Senior Washington correspondent Michael Barone, who is in a position to know, notes that an interesting thing happened in the history of the two-party system: Republicans and Democrats switched places.
“In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Republicans were the party more inclined to favor activist government,” Barone writes in the November issue of The American Spectator. “They wanted Congress to bar slavery in the territories and to undermine it in the slave states by appointing postmasters who would deliver abolitionist literature to slaves (Democratic postmasters put it in the round file).”
But their activism did not stop at this laudable goal. “They wanted protective tariffs to encourage domestic industry,” Barone claims. “They prosecuted the Civil War, complete with an income tax and printing-press money, and after the war they favored generous pensions for Union Army veterans.”
“Starting with the little-remembered Benjamin Harrison, progenitor of the first billion-dollar budget, they favored spending to build up a two-ocean navy.” Arguably, whether you call it peace through strength or simply a strong defense, this trend too can be seen in today’s GOP but wait, there’s more.
“They passed bills purporting to regulate railroad rates and breaking up monopolies,” Barone asserts. “They established the first national parks and forests, launched federal water reclamation projects, and built federal dams.”
“Progressives like Robert La Follette of Wisconsin and George Norris of Nebraska did not think it anomalous that they remained Republicans during most of their careers.” Now here’s where the time warp flips the current ideological breakdown of the parties on its head.
“The party of Lincoln was not a laissez-faire party,” Barone avers. “The party of Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland was.”
“Just about every time it was in power, it lowered tariffs and extolled free trade. Jackson vetoed the re-chartering of the Bank of the United States, and Cleveland vetoed bills providing disaster relief.”
On the surface, though, the parties have remained consistent, at least in their appearance or demographic breakdown. In a way, both always “looked like America,” as former President Clinton once said of his cabinet.
“The core of the Republican party has been people who are considered by others and by themselves as typical Americans—Northern Protestants in the 19th century, married white Christians today—though they have never been by themselves a majority of the country.” Barone observes. “The Democratic Party, in contrast, has been a collection of out peoples considered by others and by themselves as not typical Americans—Southern whites and Catholic immigrants in the 19th century, blacks and gentry liberals today.”
Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
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