Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Real Republicans?


Party characterisation and how they see themselves

While reading James Bennet’s editorial in the January/February issue of The Atlantic, I was reminded of one of my favourite (if that’s the right word) bugbears about the Republican Party in the US. Here’s the quote that made me think of it:

“The party of Roosevelt believes government can and should be a force for good. The party of Reagan thinks that, apart from national defence, government mostly gets in the way.”

Bennet is referring here to the Democrat Party as the party of Franklin Roosevelt. However, in truth, the party that “believes government can and should be a force for good” is actually the party of both Presidents Roosevelt – both FDR and TR believed in the power, possibility and necessity of the federal government. Teddy Roosevelt was very confident about the role that government can and should play, particularly with regards to corporate and economic regulation, and fashioning a world-class social safety-net. Many (perhaps most?) Republicans of today would likely accuse him of being a socialist if he were alive and working – certainly he bears zero resemblance to the clutch of Tea Party candidates of 2010.

I mention this because many Republicans will frequently point to TR or Lincoln as great Republicans of the past to blunt certain criticisms of GOP policy platforms. The Real Republican Majority, for example, has this banner at the top of the organisation’s website:


[I should point out that I am not passing judgement on the RRM’s policy proposals, as some of them are actually quite sensible, but on the clear disregard for historical accuracy.]

That Reagan was directly opposed to most of the policies that TR espoused, championed, and fought tooth-and-nail for, but is still offered as an example of what Republicans should be, is extremely frustrating. Fair enough, both Lincoln and TR were Republicans, but as almost everyone knows, the Republican and Democratic parties of today bear very little resemblance to that of just 50 years ago, let alone that of 100 and 150 years ago. Democrats are just as prone to this amnesia, of course. But to present TR and Reagan as archetypes of what a Republican should aspire to be is oxymoronic. You can’t be a Reagan Republican but follow Teddy’s example – they are, on most important political issues, completely divergent (regulation, environment, social security). Perhaps the only issue they would agree on is national defence (TR effectively invented the modern US Navy, and certainly expanded its size by a considerable degree).

In case you think I’m being unfair, allow me to reproduce a couple of quotes from Aida Donald’s Lion in the White House (Basic Books), which was not only one of my favourite books read in 2010, it’s probably the best short bio of TR available. First of all, on the subject of corporate regulation, which he fought against his entire career, from his time in New York all the way to the White House:

“[TR] sought laws to break monopolies and to oversee accounting reviews to get corporations to pay their taxes. Not incidentally, he thought he made corporations more moral by making them pay their fair share. Roosevelt also knew corporations would now have less money with which to corrupt politics.”

“He had demanded accountability from corporations when he was governor of New York, when they overvalued stock, watered stock, and fooled investors with corrupt practices, and he would take his battle against what he called ‘bad’ trusts to the larger playing field.”

In terms of society, Roosevelt would have been appalled by the pro-corporate position of the modern GOP – the recent Supreme Court ruling that gave corporations the same rights as people likely made him turn in his grave and rampage through heaven to give Reagan an earful. Also, one of the prototypical Republicans (thank you Alyssa for the phrase) was even pro-union, and it is shocking that some in the current Republican Party are using someone likely favoured by even Canadian liberals was pro-Union! See here:

“Within the broad sphere of society and social relations, Roosevelt preferred order, regularity, and balance. This meant curbing the meretricious, laissez-faire tendencies by business that had injured the laboring population. The way to help labor was to empower it to organize and even strike, although Roosevelt would never condone mob violence either by labor or capital. Labor was expected to negotiate wages and conditions.”

Anyway, that’s just my short contribution to the discussion/topic.

I’m sure I’ll have more to write as I work my way through this issue – The Atlantic is easily the best political periodical available from the US, and it appears as though this is an issue where every single article is of interest. I will likely write some comments and a response to Chrystia Freedland’s cover story on the “The Rise of the New Global Elite” and Andrew Bacevich’s article “The Tyranny of the Defence Inc.” in the very near future on this blog.

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