The Republican Party long ago ceased to function as a political body. Today it has only a single goal; to feed the endless greed of its donors. In pursuit of this, every time it seizes power in the US it resumes its systematic dismantling of the public sector and accelerates the demise of humanity as a species in the process. In this Part, we will explore how the Republicans went from a pacifist alternative to the pro-slavery parties to “the most dangerous organization in world history”.
Readers may have heard of the terms GOP and RNC with reference to the Republican Party. GOP refers to “Grand Old Party”, a term first used in the Cincinnati Commercial in 1876. The RNC refers to the Republican National Committee, which is the body that organises and funds Republican candidates running for election. But I digress. Let’s talk a little about the formation of parties in the US and of the Republican Party in particular.
The Federalist and National Republican Parties
It should be noted that at the time of the Declaration of Independence the Founding Fathers, in general, were not fans of political parties. George Washington was cautious of what he called “faction” and Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were outspoken critics of a party system. Interestingly enough, by the time Washington had stepped down as president in 1796 both Jefferson and Hamilton had established political parties of their own.
The party founded by Hamilton, John Adams, and other leaders was called the Federalist Party which was, generally speaking, in favour of a strong centralist government. Leaders such as Jefferson and James Madison, who were against such ideas, formed an opposition faction that could simply be called the anti-Federalist party. They called themselves “Republicans” but the Federalists called them “Democrats”, and so we know them today by the name that they never called themselves: The Democratic-Republican Party. The first president after Washington, John Adams (who was president from 1797 to 1801), was from the Federalist Party but the next four presidents after that – Thomas Jefferson (1801 – 1809), James Madison (1809 – 1817), James Monroe (1817 – 1825) and John Quincy Adams (1825 – 1829) – were all from the Democratic-Republican Party. By 1820 the Federalist Party had ceased to exist.
During the presidency of John Quincy Adams the Democratic-Republican Party went through a period of internal division from which two essential factions emerged. The first was led by Adams himself and the other by Andrew Jackson, who would go on to win the next election against Adams in 1828. Adams’ faction, which had gathered members of the former Federalist Party, called itself the National Republican Party while Jackson called his faction the Democratic Party. After the electoral defeat of Henry Clay in 1832 the National Republican Party merged with more anti-Democratic and anti-Jackson factions to form the Whig Party.
The Whig Party
By the early 1830s the major political parties in the US could, very crudely, be divided into two factions. The first, represented by the Democrats, favoured the plantations in the south and frontier farms in the west. The second, represented by the National Republicans and then the Whigs, favoured the manufacturing industry and banking sector in the north. By the time of the formation of the Whig Party in 1832 enough support had been gathered to provide serious opposition to the Democratic Party, which had dominated the political landscape since around 1800. For the next 20 years the balance of power shifted between the two parties, including the terms of four Whig presidents: William Harrison and John Tyler who succeeded Harrison after he died in office in 1841; and Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore who succeeded Taylor after he died in office in 1850.
The Republican Party
By 1854 the issue of the rights of slaves had become the centrepiece of the political landscape. Coupled with the issue of slavery was that of state rights – who held authority if the federal government and state government were at odds on an issue? Each party had factions that supported and opposed slave rights, and while the Democratic Party remained intact by the 1856 election the Whig Party had fractured into two. The faction that supported slavery called itself the Know Nothing Party (but history often regards it as the Whig faction) and those against slavery formed the Republican Party. The formation of the Republican Party is generally dated to a meeting in Wisconsin on 20 March, 1854.
The presidential election in 1856, then, was a three-way election, with Democrat James Buchanan winning over Millard Fillmore from the Know Nothing Party and the first Republican candidate for president John Frémont.
By the election in 1860 it was the turn of the Democratic Party to split over the same issue that divided the Whigs. Essentially dividing across regional lines the party split into the Southern Democrats, who supported slavery, and the Northern Democrats who did not. The presidential election in 1860 was a four-way election between Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas, Southern Democrat John Breckinridge, John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party, and Abraham Lincoln of the Republican Party. Lincoln carried the day and became the first Republican President in 1861 where he served until his assassination in 1865.
The Civil War and the dominance of the Republicans
Six weeks after the election of Lincoln in 1860, the state of South Carolina formally seceded from the Union. This was followed by secessions from Georgia, Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana who were, later still, followed by North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Arkansas. The Civil War started in April 1861. Among many other things the war, crudely speaking, led to the merging of the four factions back into two, with the Northern Democrats forging with the Republicans to form the Republicans (the “North”) and the Southern Democrats becoming the Democrats (the “South”). The Constitutional Union Party, having failed in its primary goal to prevent the succession of the South and the Civil War, splintered, with some joining the North and others the South.
After the victory of the North in 1865 the victorious Republicans imposed a “Radical Reconstruction” policy on the South, passing the 13th, 14th and 15th, amendments to the Constitution, and ensuring the dominancy of their party for 60 years. Between 1870 and 1932 there were only two Democratic presidents: Grover Cleveland (1885 – 1889 and 1893 – 1897) and Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921).
The 20th century
The Republican response to the stock market crash of 1929 (or lack thereof) led to the destruction of their political dominance. Democrat Franklin Roosevelt overwhelmingly defeated Herbert Hoover in the 1932 election and his “New Deal” led to a strong resurgence in popularity of the Democrats until the 1950s. Since that time the Republicans and Democrats have exchanged dominance almost equally, although by the 1990s it no longer made sense to describe the two as separate parties.
Today, of course, both Republicans and Democrats have been repurposed to exclusively serve the desires of the wealthy.
Tracing back to roots
We can see with this very brief and crude summary that, accommodating for the occasional merger and exodus over the decades, we can essentially trace the roots of the Republican Party to the Federalists. Its attitudes have changed around the fringes as the times changed, but for almost all of its history it has been the party of big business, the financial sector, and of centralised government.
Departure and devolution
The 1970s saw a radical departure of the Republican Party from its historical political agenda which has continued until today. It began with the adoption of the Southern Strategy and was followed up with the embracing of religious fundamentalism in the 1980s. Their right-wing lurch accelerated as they responded to the Democrats’ charge to the right in the 1990s. Idealogically the Republicans identify themsevles as being to the right of the Democrats, and so as the Democrats accerated to the right the Republicans moved even further right. The Democrats of today very closely resemble the Republicans of the 1990s and 2000s while the Republicans of today occupy the extreme right fringes. In the process, the “grand old party” itself has been so completely corrupted that it can no longer be regarded as a functional political entity.