If you haven’t already, you will hear and see arguments from the Party of Lincoln about how the politicians and voters of the Democratic Party are the “real racists” in our two-party system because it was historically the party of slavery, secession and the Ku Klux Klan back in the 19th Century. Republicans like to bring this history up because over the same course of our history their party had dramatically devolved from the abolitionist roots of its founding in Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1854. Republicans today might even have a sound argument about their Democratic Party rivals had they themselves remained consistent to its policy priorities of the 1860s; or had the national Democratic Party not finally severed its legislative dependence on the southern “Dixiecrats” when LBJ signed sweeping historic Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s. But they did; and they did it while the Republicans willfully degenerated into the party of voter suppression, union busting and religious fundamentalism.
History does not happen all at once. Indeed, once upon a time, Abraham Lincoln developed, through correspondence and diplomatic messages, a friendship with and an admiration for Karl Marx and his political ideas.
“Labor is prior to and independent of capital,” Lincoln wrote in his first message to Congress (the forerunner to the State of the Union address) in December, 1861. “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
It does not come up often enough in casual political discourse that Marx and Lincoln were contemporaries who had mutual friends, read each other’s work and exchanged letters and diplomatic messages. For example, during his term in the House of Representatives, Lincoln struck up a friendship with his colleague Horace Greeley, a New York Whig who would come to be better known for his newspaper, the New York Tribune (and his often-quoted exhortation, “Go West, young man!”). In 1852, the Tribune’s managing editor Charles A. Dana hired Marx, exiled in London following the unsuccessful 1848 rebellion to unify the Germanic states, as a British correspondent. Greeley’s Tribune was a proudly Republican publication.
Marx had formed the International Workingmen’s Association, whose New York chapter Lincoln addressed in 1864. In those remarks, the first Republican president of the United States included an unambiguous political statement of radical equality. “The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation,” said Lincoln, “should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds.” A statement akin to Marx’s famous exhortation, “Workers of the world unite!”
Marx wrote Lincoln in January, 1865, in the name of the organization’s socialists, communists, anarchists and trade unionists, to “congratulate the American people upon your reelection.” Lincoln replied through the US Ambassador to Great Britain and the descendent of US presidents, Charles Francis Adams, telling Marx of Lincoln’s “sincere and anxious desire that he may be able to prove himself not unworthy of the confidence which has been recently extended to him by his fellow citizens and by so many of the friends of humanity and progress throughout the world.”
So, if Republicans wanted to judge themselves in good faith by the same historical standard they use to condemn the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson and Stephen Douglas, then any liberal could surely find tremendous common ground with the GOP on such a profoundly progressive public policy agenda as Lincoln’s Republican Party.
But alas, history and public policy discourse do not work that way. Instead, among other things, the Republican Party eventually and willfully ceded its ethical ground for an investment by the moneyed interests that drove the likes of Theodore Roosevelt away from the party and found valuable political capital in limiting the civil rights of minorities and other marginalized communities of American citizens. The shamelessly opportunistic political calculus has come to include stoking social resentments and Cold War fear of Soviet Communism in the heart of what once were the New Deal Democratic strongholds of the post-World War II white ethnic working class, broadly conflating Marxist theory with moral decline. Since the rise of Reagan, the twin Republican policy priorities have remained privatizing public services while deregulating private industry for the benefit of moneyed interests and at the expense of the general welfare.
This cynical approach to public policy is largely driven by a passion for what former Nixon administration speechwriter, presidential candidate and conservative pundit Pat Buchanan called “a culture war for the soul of America” at the 1992 Republican National Convention at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas — a very long march from Ripon, Wisconsin. For example, the Republican commitment to the forced birth policy of the so-called “pro-life” movement has had the effect of rewarding terrorist acts against women’s clinics and OB-Gyn surgeons with sympathetic legislation and judicial appointments to the federal bench, with particular attention to overturning the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision on Roe v. Wade. This conflation of peaceable assembly for the redress of grievances with selective acts of political terrorism has punched a hole in our American democratic culture the size of a lawless mob, on orders from the president, storming the chambers and offices of the US Capitol and the workings of our legislative branch of government itself.
Republican culture warriors have enjoyed electoral success from rural communities and suburbs to urban neighborhoods, broadening its assault on the spirit of American civil law articulated in the US Constitution in general and on the First Amendment establishment clause in particular, exploiting the full power of the state in order to establish the foundation of a narrow religious-based doctrine in civil law; namely, of life beginning at conception. Meanwhile, liberals have never claimed the full power of the state to force anyone into aborting a single pregnancy. Indeed, despite the stated Republican policy preference for limited government, liberal Americans’ approach the issue of reproductive rights from the usually conservative value of individual autonomy. Go figure!
History may not happen all at once but human nature stays the same forever.