Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Republican Version of History--If It's Republican, It's Good. If You Oppose Anything Ever Done By Republicans, You Are Bad

Several recent posts about Republicans and history have inspire me to write about something I've seen coming for some time now. Republican historical revisionism has come to the front and center of Republican ideology. The most common move I've seen is to reclaim the Gilded Age as the most glorious period of American history, at least since the Civil War. I first became aware of this a couple of years ago in a New Yorker feature on Karl Rove where he said that he looked at the Progressives as elitists on the lines of the Democrats today and wanted to turn back Progressive era policies to restore America to its full laissez-faire greatness. Whether this idea started with Rove or not, it has since become more and more prominent. Matt Yglesias recently became aware of it. He picked up this "brillant" and not at all self-serving discussion of the Gilded Age from Edward Renehan at Tech Central Station. Renehan cites his own biography of Jay Gould as one of the only fair studies of the Gilded Age industrialists who fleeced Americans out of untold sums of money. Well, that last part was my words. In any case, people like Renehan are trying to rehabiliate this period as the model for modern-day America to follow. Jonah Goldberg seems to be writing another stupid book as well that will continue this pattern. In any case, he's put out a call for people who are experts on Herbert Spencer, the ideologue of social Darwinism, which was one of the key modes of thought behind the Robber Barons.

We can only accept the idea of the Gilded Age as a great period in American history if we completely overlook what was happening to people outside of the industrialists themselves. For it was a horrid time in American history. Now it is true that this was the period when America began its big drive to become the world's greatest industrial power. But the costs of that industrialization were tremendous. For the Gilded Age, the period of the greatest Republican dominance in American history, was when segregation became entrenched in America. The Republican Party consciously made the decision to abandon freed slaves in favor of their true ideology, making lots of money and designing government to facilitate that goal. They ignored the conditions that industrial workers, both immigrants and native-born Americans suffered under. These workers lived in the effulent from the plants they worked in, they lived in overcrowded urban tenements without proper ventilation, light, or sanitation. They made an extremely small amount of money, often not even enough to ensure proper nutrition. The Gilded Age saw the beginnings of American imperialism and the racist ideologies, such as Jonah Goldberg's beloved Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism as well as eugenics, that made the imperialist project possible. It was Republican sugar and pineapple magnates who overthrew the royalty of Hawaii when they protested about American domination of the islands and it was Republican politicans who pushed for the Spanish-American War and the brutal war in the Philippines that followed. The Gilded Age was the period where people talked about a laissez-faire government, but where in reality the federal government intervened to end labor strikes, often in a violent way. And the Gilded Age was the most corrupt period of American history, where among many other scandals, Vice-President Schuyler Colfax (under Ulysses S. Grant) was indicted for corruption due to his involvement in the Crédit Mobilier scandal where Union Pacific Railroad officials made up a company, the Crédit Mobilier of America, gave it contracts to build railroads that were of course being built by Union Pacific and then gave the stock to influential Republican politicans.

The thing about all of this is that the Republicans today who are glorifying the Gilded Age know all of this and they don't care. They may not talk about government corruption when they talk about the Gilded Age, but they have no problem with government officials working so closely with business that they become rich off it. They may not talk about people living in terrible conditions but they quite clearly don't care if people do live in those conditions; like in the Gilded Age they will simply blame people for their own poverty. Ultimately, the ideology of the Republican Party has changed very little since 1880. The primacy of business over government and the lack of social responsibility in the Republican Party has remained amazingly consistent for 125 years or more.

When we hear Republicans talk about the Republican glory days of the 1880s and 1890s, we need to engage in a full frontal assault upon them. For they are very vulnerable. We can ask them some very specific questions to put them on the spot. For instance, if Republicans are the true party of civil rights because of Abraham Lincoln (another favorite argument) then why did the Republican Party allow southern whites to subjugate the ex-slaves, even when Reconstruction was nominally continuing in the early and mid 1870s? Or we can ask if the US has the right to invade other countries simply to take control of its economy, i.e. Hawaii in 1893. Or we can ask if the federal government has any responsibility at all for people's living and working conditions and then follow that up by nailing them on specific examples of previous disasters such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 where dozens of women died because all the fire exits were locked because the owners didn't want the women workers taking breaks. Nail them over and over on this stuff. Expose that soft white underbelly and then stab it, killing their stupid and blinded historical revisionism.

Of course, for Republicans the real base of their historical view is this: If the Republicans did it, then it was good. Whoever opposes Republican aims at any time is wrong and evil. This brings me to this recent post from Axis of Evel Knievel who links to a Weekly Standard article by Michael Brandon McClellan who claims this:

Prior to the American Civil War, John Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln articulated two very different ideas of equality. Each idea was powerful, and if followed, would lead to radically different outcomes. Calhoun's organizing principle can be boiled down to two words: state sovereignty. He believed in the equality of sovereign political states. In contrast, Lincoln's organizing principle of equality was the idea of individual natural rights. While Lincoln's idea of individual rights triumphed in the United States with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Constitutional Amendments and the success of the civil rights movement a century later, the Calhoun / Lincoln debate is, in a sense, still blazing in the arena of international law and in the dilemma of the United Nations.

From a perspective of organizing political principles, it is fair to say that above all else, John Calhoun stood for the idea of "entity equality." [snip] For Calhoun, this idea of state equality was the only rational basis of organizing a free society in a stable federal system. No state could infringe upon the rights of another state. For, if state equality was not held sacrosanct and inviolable, then the people of a state could tyrannically infringe upon the rights of the people of another state. There would be no legal principle to stop, for example, the people of Massachusetts from imposing their will upon the people of South Carolina. All that would remain to prevent such imposition would be political and martial power.

First of all, this is the stupidest historical analogy I have ever heard. I have never had a student say anything this out of left field. To compare John C. Calhoun and the United Nations is just inherently stupid. There is no comparison to be made here. But the real comparison is not between Calhoun and the UN, it's the unsaid comparison between Abraham Lincoln and the policies of George W. Bush. Ignoring the fact that Calhoun was dead before Lincoln arrived on the national scene, McClellan implies that the values of the Republican Party under Lincoln and Bush are the same and that the American people has always shared these values. Calhoun was a pro-slavery advocate and the UN wants to put the American people in a condition of slavery by placing their God-Republican government under some sort of international law. Supposedly, like Americans (or at least some) rejected Calhoun's slave state, so will Americans today reject any idea of multilateralism.

Read your history my friends. These are dangerous arguments that we need to fight vigorously and constantly.