Given any election season, there are certain phrases you are certain to hear. One such refrain comes from the Republican Party, who you will always hear trumpet themselves as the party of “Lincoln, [Teddy] Roosevelt, and Reagan.” They will also claim they are the party of Civil Rights because their forerunners abolished slavery and helped pass the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. These are important claims due to the cultural significance of these events, and both of these claims are indeed true. They are also, however, just a tad disingenuous for one very important reason – the Republican Party of today is not the same party of fifty years ago.
An Abridged History
The Republican Party came into power under the administration of Abraham Lincoln and through the events of slave emancipation, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Before we explore Lincoln, however, let’s look at what the Republican Party stood for in those early days. First, the name is a hint – Republican versus Democratic. Today’s Republican Party has grown extremely libertarian, but what is more libertarian by nature: a democracy or a republic? The government of Abraham Lincoln became much more centralized and much more authoritarian than any previous administration (even treading on the sacred cup of state sovereignty). Think about it: would a true libertarian have impeded the secession of states in any way?
Early Republicans were characterized by a mixture of Classical Liberalism, Progressivism, and some elements of what would become Paleoconsevatism. They were willing to interfere with established economic traditions to pursue a better life for some. They were willing to impose taxation to relieve economic downturns or to fund wars. They emphasized railroads, funding education, and giving free land to farmers. Despite favoring industries, early Republicans also looked distrustfully upon unregulated capitalism. As Abraham Lincoln said to the Illinois legislature in 1837:
These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert to fleece the people, and now that they have got into a quarrel with themselves, we are called upon to appropriate the people’s money to settle the quarrel.
Yes, you can see some elements of what the Republican Party would become, but can you see the difference? Lincoln and his cohorts were categorized as liberals intent on destroying America.
Minor shifts in ideology happened over time, but, even in the 1960s, those Republicans who supported the Civil Rights Act were considered “liberal” members of the party. It wasn’t until the 1980s, and the historic presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan, that the Republican Party had a serious ideology realignment. During that campaign, the Republican Party moved significantly to the right, began seriously courting the Evangelical vote, and the shift hasn’t slowed since. If you could trace the progress of the Democratic and Republican parties on a simple (very unscientific) graph, the movement since 1860 might look something like this:
Since the 80s, the Democratic Party has remained relatively stoic, flirting with progressive ideas but remaining a firmly moderate entity. The Republican Party, however has continued drifting right. They have become more conservative than they were in the days of Lincoln – or even Eisenhower, for that matter.
Lincoln Versus the Modern Republican
The question is not, as some have tried to make it, whether Lincoln would now be a Democrat or a Republican. I would assert he would find a home in neither modern party. The more important question is this: would the party that claims him now embrace or oppose Lincoln’s administration given their current political rhetoric. I think the answer is simple: they would not.
In the case of exterminating slavery, how could one support the abolition of such an institution when the following views become points of religion?
- State Sovereignty. While conservatives trumpet Texas’ grandstanding about seceding a couple of years ago, who impeded that right more than Lincoln?
- Individual Liberties Above All. Lincoln suspended many personal liberties during the Civil War (a fact many Republicans once acknowledged while supporting the Bush administration and are now downplaying.)
- Good for Business. The South’s economy was dependent on slave labor. Emancipation would hurt small businesses and individual plantation owners. It was bad for business!
- Never Reward Criminals. The Emancipation Proclamation validated and rewarded numerous slaves who illegally escaped their captivity. They were illegals (with even freemen having to worry about being held by authorities based on the color of their skin), but Lincoln granted them amnesty.
- Back to the Bible. Did you know the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery? Not even the more socially-minded New Testament condemns slavery. It just treats the institution as a fact of life. Would Republican Bible-thumpers rally behind a man who claimed God disapproved of slavery while the Bible clearly indicated otherwise?
Ending slavery trod upon state rights, individual liberties, economic stability, legal issues, and even the Bible. How could someone like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, or Mitt Romney claim such pride in Lincoln? Yes, he did something great, but he had to walk all over traditionally patriotic (read: conservative) ideals to do so. Abraham Lincoln may have had stake in the Republican Party, but the modern Republican Party has little true stake in Lincoln.
Party Versus Ideology
See here’s the issue: ideology and party have moved independently over the course of our country’s history. Conservative Democrats opposed emancipation. Conservative Democrats opposed Civil Rights. Progressive Republicans supported both. Party is nothing. Ideology is everything. In some ways, Lincoln was a conservative, but he was also progressive, even (gasp) liberal, in many ways.
Many of the conservative arguments against public healthcare, immigration reform, even green energy could just as easily be used to condemn Lincoln’s views on slavery. Again, this isn’t to say Lincoln belongs to the Democrats more than the Republicans. He doesn’t. Lincoln belongs to neither party, but his ideology survives among those who want to expand humanitarian efforts across the globe, continue battling human suffering, and find ways to ease the burdens of those living under economic or political oppression.