As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, let us consider what the party he helped found has become. Lincoln pushed through Congress a progressive income tax, a bill to subsidize a transcontinental railroad, a land grant college act to help educate working class children, and the Homestead Act that gave land to those willing to till the soil. Each of those policy choices are echoed in the stimulus package that President Obama steered through Congress with but three Republican votes.
How has a party that helped unify and rebuild America become a party of division and negativity?
Consider President Obama’s meeting with House Republicans. They voiced their opposition to payments to the working poor through the Earned Income Tax Credit. Like Lincoln’s Homestead Act, the program rewards work and encourages economic growth: The more the poor work, the higher the payment, and the money they earn is spent immediately, generating employment for those who supply the goods purchased. President Obama pointed out to his Republican critics that Ronald Reagan had both signed a bill expanding the program in 1986 and sung its praises. Yet not a single Republican chose to vote with the Gipper.
To understand the GOP’s transformation, we must know its origins, which are as fascinating a study as Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.” When Lincoln won the presidency in 1860, he unified three parties that had each earned significant votes in prior national elections: the Whigs, the Free Soilers and the Know Nothings. Lin-coln had been a Whig, a moderate party committed to taxes sufficient to support the building of roads, railroads and canals. The Free Soil Party was a liberal party, opposed to the expansion of slavery. The Know Nothing, or American Party, was a reactionary party, bitterly opposed to the immigration of Catholics from Europe.
The first major split in the Republican Party came with Republican Teddy Roosevelt’s acceptance of the Progressive Party nomination in 1912. He supported business regulation, direct democracy and raising the standard of living of the working class: Whig sensibilities of which Lincoln would have approved. Taft, the incum-bent Republican president, finished third in that year’s election, carrying only the Know Nothing wing of his party and the Wall Street elite which loathed both Teddy Roosevelt and the winning Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.
After voting for Franklin Roosevelt from 1932-1944, this progressive Whig heart of the old Republican Party returned to vote for Eisenhower, who campaigned for an interstate highway system and acceptance of the New Deal. Ike relied on Richard Nixon to rally the Know Nothing base with charges of rampant Communist in-filtration of the federal government.
Nixon became a favorite of the Know Nothing wing of his party. In 1968 he added some Southern Democrats, or Dixiecrats, who in the 19th Century would have been known as disciples of former Vice President John Calhoun: anti-tax and anti-federal government. Calhoun claimed to his dying days that federal tax law could be nullified by the action of a state legislature.
In the 2008 GOP primaries, almost every candidate for the Republican nomination sought to rally the base with complaints about immigrants that are echoes of the party’s Know Nothing past. Republicans grudgingly voted for McCain, angry that he had once championed sensible immigration reform, and swooned at Sarah Palin, who suggested that her visits to conservative strongholds were visits to the “pro-American” part of the country. Remember that the Know Nothings had branded themselves as the American Party.
This Know Nothing base is now aligned with Dixiecrats, whose forebears were so incensed at Lincoln’s election that they fired on the American flag at Fort Sumter and began the Civil War. They retain their ancestors’ anti-federal government and anti-tax mania. The Dixiecrat tax cut mania has even mythologized Ronald Reagan, who raised income taxes in 1982 and social security taxes in 1983, as an apostle of endless tax cuts. Ronnie, they hardly know you.
Republicans, now so unwilling to spend $800 billion to rebuild this country, had no such hesitation in spending an equal sum for the destruction of Iraq. The three Republicans who voted to try to rebuild their country, Sens. Snowe, Collins and Specter, are all that remains of the progressive Whig core of Lincoln’s party. Their offices report that they are being besieged by phone calls from out-of-state Republicans, charging them with abandoning their party.
The sad truth is that the party of Lincoln has abandoned its founding principles. Many Republicans now denounce Darwin’s theory of evolution. In the transformation of their party, they have created a demonstrable exception to his evolutionary theory: The Republican party has undergone a devolution.
Lincoln would weep for his party.
Arthur Greif is a lawyer practicing in Bangor.