The Republican Party may have been the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, but that legacy is largely irrelevant and voided by modern Republican politics. It is ironic that Republicans today champion presidents who were so diametrically opposed to current Republican politics.
If adjusted for political inflation both Lincoln and Roosevelt would today be outed as outrageously flamboyant RINOs. These two celebrated Republicans In Name Only certainly could never pass the purist Tea Party litmus test that has been the Republican nomination process in recent years, and their presidential accomplishments are the unadulterated antithesis of the Republican platform today.
Actually, when examined under the historical microscope, none of the earliest Republicans has much in common with any of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates.
The Republican Party was birthed as a Northern concoction of anti-slavery allies opposed to the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act’s intention to expand slavery into Kansas and Nebraska, and it legislated itself the party of federal power, tariffs, and urbanization. Does this sound at all familiar to the 21st Century GOP’s focus on states’ rights, free-trade, and taking America back to the fictional, semi-suburban Mayberry of the Andy Griffith Show?
Half a century later the GOP’s Northern strength endured into the Progressive Era with Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal dedicating itself to corporate regulation, consumer protection, and conservation. Contemporary Republican foils Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have more in common with the Bull Moose than any Republican today.
Conservatives may routinely lambast President Obama’s politics with wildly delusional hyperbole, but, compared to Republican icons Lincoln and Roosevelt, Obama might as well be a conservative.
Did President Obama break up too-big-to-fail Goldman Sachs or Bank of America for crippling the world’s economy? No, but Roosevelt would have. Has Obama assumed dictatorial power? No, but Lincoln would have actually deserved the Tea Party’s dictatorial insults having suspended habeas corpus and administrated the most federalist presidency in American history.
So why is the GOP today so unrecognizable from its proudest forebears?
A study of history and electoral maps reveal that it’s not Northerners (who used to be Republicans and are now Democrats) or Southerners (who used to be Democrats and are now Republicans) who have radically traded political ideologies, it is the Republican and Democratic parties themselves that have flip-flopped in the ideologies they represent.
The transformation began between the two Roosevelt presidencies after Republicans abandoned TR in the 1912 election for being too anti-business, and Republicans adopted the laissez-faire economic philosophies that have defined the GOP since. Republicans proud of TR today must be forgetting that he was so progressive that their party exiled him.
The consequent Roosevelt-Taft split inaugurated Woodrow Wilson, who was then followed by a series of anti-progressive, do-nothing Republican administrations that would later be blamed for causing and/or worsening the effects of the Great Depression. This allowed Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Democratic Party to reclaim the populist torch his fifth cousin had carried, and the Democratic Party has been a fixture of Northern politics since. Meanwhile, the Republican Party found itself slowly but surely shifting toward the South.
So economic policy played a large part of the GOP’s transition toward its present-day Southern identity, but a look into the history of the electoral map shows that the Democratic Party still thrived in the South despite Franklin Roosevelt’s unprecedentedly progressive economic initiatives. In fact, the only states that Eisenhower could not carry in either of his 50’s electoral landslides were Southern ones.
Southerners did not abandon the Democratic Party electorally until Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society famously sacrificed Southern support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The racist South had finally had enough of Democrats, and George Wallace carried the Deep South states in the 1968 election campaigning explicitly in favor of racial segregation. From then on Democrats would rarely win Southern states in elections unless the candidate were actually from a Southern state.
It is the contemporary adage that not all Republicans are racist but most racists are Republicans that explains this one-eighty in Southern politics: Southerners allied themselves with pro-slavery Democrats through the era of Great Compromises, Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow until the parties flip-flopped on racial politics, and those same Southerners allied themselves with anti-equality Republicans opposed to the civil rights movement.
In the decades since Republicans, especially Nixon and Reagan, have deftly capitalized on Southern racism with subliminally racist campaigns. The GOP no longer openly promotes racist politics, but their policies on taxes, the safety net, education, and drugs are a de facto system of segregation, which is why Democrats today win nearly unanimous black support.
With all of this in mind, it is a great irony that Republicans glow with pride that their party is the home of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. There is some debate about these presidents’ own racial views- TR was especially receptive to the racial crackpot science behind supposed teutonic supremacy, though Lincoln’s post-war Freedmen’s Bureau helps show where his ever-evolving public view of race was headed- but both were unambiguously Northern politicians. Neither would have a chance or a desire to run in the 2016 Republican primary.