Today the Republican Party is at a crossroads. It faces the choice of continuing down a path of failed leadership and forgotten principles, or taking the hard and rutted road back to its beginnings. The party was established to restore the values of our founding fathers in a time much like today, when those values had been forgotten.
Today as in 1854, the political system has fallen into the hands of greedy and ambitious leaders who disregard the rights of the people and promote ideas which are fundamentally un-American because they see them as a route to greater political power and control. The forces of special interests, sectionalism, bureaucratic indifference and institutionalized oppression are stronger than ever before. They will not be stopped unless the Republican Party remembers its purpose and stands up against them.
From its very first platform, the Republican Party has been dedicated to the ideals of the Founding Fathers as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the enlightenment belief that all men have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and property. Although it has occasionally lost sight of those ideals, eventually core values reassert themselves and new leaders of vision set the party back on the right course.
The party was formed in 1854 in an era when the existing parties had strayed too far from the original republican values on which the nation was formed. The new party embraced the ideals of the founding fathers with the goal of securing liberty for those held in slavery and obtaining equality for all members of society.
Through the years the Republican Party has taken the lead on the great moral issues of the times:
* In the Platform of 1860 the party made opposition to slavery a national issue for the first time and expressed clear support for the rights of workers and industry.
* In the Platform of 1876 the Republican Party became the first US political party to endorse equal rights and universal suffrage for women.
* In the Platform of 1892 the Republicans became the first US political party to endorse universal suffrage and access to the polls to Americans of all races.
* In the Platform of 1896 the Republican Party first declared its dedication to fiscally responsible government.
* In the Platform of 1900 the Republicans were the first US political party to take a clear stand in opposition to racial discrimination.
During the early 1900s the Republican party also led the way in opposition to monopolies, in passing child labor laws, workplace safety regulation, and establishing reasonable working hours. The Republican party was also the first party to propose national policies for resource management and conservation. And almost from the moment the 16th Amendment made an income tax legal, the Republican party worked to minimize the tax burden, hold down federal spending, and institute fairer and more limited taxes. By the 1950s the Republican Party had taken the lead in applying federal pressure to implement desegregation and equality in the southern states.
The differences between the Republican and Democratic parties of the modern era were clear as early as 1908 when the Republican Party platform clearly delineated the differences between the two parties, which are still strikingly apparent today:
The present tendencies of the two parties are even more marked by inherent differences. The trend of Democracy is toward socialism, while the Republican party stands for a wise and regulated individualism. Socialism would destroy wealth, Republicanism would prevent its abuse. Socialism would give to each an equal right to take; Republicanism would give to each an equal right to earn. Socialism would offer an equality of possession which would soon leave no one anything to possess, Republicanism would give equality of opportunity which would assure to each his share of a constantly increasing sum of possessions. In line with this tendency the Democratic party of to-day believes in Government ownership, while the Republican party believes in Government regulation. Ultimately Democracy would have the nation own the people, while Republicanism would have the people own the nation.
That description of the Democrats is as accurate today as it was 100 years ago, and the same Republican principles are just as valid today as they were then. Some may have forgotten the history of the party, but defending individual liberty by standing firm in the face of socialism and statism remain at the core of what makes the GOP unique.
The Republican party was born in liberty, and even in the darkest days of racial strife, that dedication to liberty and equality for all Americans regardless of race, creed, religion or lifestyle remained central to the beliefs of the GOP. The party has always dedicated itself to the ideal of the responsible individual citizen being allowed to live life in his own way without unnecessary interference from government. This principle was expressed clearly in the Republican platform of 1964:
Every person has the right to govern himself, to fix his own goals, and to make his own way with a minimum of governmental interference.
This idea of the sovereign individual goes hand in hand with an understanding that government has a legitimate, but limited, role to protect the rights and welfare of the people and to be answerable to the people for its actions. This was expressed clearly in the 1964 Platform:
It is for government to foster and maintain an environment of freedom encouraging every individual to develop to the fullest his God-given powers of mind, heart and body; and, beyond this, government should undertake only needful things, rightly of public concern, which the citizen cannot himself accomplish.
This platform from 40 years ago, written in a time of great national challenge and under the clear-eyed guidance of Senator Barry Goldwater, expresses better than almost any other document the fundamental beliefs of the party, including the principles of individual liberty, but also the importance of the Constitution in protecting that liberty:
Within our Republic the Federal Government should act only in areas where it has Constitutional authority to act, and then only in respect to proven needs where individuals and local or state governments will not or cannot adequately perform. Great power, whether governmental or private, political or economic, must be so checked, balanced and restrained and, where necessary, so dispersed as to prevent it from becoming a threat to freedom any place in the land.
Perhaps most unique in that document was an awareness which seems to be forgotten today, that not only do individuals have responsibility for their actions, but that there is a greater responsibility invested in the government through the social contract to do right by its citizens:
It is a high mission of government to help assure equal opportunity for all, affording every citizen an equal chance at the starting line but never determining who is to win or lose. But government must also reflect the nation’s compassionate concern for those who are unable, through no fault of their own, to provide adequately for themselves.
The high ideals of Republicanism also extend to the behavior of politicians and how they use the sacred trust invested in them by the people:
Government must be restrained in its demands upon and its use of the resources of the people, remembering that it is not the creator but the steward of the wealth it uses; that its goals must ever discipline its means; and that service to all the people, never to selfish or partisan ends, must be the abiding purpose of men entrusted with public power.
Today it seems as if the Republican party and many of its leaders have lost their way. Yet the basic values of the party have not changed, though some seem to only pay lip service and to have forgotten what it has meant to be a Republican for the last 150 years. In the generation since Goldwater reasserted the core values of the party, the lure of power and greed and opportunism has been stronger than ever. This isn’t the first time that this has happened. In the late 19th century the party suffered a similar identity crisis, turning away from core values of liberty towards corporatism and arrogant complacency. Leaders like Teddy Roosevelt set the party back on track, and though the leadership foundered in the aftermath of the Depression, Eisenhower and Goldwater were there to set the party on what should have been an ideal course by the 1960s. Yet Goldwater’s defeat and the rise of socialism in the 1960s followed by the failures of the Nixon era produced a generation of leaders who have been willing to sacrifice principle for votes no matter what unsavory compromises that required. Leaders like Roosevelt and Goldwater understood that it was better to be right and lose an election than to win at any cost, because the price of such a corrupt victory is invariably too high.
This problem has been compounded by an invasion of the GOP by disaffected southern Democrats who were driven away from their party when its northern wing embraced civil rights under Kennedy and Johnson and the policies of the party became increasingly socially progressive and dominated by northern issues. As the Republicans struggled to retain their identity, this influx of angry bigots and religious zealots gave power at the polls at the cost of compromises on fundamental principles which had sustained the party for a hundred years. They were followed by strong-defense Democrats whose imperialist ambitions didn’t fit with the post-Vietnam pacifism of the Democratic Party. Both of these groups brought with them beliefs which were alien to the Republican tradition, including a belief in a strong federal government, an expansionist foreign policy, a bizarre moralistic agenda, a big dose of intolerance and a willingness to sacrifice the rights of individuals in pursuit of their political objectives. Accepting these outsiders was an act of desperation which put the integrity of the party at risk in order to hold on to political power.
Now we are paying the price for compromises which have left the party fractured with no ideological center, our history forgotten and our future uncertain. The weakness of our current generation of leaders and the harm they have done to the party with foolish alliances and venal servility to every bulging purse has to end in this new millenium. We must commit ourselves to lead where our leaders have failed and to retrieve the party from the cesspit of corruption. The GOP must reaffirm an absolute commitment to the idea of true Republican government which serves the people and does not rule over the people, and of restoring a nation dedicated to preserving the liberty of every individual equally and absolutely.
This may mean purging the party of corrupt leaders and unsound ideas so that we can restore fundamental values. We need to remember that big government, corruption, and trying to run people’s lives are the politics of the socialist left and we should not tolerate leaders who are seduced by the power socialism gives to the political class. If this means giving up some power for a few years then we should accept that. We are not worthy to lead the country until we are Republicans again and can earn back the trust and respect of the people. It would be better to be a minority party and the conscience of the nation as we were when the party was born in 1854 than to carry on as an insult to the memories of the idealists who founded the party and led it as a party of principles in past eras. We must restore the party or we will lose the party. We must demand adherence to principles from our leaders or eliminate those leaders for leading the party in the wrong direction.
The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect official positions of the RLC.