Many would not know it today, but at one time in our nation’s existence the Republican Party was on the right side of history. After the Civil War, the Radical Republicans, a formidable group in Congress, fought hard to grant freedom and political rights to newly freed slaves. Although some had ulterior motives, like wanting to win future elections by securing the black vote and preventing Confederate leaders from regaining power, they still battled a racist president and past by overriding vetoes and passing the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the US Constitution. These amendments granted freedom, citizenship rights, due process and equal protection under the law for millions. The Radical Republicans also established the Freedman’s Bureau to provide blacks with educational and employment opportunities. They also expanded the federal government by sending troops into the South to protect the freed slaves.
It seems between the Lincoln and McKinley administrations, in which six of the eight presidents were Republicans, that something happened to the Republican Party. When power vacuums are created in democratic societies, radicals often become rulers. The rise of monopolists caused Republicans to pursue policies of graft (getting money through dishonest means) and patronage (giving jobs to those who helped them get elected). The opening of the West and the California Gold Rush, with its enormous sums of mineral and agricultural wealth, turned the Republicans into a party of the elite backed by wealthy bankers. Genocidal policies against Amerindians fueled the Republican Party to seek even more territory through conquest. The Gospel of Wealth, in which riches determined God’s favor, along with Christian missionaries who wanted to evangelize and civilize the world, created a party obsessed with superiority, exceptionalism and triumphalism. Republicans went from a party that included slaves and expanded civil rights, to excluding the poor, oppressed, immigrants and that reversed civil rights.
By the time the Republican Party nominated William McKinley for the 1896 presidential race, across much of America it had amassed an enormous power base through political machines and political bosses, corporations, wealthy industrialists and the mass media. Running against McKinley was William Jennings Bryan, who was nominated by both the Democratic and Populist Parties. With close ties to the Knights of Labor, Populism pushed for government regulation of the economy on behalf of workers and poor farmers. They also wanted legislation pertaining to bimetallism and a graduated income tax. On the other hand, many of the wealthy elite – including those who wanted a single monetary system consisting only of gold – backed McKinley and the Republican Party. Bryan’s 600 speeches in just 14 weeks were not enough to overcome big money, intimidation of voters and a press that portrayed him as mentally-ill. The Republicans won.
(During Republican administrations, the Central Pacific Railroad spent $200,000 in Washington on bribes to get almost ten million acres of free land and $24 million in bonds. Over $79 million was overpaid to the railroad for construction costs. In 1889, Interstate Commerce Commission records showed that 22,000 railroad workers were killed or injured.(1) Wealthy bankers and Republican political machines had “interests in so many of these monopolies as to create an interlocking network of powerful corporation directors, each of whom sat on the boards of many other corporations.(2) Mary Lease, a Populist, warned that Wall Street owned the country. Ignatius Donnelly wrote, “We meet of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized. The newspapers are subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced;”)(3)
In the 1896 presidential campaign, the Republican Party learned how to misinform people and spin the news. McKinley’s Front Porch campaign – which portrayed him as a commoner – was far from the truth. The Republicans were masterful, too, at blaming the 1893 Panic on Grover Cleveland, one of the few Democrats to have won an election. In doing this, they eliminated six previous Republican administrations and rewrote history. Political policies filled with scandals and financial policies creating economic disparity on a mass scale were blamed on Democrats. Never mind Republican governors and presidents that for years sent federal troops in support of monopolists and in order to break up strikes and arrest labor leaders, some of them even executed! Under the new Republican president, McKinley’s “full dinner pail” never arrived. Instead, the Republicans used the Spanish-American War to push for global expansion and the continued search for cheap labor, cheap resources and market economies. The supreme act of patriotism was no longer strikes, protests, reform movements or expanding civil liberties, but war.(4)
Reaganomics and Bush’s Compassionate Conservatism were only dressed-up policies of the enormous economic disparities developed during the Gilded Age, and which some Republicans unfortunately supported. So, too, is the current Republican Party’s arguments against a public option plan, or universal health care coverage. Several Republicans, who have received hundreds of millions of dollars from health care corporations and lobbying groups, are even conjuring up images of death panels and euthanasia. By using fear and intimidation, Republicans are trying to rule through emotions and ignorance. This time, the Republicans are tragically on the wrong side of history. They have become insensitive and isolated to the plight of the working class and poor. Will they ever regain their radicalism, and stop pressing down upon the brow of the sick this crown of thorns? Will Republicans ever cease crucifying the oppressed on a for-profit-only-health-care-industry cross?
(1) Zinn, Howard. A People’s History Of The United States. New York, New York: The New Press, 2003. p. 189.
(2) p. 191.
(3) p. 209.
(4) p. 213.