In a democracy, virtually all political parties evolve over time, but our nation’s Republican party has undergone not just a few makeovers, but has actually transformed itself into the opposite of what it initially stood for. It has carried out this transformation with respect to four basic political issues – civil rights, foreign intervention, individual liberties, and law and order. Let’s take up each of them in turn.
Whatever else may be said about today’s Republican Party, it is surely no longer the party of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln not only freed the slaves, but for at least ten years after his assassination in 1865, his party made a monumental effort to ensure that the former slaves not only enjoyed full civil rights, but that they could vote and hold political office throughout the South.
However, once the federal troops were withdrawn from the South, Jim Crow laws were passed to ensure that Blacks would not only be barred from voting, but would become second class citizens for the next ninety years These laws were imposed by white Democratic office-holders, and their stranglehold on all local, state and especially, federal offices, led to the region to become known as “the Solid South.”
When Vice President Lyndon Johnson – a Texas Democrat who had long served in Congress – ascended to the presidency after John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, he soon prevailed upon Congress to pass sweeping civil rights legislation which ensured that Black Americans could not only vote and hold political office throughout the nation, but could also rent hotel rooms, use public restrooms, and have all the rights and privileges that had long been enjoyed by white citizens.
These laws were passed by majorities in both houses of Congress. Many Republicans and Democrats voted for this legislation, but not one Democratic Senator or Representative from any of the eleven states of the Confederacy was among them.
The passage of these laws also quickly led to the disappearance of the Democratic Solid South, as most of its white racists migrated to the Republican Party. Today, nearly every senator and a very high percentage of representatives from these states are staunch Republicans and are quite happy to concoct legal means to suppress the political participation of Blacks, nearly all of whom vote Democratic.
Congressional Republicans strongly supported the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, but the times were changing. Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who was the Republican presidential candidate in 1964, strongly opposed the passage of civil rights legislation, declaring that “You can’t legislate morality.” Not exactly Lincolnesque, Goldwater and his worshipful followers soon transformed much of the Republican party from supporters of civil rights for all Americans to staunch opponents.
Today in the South, Republicans, who dominate the state legislatures and reside in nearly all the governors’ mansions, do all they possibly can to suppress voting by Blacks. In Georgia, where the lines are always the longest in the Black voting precincts, it is against the law to provide water to voters waiting hours in the hot sun. Even the slaves in the cotton fields were given water.
By the turn of the twentieth century, the United States had become a world military power. Under Republican Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, we began building an American Empire throughout the Caribbean and across the Pacific. Today that empire includes hundreds of military bases in scores of countries around the globe.
Republican President George W. Bush managed to get our armed forces very heavily involved not just in Iraq, but in Afghanistan as well. There, we waged our nation’s longest war – which was finally ended just last year by Republican President Donald Trump. Indeed, Trump single-handedly began to withdraw our nation from its military involvements all around the world.
Indeed, he even appeared to be contemplating pulling us out of NATO. Had he been reelected in 2020, he probably would not have approved sending massive military aid to Ukraine after the Russian invasion. Indeed, he clearly viewed Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin, as a very close friend. Indeed, perhaps they are even more tha friends.
Let’s consider what are considered four very basic human rights – to bear arms, to life, to choose, and the right to personal freedom. Let’s explore the evolution of the predominant Republican view of each of these issues.
The rationale for the right of Americans to bear arms is three-fold: Guns are needed for the defense of the nation, for hunting, and for self-defense.
The Second Amendment to the Constitution stipulates that these arms shall be borne by “a well-regulated militia” – presumably one under government control. Interestingly, as we’ve seen in recent years, private militias – virtually always strongly supported by Republican politicians – have been hard at work trying to overthrow not just state governments, but on January 6, 2021, the federal government as well. These armed thugs are surely not what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they added the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
Lincoln’s Republican Party’s first major task was to preserve the Union – not dismember it. The sheer ignorance of ex-president Donald Trump comparing himself to Lincon was truly amazing in the context of the January sixth insurrection that he fomented.
Turning now to right to own guns for hunting in rural areas where millions of Americans kill animals to feed their families, it’s perfectly fine for that purpose. But do they need AR-15 rifles capable of shooting twenty bullets in just a few seconds? And yet, Republican politicians are nearly unanimous in “protecting the rights” of these gun-owners.
The third purpose of owning guns is for self-defense. Again, you don’t need a high-powered semi-automatic rifle for that purpose. Or a veritable armory.
Let’s move on to two nearly diametrically opposed rights – the right to life of a pregnant woman’s fetus and the woman’s right to choose whether or not to carry her pregnancy to term. There’s clearly no clear-cut way to resolve this issue, but we can at least make a political observation.
In recent decades, as increasing numbers of evangelistic Christians and working- class Catholics have flocked to the Republican Party, it has taken the extreme view that abortion is an abomination. There is little or no compromise to be made.
Finally, we come to the dispute about laws and regulations that were made ostensibly for the health and safety of all Americans, and the right of all of us to be free to not be subject to these laws and regulations. This issue, of course, came to the fore with the outbreak of the COVID epidemic in early 2020.
Almost immediately, infectious disease experts recommended a set of measures for the federal, state and local governments to impose, which they believed would help curb the outbreak. These included wearing face masks, practicing social distancing, and temporarily shutting down restaurants, bars, and workplaces where people were crowded together. They reasoned that if the spread of the virus could be mitigated, that would save countless lives.
Although most Americans found these measures onerous, they readily followed them to help prevent the further spread of the epidemic, thereby helping to save perhaps millions of lives.
When vaccines were finally being widely distributed, tens of millions of people refused to get vaccinated. Their main objection was that the government had no right to tell them what to do.
Nearly all were rabid Republicans who felt that forced vaccinations were an imposition on their personal freedom – and that they would have no effect on curbing the spread of COVID. Most of these folks consider themselves – just like the January sixth insurrectionists — to be great American patriots. But the more accurate view is that they are selfish ignoramuses who put the welfare of their fellow Americans dead last.
Finally, please consider inherent contradiction between the “right to life” and the freedom from onerous government regulation claimed by the freedom-loving anti-vaxers. Somehow, it’s OK to force every pregnant woman to carry her pregnancy to term, but it’s not OK to pressure every American to get vaccinated against COVID. If it’s murder to abort a fetus, isn’t it negligent homicide to go unvaccinated? Just asking.
Law and Order
The Republicans have been the undisputed party of “law and order” since the 1950s, when Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy wreaked havoc across the nation by setting off a firestorm of paranoia about an imminent communist takeover. Tens of millions of Americans feared that being friendly with – or even being acquainted with – someone accused of being a communist or fellow traveler – was a sufficient degree of association to place themselves under suspicion.
Although claiming to have lists of communists employed by the State Department and other federal government agencies, Senator McCarthy, never did uncover a single member of the miniscule American Communist Party. But he did set off the greatest wave of hysteria our nation ever experienced
McCarthy and his allies succeeded in causing hundreds of thousands of Americans – few of whom were card-carrying communists – to lose their jobs and/or being “blacklisted”, making it difficult for them to find other work. Interestingly, very few of them were actually communists, and virtually none had plotted to overthrow our government.
Decades after the fall of Senator McCarthy, Congressional Republican politicians continued their crusade for law and order, sponsoring a far-reaching crime bill which was signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1994. It resulted in the imprisonment of millions of Black and Hispanic young men for often petty illegal drug possession and sales offences.
The mantra of these law-and-order Republicans was simple: “Let law enforcement officers do their jobs.” Which was, of course, to arrest all the criminals and lock them up.
The law-and-order Republicans – and many other Americans – have long looked the other way when the police engaged in blatant brutality, especially against Black men. But a couple of years ago, when a Minneapolis police officer killed a hand-cuffed Black man named George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for ten minutes, there was a sea-change of opinion about police brutality. Over the next year, there were nationwide demands to defund the police and to criminally charge those who had blatantly engaged in the brutal treatment of people in their custody. Of course, the vast majority of Republicans sprang to the defense of the police and considered defunding them a major step toward a major crime wave.
And then, the events of January 6, 2021 brought about a sea-change in the attitude of Republican politicians and their rank-and-file followers. On that day, President Donald Trump declared that it was OK for hundreds of his ardent supporters – many of them carrying firearms — to not just march on the nation’s Capitol, but to viciously attack hundreds of Capitol Police Officers who were defending the building. About 140 officers were seriously wounded and five died as a direct result of this armed attack.
On that day of infamy, the Republican claim to be the great advocate of law and order was completely demolished. And now, over the last couple of weeks, Trump’s legions of followers have not only been calling to defund the FBI, but mobilizing to attack FBI offices and to retaliate against the FBI agents who recently removed more than 300 classified documents that Trump had illegally stored on his Mar-a-Lago estate.
Now Trump’s legions of armed supporters are not only clamoring to defund the FBI, but some are even hoping to attack the agents who recovering the documents. Just to be helpful, Trump may make survailence video available to his minions so that they can more easily identify the agents they are hoping to attack.
Since its founding more than 160 years ago, the Republican Party has been utterly transformed to the extent that it would be entirely unrecognizable – and totally reprehensible – to Abraham Lincoln and its other founders. Indeed, it would be exceedingly hard to prove that today’s Republicans are even a legitimate political party. If their leaders have their way, they will not only destroy our democracy, but we will become a full-fledged fascist nation.