How the Right Seized Power: Noble Beginnings
The following is the first in a multi-part series chronicling the rise of the right wing in American politics, and specifically looks at their takeover of the Republican Party.
For most of the Republican Party’s lifetime, conservatives weren’t particularly dominant. While the GOP is now seen as as essentially the only viable party to be in for conservatives, this was not always the case.
When it first appeared, the Republican Party was actually comprised of progressive reformists. A few of the GOP’s most beloved Presidents have proven the point. These four Presidents, spanning nearly 100 years of the party’s history probe this point.
I: Abraham Lincoln (1861–1865)
. Abraham Lincoln ultimately outlawed slavery-a move that had been considered radically left wing just a decade before it happened. He was left wing on other important issues of his time and even had a correspondence with Karl Marx. He signed the first progressive income tax legislation. He believed in placing huge tariffs on foreign products so he could fund infrastructure projects. He expanded the railway system to truly connect the country’s major population centers. He signed the largest transfer of wealth to anyone who wanted it through the HomeStead Act and enacted a national bank for the first time in decades. Lincoln even signed the Land Grant Law that led to the creation of the State University system. General Sherman, one of Lincoln’s Generals and confidantes even promised 40 acres and a mule to freed slaves, although this never came to pass in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination.
II: Ulysses S. Grant. (1869–1877)
Grant was a President dedicated to rebuilding the union, but doing so in a way that his progressive ideals would remain in tact. Grant created the Department of Justice and aggressively prosecuted the KKK to tackle white supremacy, a worldview many if his colleagues even on the union side subscribed to. He oversaw a key transition point during reconstruction, when the southern governments under interim military rule were re admitted to the union. Grant helped manage the transition of the south to a non slave economy and oversaw the election of the first African Americans to Congress. 16 (14 in the House and 2 in the Senate) African Americans (8 of whom had been slaves) represented 7 different states. His redefining of tolerance, vigorous prosecution of the KKK and use of strong economic planning helped prevent everything from falling apart.
III:Teddy Roosevelt (1901–1909)
began the modern green movement. He established the first 5 National Parks, 18. National monuments, 150 national forests, 51 bird reserves, and 4 game preserves. The same act that designated the parks founded the United States Forest Service. He established the nation’s first conservation projects. Through legislation, Roosevelt protected 230 million acres. Through executive actions he was able to protect 150 million more.
Roosevelt created the Department of Commerce and aggressively enforced the Sherman Anti-trust Act. His use of the act included breaking up the leading industrial monopolies of the time: Coal Oil and Steel. He established the FDA, child labor laws and meat inspections to make America more safe.
He pushed for more, but couldn’t get it. These were a litany of progressive reforms. They included a universal single payer health care system, an 8 hour work day, a national incorporation law, a federal income and inheritance tax, a limit on injunctions that could be used to end labor disputes, worker’s personal injury compensation, a new banking system aimed at low income people to be found in banks and campaign finance law changes that would get money out of politics.
IV: Dwight Eisenhower (1953–1961)
Truman and Roosevelt had held power under the Democratic party label from 1932–1952. After World War II, Eisenhower was a world hero for his role in winning the war against fascist world powers. Both political parties were interested in running him as a candidate. Truman went so far as to offer to not seek a second term and serve as Ike’s Vice President.
Eisenhower decided to run as a Republican, but the move was hardly ideological. Ike became a Republican because he didn’t want the US to be perceived as having one party rule.
Eisenhower enacted the largest Keynesian project in the nation’s history: the interstate highway system. He appointed 5 liberal judges to the Supreme Court. By Appointing Earl Warren Chief Justice, it was Eisenhower who started the Warren court which would go on to be the most progressive Supreme Court in our nation’s history. He defended the New Deal and expanded Social Security. He sent federal troops to help integrate schools in the South and signed the first major civil rights bills since reconstruction. He warned against the influence of the military and military contractors. He created NASA. He greatly expanded education funding, raised the minimum wage and didn’t cut taxes, even when the top rate was 91%.
Throughout the 1900’s the liberal, progressive Republicans were winning. Presidents like Roosevelt, Taft, and Eisenhower. Liberals like Thomas Dewey, Alf Landon, and Wendell Wilkie were getting the nomination. The new Republicans to watch were cut from the same cloth: liberals like George Romney, Prescott Bush and Nelson Rockefeller ruled the GOP. It wouldn’t stay that way for long.