Monday, July 18, 2016

Abraham Lincoln was a 21st-century Democrat

From Marvel's salute to the 2009 Obama inauguration, the digital comic Gettysburg Distress.
Here's another distressed Republican, Peter Wehner ("Can We Find Our Way Back to Lincoln?"), a veteran faith-based public relations flack of the Reagan, Bush A, and Bush B administrations, to complain that his party has been hijacked by
repulsive elements, people who were attracted to racial and ethnic politics and moved by resentment and intolerance rather than a vision of the good. This group was larger than I ever imagined, and at important moments the Republican Party either overlooked them or played to them. Some may have been hoping to appeal to these elements while also containing and moderating them, to sand off the rough edges, to keep them within the coalition but not allow them to become dominant. But the opposite happened. The party guests took over the party.

I think the operative part was "played to them". Wehner might not have known anything about the size of the repulsive elements, but the party knew the exact number: enough to win all but one of the presidential elections from 1968 through 1988. And they systematically built a bridge between the government-hating patricians and tycoons of the conservative movement and the race-haunted white voters of the South and the industrial northeast (I don't think enough of a point has been made, by the way, of how many white southerners migrated north to Michigan and Ohio and so on after World War II, changing those states' political complexions more than the African American movement in the same period did) and the Mexican-fearing southwest.

Climaxing with Ronald Reagan's famous visit to the Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi, where he dogwhistled "states' rights" to an audience made up, perhaps, of the very people who had protected the murderers of the civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner 16 years earlier, in a speech focusing on libertarian economic theories and condemning an activist federal government.

It wasn't purely a political strategy. There was plenty of racist sentiment within the country club Republican upper classes, from the National Review office to the Nixon White House, and the conservative movement hated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for traditional reasons of its own, as Buckley wrote:
There actually are true and wise friends of the Negro race who believe that a federal law, artificially deduced from the Commerce Clause of the Constitution or from the 14th Amendment, whose marginal effect will be to instruct small merchants in the Deep South on how they may conduct their business, is no way at all of promoting the kind of understanding which is the basis of progressive and charitable relationships between the races.
(Way to congratulate yourself on your truth and wisdom, Bill.)

And it wasn't by any means just racism. The bridge was built on the foundation of real common interests between the movement conservatives and the deep racist strain of the former Southern Democrats alienated from the party by the Civil Rights Act, represented by Buckley's concern for those "small merchants" and not for their indigent customers; it's the privileging of a concept of "liberty" over equality, meaning as much liberty as your power permits you to grab: conservative freedom doesn't end, as the saying goes, where the other fellow's nose begins, but is as long as your arm is without regard to the nose of the other.

This is where the Republican party fully and I think irrevocably broke its connection with Abraham Lincoln.

Because Lincoln wasn't merely an advocate of strong federal government against "states' rights" (what part of "preserving the Union" don't you understand, conservatives?) or of big-spending government, with the building of railroads and land-grant colleges and the purchase of Alaska. He was very precisely at his greatest an advocate of government guarantees of equality, without which "liberty" is nothing but Hobbesian permanent war.

Wehner quotes, at some length, from the 1916 biography of Lincoln by the English Liberal politician Godfrey Benson, Lord Charnwood, to talk about how the Emancipator was never "angry" at the South, isn't that nice, but I find in the same Progressive-era text a wonderful passage displaying Lincoln as a true 21st-century Democrat:
... he definitely refused to preserve the Union by what in his estimation would have been the real surrender of the principles which had made Americans a distinct and self-respecting nation.
Those principles he found in the Declaration of Independence. Its rhetorical inexactitude gave him no trouble, and must not, now that its language is out of fashion, blind us to the fact that the founders of the United States did deliberately aspire to found a commonwealth in which common men and women should count for more than elsewhere, and in which, as we might now phrase it, all authority must defer somewhat to the interests and to the sentiments of the under dog. "Public opinion on any subject," he said, "always has a 'central idea' from which all its minor thoughts radiate. The 'central idea' in our public opinion at the beginning was, and till recently has continued to be, 'the equality of man'; and, although it has always submitted patiently to whatever inequality seemed to be a matter of actual necessity, its constant working has been a steady and progressive effort towards the practical equality of all men."
There's nothing new to Republicanism in Trump—there's some variation in the tangential issues, he seems to be less afraid of sexual difference than some Republicans are, on trade issues he seems to be a kind of throwback to the anti-Liberal protectionism of the McKinley era—but on the central issue he's fully in step with what the party became 50-odd years ago and remains: against equality, and in opposition to Lincoln.

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