In response to Gossenius's critique of the Republican Party:
Why I love the Grand Old Party.

Allow me this preface:

As Gossenius challenged GOP advocates to defend the party through positive argument only, I will not mention the Democratic Party in this essay, except to say: I admire the party of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Paul Tsongas, Paul Wellstone, and Joe Lieberman. The Democratic Party has played (and hopefully will continue to play) a vital and positive role in shaping American history and political culture.

Having said that, let me take issue with an element of Gossenius's argument. He notes the irony of Republicans citing instances in which "the other side doesn't live up to the values...Republicans espouse and then betray" [my emphasis]. On the other hand, in an imperfect world in which we all fall short of exemplary, the standards we set for ourselves are an essential measure of who we aspire to be, which is extremely instructive in getting at who we are.

History. Formed to fight the spread of slavery, the Republican Party of the 1850s castigated the insidious institution for a number of reasons. Of course, Republicans absorbed a strain of heroic humanitarian anti-slavery thinking. Southerners labeled the Republicans the "Black Republicans," denoting that the despised abolitionists were especially fond of and optimistic about the new party. However, pure abolitionism was not the most important component of the early Republican ethos. In truth, the Republican Party was a big tent, which claimed within its ranks as many moderate and pragmatic racists as unadulterated abolitionists.

More significantly, fidelity to the market economy animated the early Republican Party. In his monograph Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men! (the title taken from the first GOP campaign slogan), Eric Foner argues early Republicans viewed the relatively new market ideology as the key to America's future success. Republicans like Abraham Lincoln saw slavery not only as a violation of founding ideals but at odds with vital economic principles. Lincoln et al saw the ability to work freely and succeed and ascend the socio-economic ladder as basic to individual freedom and national strength, and he saw slavery as inimical to the wondorous engine of equality and fortune that free labor offered. Born into rural deprivation, Lincoln understood the value of a system that allowed (or, even better, promoted) social mobility.

Republicans and the Market: A modern observer might ask why Abraham Lincoln was such a "toady" for big business? He saw the market economy as the great equalizer. Lincoln favored an economic and cultural system that rewarded persons of character, determination, and skill. That some entities would prosper and become very powerful (maybe inordinately powerful) seemed a reasonable, if not altogether agreeable, price to pay for individual opportunity. Lincoln favored a "just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all, gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition of all." In a nutshell free labor equaled national progress and individual freedom.

Market-oriented Republicanism is alive and well today. Think about the Wal-Mart debate. Although traditional conservatives and liberals alike find fault with Wal-Mart, wishing it would go away, market-oriented Republicans continue to defend Wal-Mart as an institution produced by the marketplace providing low cost essentials for millions of families of lower socio-economic rank who are working to move up the ladder, looking forward to the day they can shop at Dillards.

Granted, there are excesses and inequalities in the market. After a period of great growth in the American economy, another Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, inaugurated the era of government regulation. Republicans generally inveigh against a regulatory state (opting for deregulation whenever possible), but there are no laissez-faire Republicans. Republicans are unabashed supporters of capitalism--but none of us are so ideologically driven that we favor unrestricted capitalism.

We concede that the market is not always right. The market can run amok and cause economic, cultural, and political misery. Just as Madison argued that too much liberty was a danger to liberty, an unrestrained market-driven economy is fraught with peril. Nevertheless, I remain a big fan of liberty and market principles. On the whole, the market is a positive force in American culture, in part because market theory operates on such an honest and practical reading of human nature. It is up to us to balance the tensions inherent in a market economy.

But Lincoln was right. The free market is essential to American prosperity and security; it is also fundamental to the promises of the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Ronald Reagan, another Illinois Republican born into mean circumstances, heard, understood, and preached this gospel of self improvement to an entire new generation of Americans.

Morality. Born during a period of spiritual and religious revival in American history, the Republican Party inherited a large constituency of evangelical Christian reformers. For 150 years, the GOP has welcomed the mantle of "the moral party," consistently leading to charges from opponents that the piety of the Republican Party was a false morality and hypocritical (an accusation often justified in its particulars).

True, the Republican Party has not been immune to scandal. Having conceded the obvious, however, I am happy to report that the Mark Foley's, Bob Ney's and Bob Sherwood's of the party don't last long after their sins are revealed. Not that Republicans don't believe in redemption--but they are inclined toward discipline first (usually exile from public service), repentance second, and rehabilitation later in private life.

The most perfidious of all American presidents, Richard Nixon, found that he could not count on Republicans in Congress to lock arms and defend him in partisan allegiance. His fellow party members proved essential in the fall of Nixon, investigating and leaking and breaking faith with their titular leader. And it was Republican stalwart Barry Goldwater who made the final call on the President to tell him that the jig was up.

In short, the constituency of the Republican Party is especially demanding. Scandals come and go--but the Republican rank-and-file has a very low tolerance for less-than-upright leaders. With the aid of an often hostile news media, the Republicans are in the constant process of self cleansing.

Please allow me to pause here. In subsequent installments, I intend to reconcile the GOP small-government rhetoric with its penchant for internal improvement projects and assistance to business interests. I also intend to touch on judicial restraint and Republican foreign policy. But you are invited to comment on my apologia thus far.