Crashing the Party of Lincoln

Heather Cox Richardson’s call to “Bring Back the Party of Lincoln” (New York Times, September 3), based on her forthcoming book To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party, demands a package deal that not only never was, but could never be.

In Richardson’s fantasy the Republican Party before the ascendance of Reagan “opposed the control of government by an elite in favor of broader economic opportunity,” although it was “marked by vacillation between its founding principle of opportunity and its domination by the wealthy elite.” The former prevailed when, per Jonathan Chait’s summary of Richardson’s thesis (New York magazine, September 9), it was “the moderate, non-anti-government party of Lincoln, [Theodore] Roosevelt, and Eisenhower,” the latter when it was, well, non-non-anti-government.

A closer look at the party’s history instead corroborates Kevin Carson’s assessment that from its inception, “the Republican Party is the direct heir to a long line of Hamiltonians, all seeking to use state power to promote the interests of the plutocracy and the wealthiest and most powerful business people at the expense of working people.” Richardson writes that the GOP was formed “in opposition to the wealthy slaveholders,” implying an opposition to a wealthy elite per se. But the party always aimed merely to replace the slaveowners’ economic elite with its own Hamiltonian industrial elite. The Civil War was the fountainhead of the alliance between the military and a politically connected elite that Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.”

Richardson similarly elides and distorts the historical record to depict plutocracy as antistatist. Reconstruction ended when “Republicans faced a racist and xenophobic backlash against an active government — and they folded,” rather than by the party’s already-dominant plutocratic tendency colluding with its natural ally: Its counterpart in the Democrats. The ensuing Gilded Age is seen as laissez-faire, an interpretation long thoroughly demolished by New Leftists Gabriel Kolko and James Weinstein.  Breaking with laissez-faire, Theodore Roosevelt “protected workers and regulated business,” whereas Jim Powell notes Roosevelt “supported high tariffs, which helped politically connected business interests by suppressing competition” so that “there would have been more competition had TR focused on lowering tariffs and repealing corporate privileges.”

Richardson depicts the 1920s as a period where “again, the party folded: During the ensuing backlash against government activism, Republican leaders handed policy making to businessmen.” Thus Warren G. Harding, who got Eugene V. Debs out of jail, is conflated with the Red Scare liberals who put him in jail in the first place, as well as with the Herbert Hoover who “was actually the precursor of the entire New Deal system” (as socialist Ronald Radosh and capitalist Murray Rothbard jointly noted).

Richardson’s Eisenhower used activist government to “promote economic equality around the world,” a malapropos summation of a foreign policy that included backing coups in Iran and Guatemala. Meanwhile, his domestic policy “inspired the wrath of businessmen” with the very programs that created the mindset that what was good for General Motors coincided with what was good for the country.

Richardson’s inventory of ostensibly populist programs — public education, the transcontinental railroad, the Interstate Highway System — all epitomize Hamiltonian subsidy to capital-intensive industries, for which the public inevitably foots the bill.  Lincoln himself objected to the idea that “nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor.”

A reclaiming of Lincoln’s aim “to secure to each laborer the whole product of his labor as nearly as possible” in modern times requires demolishing Hamiltonian props for capital profits. European anarchosyndicalist Rudolf Rocker noted that “Lincoln had little respect for professional politicians” and thus “he would not entrust therefore the rights of the people to any government, for he knew that their leaders were always moved by special interests.”

Free markets are the way to free soil.

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