Last month an expansive portion of sparsely populated upstate New York became the scene for a most unusual political contest. The dominant feature of this contest was the fracturing of the Republican Party along ideological lines. This split highlights a dispute that is nearly as old as the party itself: what is the soul of the Republican Party? It also raises a related question: who should be its standard-bearers?
In 1858 the nation was careening toward civil war. The immediate concern was over the constitution for the proposed state of Kansas. It was an obvious fraud, designed to force slavery on the new state, but it had the support of the Buchanan administration. The Senate’s most prominent Democrat, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, broke with his own party to oppose that constitution. On the basis of this opposition prominent eastern Republicans like William Seward and Horace Greeley began arguing that Douglas would become a Republican and that Republicans should therefore support him in his upcoming re-election bid. They hoped to broaden the appeal of the party in advance of the 1860 presidential election.
Illinois Republicans, including their eventual nominee, Abraham Lincoln, were horrified at this prospect. In accepting the nomination to oppose Douglas, Lincoln made the case that Douglas, because of his principles, could never champion the Republican cause. His doctrine of popular sovereignty, which would allow the people of any community to decide the slavery question for themselves, was tantamount to declaring that there is nothing objectionable in one man’s enslaving another. The effect, Lincoln said, “is to educate and mould public opinion, at least Northern public opinion, to not care whether slavery is voted down or voted up.” Rather than serving as a rallying point for the opponents of slavery, Douglas’ popular sovereignty would inexorably lead to the nationalization of slavery, because the principle it taught was indifference concerning justice and thus the acceptance of the legitimacy of slavery. It would be to abandon the political field to proslavery fire eaters.
Today, the Republican Party is again divided, not over slavery in the territories, but between conservatives and moderates. Republican defeats, beginning in 2006, have refocused attention on this division, which has existed since at least Barry Goldwater’s challenge to Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. With each defeat voices from within the party (Christine Todd Whitman, David Frum) and beyond proclaim that the Republican Party faltered because it became to narrowly conservative. To expand its appeal and return to power, it must move to the political center, adopting policies and candidates that are more moderate and less conservative.
Equally horrified at this prospect was Ronald Reagan. After Republicans’ crushing defeat in the 1974 midterm elections, Reagan rejected calls to “broaden the base of our party” because, as he said, “what they meant was to fuzz up and blur even more the differences between ourselves and our opponents.” Moderate Republicans, can never oppose the injustice and excess of the modern state, because they have made their peace with big government. This path leads inexorably to the permanence and expansion of that state, because the principle it teaches is to accept the modern state, and simply try to make it work as efficiently as possible. This is to abandon the field to progressive liberalism; it is an indifference concerning justice for the contemporary world.
Reagan argued that “a political party cannot be all things to all people. It must represent certain fundamental beliefs which must not be compromised to political expediency, or simply to swell its numbers.” Those beliefs include the existence of God-given, permanent, immutable rights, that government is formed by consent and exists solely to protect those rights, and a limited constitutional government of enumerated powers.
Instead, Reagan said, Republicans should seek to “make it unmistakably clear where we stand.” Lincoln did exactly this with his oft-repeated formulation on slavery: “you think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted…. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.” Lincoln made it clear, moreover, that those who professed indifference to justice under the banner of popular sovereignty were, whatever their intentions, servants of injustice. Similarly, by accepting the legitimacy of the modern state and participating in its expansion and perpetuation today’s moderates are serving injustice. If the Republican party is to stand against injustice, it must be clear in its understanding of justice and injustice, and present itself as an unmistakable alternative to injustice.
This commitment to principle must be sought in all those, who would act in the name of the Republican Party. Lincoln argued that “our cause, then, must be entrusted to, and conducted by its own undoubted friends — those whose hands are free, whose hearts are in the work.” Whatever differences they may have, all must adhere to those fundamental principles of justice.
“If there are those who cannot subscribe to those principles,” Reagan admonished, “then let them go their way.” If the Republican Party abandons its principles for the sake of victory, then it has already lost.
Check Human Events tomorrow for Part II.
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