Commentary Magazine


The Republicans: A History of Their Party, by Malcolm Moos

The Republican Story
by Seymour Martin Lipset
The Republicans: A History of Their Party. By Malcolm Moos. Random House. 564 pp. $5.95.

Conservative political parties have always been unattractive subjects for modern scholars and intellectuals. There are many more books dealing with leftist parties and labor movements than with parties of the center or the right or with business organizations. In the United States, minor political manifestations like the Populists and Socialists have been the subject of numerous studies at the same time that the two major party organizations have gone virtually ignored by historians. This present work by Malcolm Moos is the first serious effort by an American historian or political scientist to chronicle the story of the Republican party on a national scale, and no one has yet attempted a comparable treatment of the Democrats.

In part, the lack of academic interest in the major parties is due to the fact that those scholars who have taken a serious interest in the political process have largely been concerned with reform, with changing the system, and hence they have felt no great inclination to study the activities of organizations which back the political status quo. Professor Moos, however—a representative of that new tendency in American life, the conservative intellectual—has no such reluctance. In addition to being a distinguished political scientist, he is an active Republican, currently chairman of the Republican State Committee in Baltimore.

Although Professor Moos is clearly sympathetic to Eisenhower Republicanism, he has not written a partisan tract. His book is hardly reticent about the errors and failings of the party throughout its history, such as the attempt made by Republican Congressmen to kill the defense program by voting against the draft in 1941; the corruption of the Grant and Harding administrations; the weakening of the power of the Presidency under Coolidge; and the antagonism to a strong Executive which has characterized the GOP for the past thirty-six years. And Moos cites with approval the conclusion of William Allen White that the Republican party has “served business through the leadership of the politicians.”

But if a large part of the Republican record is one of subservience to business interests, of isolationism, of growing indifference to the Negroes in the South, of support of Prohibition, and of McCarthyism, there is another side to the party that Professor Moos can feel proud of: Lincoln’s leadership; Mark Hanna’s far-sighted “progressive conservatism,” which recognized in the late 19th century that a stable society would require strong trade unions and that reformist groups did not constitute a challenge to private capitalism; the Progressive Republicans in the early part of this century who fought the excesses of big business power; William Howard Taft, who prosecuted trusts and whose administration sponsored Constitutional amendments for the income tax and the direct election of Senators; and Taft’s son Robert, who backed public housing for the poor, and who in 1953 was willing to defend the right of Communists to teach.

Yet for all its virtues, Professor Moos’s book leaves one dissatisfied. He provides rich detail and keen interpretations of specific incidents, but one looks in vain for a theory of American politics or of party behavior of the kind advanced in recent years by Samuel Lubell, Maurice Duverger, and Sigmund Neumann.

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Popular mythology to the contrary, the Republicans never constituted a genuine third party. When they first appeared on the scene in the mid-1850’s, their organization basically represented a realignment of those forces in the North Which had always been hostile to the Democrats, forces which had once backed the Federalists and then divided their allegiance between the Whig and American (Know-Nothing) parties in the early 1850’s. The Whigs had always represented the “have” elements of the country—the well-to-do native-born Anglo-Saxon Protestants of both city and country. The Know-Nothings expressed antagonism to the growing influence of the Irish and Catholic immigrants who had streamed into the country during the late 40’s. These immigrants were rapidly swelling the Democratic ranks and making it more and more likely that the Democratic coalition of lower-class groups, Catholics, and Southern pro-slavery elements would dominate the country.

To ward off this threat, middle-class conservatives (the old Whigs) joined with opponents of Catholicism and immigration (the Know-Nothings) and ideological opponents of slavery to form the new Republican party. Though slavery was not a dominant issue for the Know-Nothings, they apparently were willing to unite with the “conscience Whigs” (who opposed the extension of slavery) and the small group of anti-slavery Free Soilers in a party which would emphasize resistance to Southern power. (The leadership of the new party, however, remained from the start in the hands of the Northern business conservatives; the radical anti-slavery group was probably the least powerful element in the coalition.) The addition of Know-Nothing and Free Soiler votes to the traditional Whig strength gave the Republicans a majority in the North in 1860, although they still remained a minority in the country as a whole. But when the Homestead Act was passed in 1862, winning the loyalty of the farmers of the West to the new party, the Republicans were assured of remaining a major party, for they now possessed the mass rural base that their Whig predecessors had always lacked.

The subsequent history of the Republican party can largely be explained in terms of the two groups of business conservatives and Midwestern farmers making up its strength. The important business interests of the North (the heirs of the “conscience Whigs” and Know-Nothings) financed the party, controlled its policies in the commercial and industrial states, and mainly determined the economic policies of Republican administrations. But the presence within the party of the Midwest rural group created a basic strain. In reaction against depression and the growth of monopoly capitalism, the farmers and to some extent the small businessmen began to advocate economic reform: thus was Progressive Republicanism born around the turn of the century.

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The struggle between the middle-class Republicanism of the Middle West and the big-business Republicanism of the East has continued down to the present. But in the course of that struggle the two antagonists switched roles: today, as Professor Moos points out, the East is the home of Progressive Republicanism, while the party’s leading reactionaries are bred in the Midwest. This shift was the result of three factors. First of all, the social character of the Midwest changed. With the decline of the rural population in the Midwest and throughout America, the middle classes of the towns and small cities became the largest single source of Republican strength in that area. Hence agrarian protest could no longer play a decisive role in the party. The voice of the Midwest Republican is now the voice of the small and middle-sized conservative businessman who is opposed to trade unions, high taxes, and government regulation.

Secondly, the fact that the Democrats were in the White House both times the U.S. went to war against Germany gave the Republicans the Midwest German vote, which had previously been Democratic, and the party remains somewhat receptive to their aspirations—which are now anything but progressive.

And finally, the increasing supremacy of American business on the world scene led to an internationalist foreign policy orientation on the part of the major business corporations, which are mostly centered in the East. Along with this change went a new acceptance of the need for trade unions and social welfare legislation: Eastern Republicanism became “enlightened conservative” in domestic policy.

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The dual face which the Republican party has frequently presented can also be related to the elective offices it holds at any given moment. As Professor Moos indicates, when the party is weak most of its representatives in Congress and the state legislatures come from areas composed of the most conservative groups in the population, where candidates do not need liberal or center votes and usually make no effort to offer a moderate program. But a Republican running for governor in an industrial state that has a strong Democratic party, or running for the Presidency, must appeal to independent and Democratic voters who will not vote for a reactionary. And so one always finds Republican governors pitted against Republican Congressmen at national conventions, and since 1936 the former have almost invariably succeeded in pushing through a Presidential candidate of their own persuasion.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are generally centrist or moderate while in opposition, and reformist or liberal while in power. As with the Republicans, the safest Democratic seats are held by the most conservative wing of the party (the Southerners), and it is they who set the tone of the party when a Republican is in the White House. The combination of a Republican President and a Democratic Congress usually means that there will be a minimum of disagreement between the President and his Congressional opposition, as was the case with Eisenhower and the Eighty-fourth Congress. But the combination of a Democratic President (who must always be to the left of the main Democratic spokesmen in Congress, since he can only be elected by carrying the liberal Northern industrial states) and a Republican Congress invariably results in the widening of the breach between the parties (e.g. Truman and the Eighty-first Congress). Thus for both parties, defeat in a Presidential election strengthens their conservatives.

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But in spite of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, the essential character of the two parties is clear: the Republicans represent middle-class conservatism, and Democratic power is largely based on the working class and the underprivileged ethnic groups, who are invariably liberal. There is no reason to believe that this situation will change soon.

The nature of American political life strongly suggests that both major parties will continue to follow their present patterns. The Republicans in Congress will go on opposing all reforms proposed by Democratic Presidents, but whenever they capture the Executive themselves they will endorse and further the reforms enacted by the Democrats. The latter, on the other hand, will go along with the program of a Republican President, making little clamor for more “liberal” policies, but they will be the party of reform when their own man gets back into the White House. One may safely hazard the guess that not even the succession of Nixon to the Presidency would affect this pattern, for Nixon and the party leaders know that a Republican President must be spokesman of the most liberal element in the party. Goodwin Knight, for example, as Lieutenant Governor of California, was the leader of the most reactionary forces in the state while Earl Warren was governor. In 1953, much to the chagrin of California liberals, Knight inherited the governorship upon Warren’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But once in office, Knight confounded the expectations of both his allies and his opponents, shifting almost overnight to the liberal camp and in 1956 opposing Nixon’s renomination.

The Republican party is not likely to become the vehicle of a forthright moderate progressivism such as Professor Moos would clearly like it to be. But neither is it likely to become the tool of deep-dyed reactionaries. The present system of American politics does not seem to tolerate parties deviating too far from the center.

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