Once upon a time in America, there was a political party whose icons were Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was called the Republican Party and was born in Ripon, Wisconsin in March 1854 from remnants of the disintegrating Whig Party and other elements.
This Grand Old Party, or G.O.P., was a strong believer in human rights and human dignity. Its leaders freed the slaves in the 19th century and were instrumental in desegregating schools in the mid-20th century. The party also fought for voting rights for African-Americans and played a prominent role in getting the franchise for women.
Republican Theodore Roosevelt was an early advocate for the environment and was instrumental in developing our national park system. Further evidence of Republican concern for the environment was the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Nixon administration.
From the Republican Party’s inception, it dominated politics in New England, controlling virtually all offices for long periods of time. These officials, fiscally conservative and socially moderate, often set the agenda for the entire party, and as the heart of the party, kept it in the center of the political spectrum.
Whatever happened to the G.O.P described above? Is it an historical vestige, or a figment of the imagination? New England now is overwhelmingly Democratic, with no Republicans elected to the next Congress and Republican Senatorial candidates defeated across the board.
The icons currently held in esteem by Republicans are Goldwater and Reagan, with leadership coming from Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, Jim DeMint, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan. And unelected, self-proclaimed authorities like Grover Norquist and Rush Limbaugh, and the Tea Party, help set the agenda for the G.O.P. Each year, it moves further from the center and weighted to the right. With this revamping, moderates retire from elected positions or are driven out, despite years of experience and the ability to reach across the aisle to craft legislation in the House and the Senate. Moderates, centrists, and even moderate conservatives in the party are demonized as RINOs (Republicans in name only) and are defeated in primaries by extreme right-wingers, many of whom then lose in the general elections.
And Republican state legislatures have tried to limit voting rights by various stratagems, making it more difficult for minorities to exercise the franchise. Photo IDs are required by some states and voting hours reduced, with long lines discouraging working people from voting.
Those socially moderate Republicans who championed woman’s interests are nowhere to be seen in the party, supplanted by extremists who perceive the children of rape as the will of God and refusing to allow abortion even to save the life of the mother. They also aim to limit access to contraceptives, particularly for poor women who cannot afford them, and wish to restrict health care for women by ending funding for Planned Parenthood. And some Republicans go out of their way to humiliate women who want abortions, passing state laws requiring them to have vaginally invasive procedures before abortions can be performed.
In addition, Republicans no longer see themselves as custodians of the environment and want to do away with, or severely restrict, the E.P.A. Many of them deny global warming and refuse to take actions that might work to reduce it. Drilling for oil should proceed unfettered, disregarding environmental consequences. Coal should be utilized as well, no matter its effects on the ozone layer or the increase in childhood asthma.
However, today’s Republican Party will become irrelevant in the future if it does not transform itself and march back to the center. The nation’s demographic metamorphosis is not favorable for Republican positions, and drastic change is needed which does not seem likely.
As another possibility, the extreme right wing could maintain its control in a smaller Republican Party, with fewer adherents and fewer elected officials. And from the ashes of the old G.O.P. a new party of the center could arise, just as the Republicans arose from the ashes of the Whigs. This new party of moderates and centrists would be like the old G.O.P; socially moderate and fiscally conservative. Pragmatism would be its hallmark.
Whether agreement is reached regarding the fiscal cliff, Republican conservativism is non-negotiable on almost all issues. And with the Democrats dominated by their liberal wing, a third party of the center is needed to bring rational discourse back to government. Though there are other options for this party’s gestation, the old Republican Party would fill the bill.
A VietNam vet and a Columbia history major who became a medical doctor, Bob Levine has watched the evolution of American politics over the past 40 years with increasing alarm. He knows he’s not alone. Partisan grid-lock, massive cash contributions and even more massive expenditures on lobbyists have undermined real democracy, and there is more than just a whiff of corruption emanating from Washington. If the nation is to overcome lockstep partisanship, restore growth to the economy and bring its debt under control, Levine argues that it will require a strong centrist third party to bring about the necessary reforms. Levine’s previous book, Shock Therapy For the American Health Care System took a realist approach to health care from a physician’s informed point of view; Resurrecting Democracy takes a similar pragmatic approach, putting aside ideology and taking a hard look at facts on the ground. In his latest book, Levine shines a light that cuts through the miasma of party propaganda and reactionary thinking, and reveals a new path for American politics. This post is cross posted from his blog.