To Make Men Free, by Heather Cox Richardson
To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party
By Heather Cox Richardson
Basic Books, 416 pages
Opponents of today’s Republican Party delight in using the party’s history as a weapon against it. Founded as an anti-slavery coalition in the mid-19th century, they say, Lincoln’s party abolished slavery, shepherded the South back into the Union successfully, and created a more equal polity by championing the downtrodden. The party was, for its time and place, a preeminent force for anti-racism, tolerance, compassion, and hope. Indeed, according to this view, the Republicans of the 1860s were 20th-century liberals dressed in frock coats and top hats—bona fide progressives, except when the forgivable prejudices of their time bubbled to the surface. Since then, following this line of argument, the party has slowly, steadily, and maybe even tragically undermined its founding principles. In the 1960s, the party turned against a once core constituency, African Americans, in favor of racial and economic inequality. The core of the party has been disguising its considerable racism with the language of free enterprise.
To Make Men Free, a sophisticated and layered portrait of the Republican Party, follows a similar, though certainly more charitable, line of reasoning. Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of 19th-century history at Boston College, wants to identify the fundamental ideological and philosophical principles that have guided the party for its comparatively short history. She finds two central principles. The first: “The Declaration of Independence promise[s] citizens equal access to economic opportunity.” And the second: The Constitution’s structuring of the federal government stipulates in no uncertain terms that “property rights must be protected.” In her view, the party has oscillated between these two principles since its founding in the 1850s. At certain points—especially during the administrations of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower—Republicans advanced the cause of equality and pushed property rights to the background of politicking and legislation. During other administrations—those of Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, and Ronald Reagan—the party focused on defending property rights, especially those of the wealthy, at the expense of poorer Americans. There is, she suggests, a constant battle within the party between the thesis of equality and the antithesis of property. Worse, a practical, workable synthesis of the two appears to be unlikely, if not impossible.
Richardson’s account suggests that the party has always comprised two factions: one devoted to property and therefore (in her view) “big business,” and the other to equality and (again, in her view) “upward mobility.” One faction, currying favor with voters and dominating a few election cycles, becomes the establishment, the Old Guard. When the Old Guard’s ideological commitments have become stale or have failed to address the nation’s most pressing issues, the competing faction sweeps in and becomes, as it were, the “New” Old Guard. Richardson narrates these factional power-swaps in rich detail, telling stories of sabotage, rigged nominations, and unlikely alliances. This is her book’s greatest virtue.
As Richardson recounts the history of Republicans, it becomes clear that the two factions, each committed to different principles, disagree on nearly every problem facing the nation. More often than not, their disputes become so intense that one faction, usually in the minority, sides with the Democrats. The most striking instance was the impeachment of Republican president Andrew Johnson, the southern-born successor to Abraham Lincoln and notorious appeaser of former Confederates. Unsatisfied with his approach to Reconstruction, the Republican-dominated House voted nearly 3 to 1 in favor of impeachment on hopped-up charges of, among other things, “show[ing] disrespect for the Congress among the citizens of the United States.” But if Johnson had been removed, the president pro tem of the Senate, Benjamin Wade—known for his opinion that former slave owners should cede their plantations to former slaves, in exchange for a pardon from the government—would have ascended to the presidency. To prevent that from happening, seven Republican senators voted with the Democrats to acquit Johnson, presumably on account of their affinity for property rights and the presumed injury those rights might suffer under a President Wade. Thirty-five senators voted to convict Johnson—only one vote shy of the two-thirds majority required to remove him from office.
Richardson also offers a fascinating portrait of the origins of Republican tax policy. Republicans first devised the income tax to finance the expensive military operation of the Civil War. The new tax—a burdensome 3 percent on incomes above $800—was designed specifically to target the wealthy. Based on how we view taxation today, we might be inclined to think that the Republican tax plan was meant to punish the rich for their success. Not so, she tells us. The income tax was only one part of a much larger tax plan that included two other taxes: a higher tariff on household goods that burdened working-class Americans in the East, and a new “direct tax” on the state governments that burdened farmers and landowners in the West. (Most state governments at the time raised revenue for themselves through property taxes.) The Civil War income tax was meant to target wealthy, Eastern industrialists not simply because they were rich, but because they had been shielded from the effects of the higher tariffs and the direct tax on state governments. Richardson concludes that this new tax structure “reflect[s] Republican ideas” insofar as it “distributed the financial burdens of the war evenly among rich and poor, East and West, businessmen and farmers.”
But as Richardson moves forward in time, her effort to pin down the factions, their motives, and their actions falters. By the end of her analysis, each of those Republicans committed to equality of opportunity—especially Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower—turn out to be the same. Lincoln believed that “government must leave the economic playing field free for hardworking individuals to rise.” Roosevelt “demanded an active government to restore an even economic playing field.” Eisenhower’s “experiences in World War II convinced him that nothing—literally nothing—was more important in the modern world than political and economic equality.” Did Lincoln and Roosevelt really think in terms of an “economic playing field,” a late-20th-century concept? Was Eisenhower so deeply committed to a hazy idea of “equality” that he couldn’t see the value of a strong, organized military? Could Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower really have had nearly interchangeable opinions about the purpose of American government?
It seems unfair to treat these historical titans with such simplicity. Their statesmanship, whether one admires or despises it, was shaped no less by emotion, prudence, and compromise than by the vague “ideological” commitments Richardson hopes to uncover. Richardson makes her ideological preferences, to say nothing of her political allegiances, quite clear by the end of the book: By her understanding of the Republican Party, President Obama is a “progressive Republican’s dream,” Lincoln and Roosevelt and Eisenhower reincarnate. And so the subtlety and clear-mindedness with which Heather Cox Richardson writes about the party in the 19th century turns into low comedy by the time she reaches the 21st.
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Must-Reads from Magazine
Podcast: Kavanaugh and Rosenstein.
Can you take what we say about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh seriously considering we’re conservatives and he’s a conservative? Are we defending him because we are genuinely discomfited by how insubstantial the allegations against him are, or are we doing so because we agree with him ideologically? We explore this on today’s podcast. Give a listen.
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.