsible for bringing in an era when knowing what party someone belonged to was enough to know where they stood on any given issue. Under Reagan, the Republican Party became known as the moral arbiters of the US, favoring strong national unity, a strong military, individual liberty through low taxes and minimal government interference.
Since Reagan’s times though, the Republican Party has become progressively more fractured. Initially this fracture was more of a social fracture, intensified by a growth in socially centrist/liberal Republicans. One example is same-sex marriage, which was supported by only twenty-one percent of Republicans in 2001, but for which support has nearly doubled since. On this issue, there is a tension between ideology and the traditional values on the part of some republicans while others prefer to view the issue pragmatically as a lost cause not worth spending time on, or even worth supporting since it reflects the popular opinion. President Trump’s ambivalence over the issue likely only exacerbates the tension and further pits Republican values against Republican pragmatism.
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This tension has been a growing source of friction in the party long before Trump became president. “Social conservatism” is ascendant, so it is a considerable force against pragmatic and “merely” fiscal conservatism, with Miller and Schofield observing that “social conservatives succeeded in capturing much of the party machinery across the U.S. and they played a prominent role in the ranks of Republican Freshman who helped capture Congress in 1994” (440). This (attempted) transformation against the more economically and business minded republicans has been the source of considerable division throughout the party.
In a similar vein, another fracture facing the party is that of government’s role and range. While Republicans at large are typically favorable of smaller government, that view is only true when compared to Democrat’s preference for a larger and more powerful one. We live in a post-New Deal age, one where the president is more powerful than congress or party organizers. One where the executive branch, along with hundreds of non-elected federal agencies, remotely rule and govern the individual. This, Reagan believed, weakens American citizens.
The Tea Party represented a republican manifestation of distaste for this type of hyper-centralized, executive-focused, federally administered style of government. Republicans face something of an identity crisis, then, having already “bought in” to the new deal and the enormous expansion of governmental powers it ushered in, while at the same time being faced with the problem of attempting to revitalize a more organic, grass roots, and politically interested citizenry. One which cares about more than just who the President is.
The moral and administrative fractures just discussed can both essentially be boiled down to a tension of values versus pragmatism. This is not a tension unique to the Republican Party, but one which nearly every political faction faces at some point when the ideals toward which the party aspires are in a some ways not realistic as short term solutions. How much leeway should be allowed? To what degree should values be compromised for a step by step restoration? The risk of sacrificing an ideal for practical gradual steps toward the ideal, is that it might lead people to forget why they were compromising in the first place. It might lead to the abandonment of the ideal, which is supplanted by cold pragmatism in the service of what the ideal has become: some superficial artifact of tradition which no one really believes in any more. With values compromised time and time again, all in the ironic service of values, a paradox is created where the only way to pursue values is to suspend them. With that fear, some refuse to compromise, because they believe that by compromising they are abandoning the ideal and the values they stand for. This of course makes it very difficult for congress to pass laws. Others, wanting to see a government that at least does something, do compromise, and in turn are viewed (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) as “soft” or as uncommitted.
But compromise is still inseparable from politics, and especially in a (hyper divided) two party system, no reform is untouchable, and very little progress can be hoped for in the pursuit of any goal unless a party can propose something that its enemies agree on. This makes the system somewhat broken for purposes of enshrining ideologies and moral tenets—whether viewed from a Republican or Democrat perspective. So there really is no easy solution, and certainly no immediate solution to this tension, short of complete socio-political homogeneity, which is of course utterly unrealistic.
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