This is the most significant story of our time, and it is still developing.
This essay is my understanding of the changes in the Republican party from about the 1910s to the present time. I am not an historian; there may be errors of fact here; but my essay comes from a sincere attempt to show how this Party has changed and also, where possible, why. I feel that historians in the United States, and many journalists, often miss the why of things because they are generally white men of intellectual backgrounds who have unconscious biases coming from these backgrounds. I am familiar with that situation since I am such a person as well.
I focus on the Republican party with little reference to the Democratic party, since the story of that party is also quite complicated and very different from the Republicans during the period of my focus. In the spirit of full disclosure, my own political philosophy beginning in the 1960s has been nearly opposite to that of the Republicans. I also consider myself a world citizen who values the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a personal and political guide.
I’ve drawn on my knowledge of American political history, also old letters from my mother’s family who were staunch Republicans, my parents’ opinions, and my own observations of politics in the United States beginning in the 1960s.
The Deep Background
The human history of the Americas begins with the indigenous peoples from east Asia, but the history we are concerned with picks up when the white Europeans arrived in their ships. In the land that we now call the United States, these Europeans were primarily English or Spanish. What was important for these people was to settle – to find and occupy land of their own. The long story from the 1500s until about 1900 was the pushing of Indians into reservations, and then controlling land use everywhere else.
By the 1800s in the United States, the English-speaking people had taken over from the formerly held Spanish or Mexican governments. Through observing behavior I am convinced that through the centuries a core belief was formed by most white Americans of European origin, that this country belongs to them, and that they should control the politics, land use, and economic activities. This led to a mostly unconscious sense of white supremacy, which was also until recently a white male supremacy. This belief created an outsider status of African-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Latino-Americans, and many other groups who have immigrated within the last century.
The 1910s Through The 1940s
Our story begins in the early 1910s after Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was an outlier in the Republican party; he believed in workers’ rights, conservation, and the American Empire that had taken over many formerly Spanish island colonies. His successor as president, William Howard Taft, tried to restore a more modest sense of the role of government.
In the process of writing brief biographies of my mother and her family members for my children, I have been reading old family letters and diaries. This begins with my grandmother’s diaries in the 1910s, and goes on with my grandfather’s extensive writings, and letters from my mother and one aunt. They were all Republicans, and their politics were dominated by my grandfather’s politics.
From this reading I’m getting a clearer idea of the general philosophy of Republicans in that period. They believed in self-reliance; that everyone can with hard work make a good life (the Horatio Alger view); local self-government as much as possible; and limited laws and regulations by State and Federal governments. This was the philosophy preached (if not always practiced) by Presidents Taft, Coolidge, and Hoover.
When Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1933, he instituted a number of emergency measures to help the economy which had been devastated by the Great Depression. These included a number of social welfare programs such as the WPA and the Conservation Corps. He also instituted legal protection for unions including regulations enabling union shops where all employees were required to join. My grandfather and my father hated Roosevelt because of these actions, and based on writings I have seen they were typical of Republicans. These actions violated Republicans’ core beliefs that government should not spend taxpayer money on general assistance, nor should it regulate how corporations run their businesses. Republicans also began a long-term critique of the Federal Government running deficits, stating that these continuing deficits would ruin the nation’s credit and confidence in the currency, especially since Roosevelt took the US currency off the gold standard. By Keynesian macroeconomics there is no threat if the deficits occur during a slack economy, but Republican politicians either do not understand economics or deliberately try to deceive their supporters. I think this claim is used as a club to try to limit spending on programs that the Republicans don’t like, such as those mentioned above.
Something else of importance occurred with Roosevelt. Since the end of the Civil War, most African-Americans had voted Republican in memory of Lincoln who had freed the slaves. Roosevelt’s uplifting speeches stating that all Americans have value and should work together led most African-Americans to start voting with the Democratic party, in the correct assumption that the Democrats would better help them improve their living conditions than the Republicans.
Republicans also did not want to be involved in the European wars – they called them “foreign entanglements.” After Pearl Harbor, of course, everyone pitched in; then there was little criticism of the rapidly increasing government debt. Senator Robert Taft of Ohio was the last Republican of the old school to run for president. In 1948 he lost the nomination to Dewey; in 1952 he was outmaneuvered at the Republican convention enabling Eisenhower to be the nominee.
After 1945, a significant event occurred. The US Government decided on a foreign policy strategy of world domination. Both Republicans and Democrats in Washington, and many journalists and opinion developers, agreed to this strategy. It has continued to the present day, unchanged by any Congress or president. The strategy as a whole has rarely been discussed with the American public – politicians use words like “American leadership”, “American exceptionalism”, “supporting our allies and opposing our enemies.” The reasons, as far as I can make out, were to oppose the threat stated by the Soviet Union for world domination, and the naive idea that the United States could be the “world’s policeman”. But behind it is the urge for conquest started centuries before. Based on this strategy, the U.S military became engaged in a massive buildup including nuclear weapons, taking an increasing share of Federal spending. The only national discussion of this policy in my lifetime occurred when George McGovern ran against Nixon in the 1972 presidential election, and he lost by a big margin, solidifying politicians’ views that domination is what the American people want.
The 1950s Through The 1960s
As an Army officer, Eisenhower had always been non-political as required by law. He could have run for president on either ticket, and chose the Republicans. He was a pragmatic, non-ideological man, and had little lasting influence on the Republican party. Something else was happening which I stumbled on in the early 1960s.
As a young man I had never been interested in politics. But the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 shocked me, and I realized that politics may be dumb, but politicians can be crazy and we need to pay attention. I started to read books and magazines on the liberal side and the conservative side, and came across Senator Goldwater’s book The Conscience of a Conservative. This was relevant since he was going to run for president as a Republican in 1964.
In the book, there were two sections, one on domestic policy and one on foreign policy. In domestic policy, Goldwater stated the traditional Republican attitude – small Federal government, low regulation, freedom of action. In foreign policy, however, he proposed a robust, expensive military along with military and economic engagement with countries all over the world. The Republicans now wanted small government at home and big government outside our borders.
In 1965, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. As he signed them, he was heard to say that the Democratic Party would lose the South for a generation. White Southern Democrats started changing their registrations to Republican. This process accelerated when Richard Nixon made a dog-whistle appeal to white people in the 1968 presidential campaign, calling them the “silent majority”. Although racism has always been prevalent among whites across the nation, racists started to increase in the Republican party and decrease in the Democratic party, since Democratic politicians pushed back agains racist behavior.