Magazine | November 3, 2014, Issue


To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party, by Heather Cox Richardson (Basic, 416 pp., $29.99)

America needs a good history of the Republican party; unfortunately, this isn’t it.

A good history would, for example, look to explain the amazing reemergence of the GOP from World War II and the New Deal years, when it seemed reduced to permanent minority status. It would trace how it was reborn as the political party that was strong on defense and national security under Dwight Eisenhower, and how, first under Nixon and then under Reagan, it capitalized on the social and cultural shambles left by the Great Society and the Sixties to dominate national politics.

Its most interesting chapter would be the last: a reflection on why the post-Reagan GOP has failed to build on Reagan’s legacy the way the Democrats did on FDR’s, and why the party that for a quarter century has reflected the views of a majority of Americans on everything from burning the flag to defeating terrorism, as well as welfare, illegal immigration, and even abortion, has managed to lose four of the last six presidential contests.

Instead, Professor Heather Cox Richardson of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has given us a political screed disguised as history. It’s a testimonial to just how far intellectual standards have slid in today’s academy — and a tantalizing picture of where the next decisive downward drop is headed.

Her thesis is deceptively simple: The Republican party started out as a party devoted to a single principle, human freedom, and dedicated to opposition to slavery, but it subsequently collapsed into a mendacious defense mechanism for plutocracy.

Its early principle of freedom was embodied in the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, the one clear-cut hero in Professor Richardson’s account. “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy,” Lincoln said, and he meant it. Lincoln’s “concern about the growing power of slave owners in the 1850s,” Richardson writes, “had convinced him that, rather than privileging an economic elite, the government must leave the economic playing field free for hard-working individuals to rise” — and that, where necessary, “the government should actively promote individual economic advancement” through measures such as the Homestead Act and, of course, the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lincoln’s vision fell apart in the post–Civil War years, however, as the Republican party betrayed and abandoned that activist egalitarian creed, first by backing away from Reconstruction and then by accepting the embrace of large-scale business interests.

Richardson writes that “there was nothing in Republican economic theory to address the problem of great wealth accumulated by means other than slavery,” such as factories and railroads and Wall Street banking. Actually, there was: the theory of liberal capitalism as embodied first by Adam Smith and then embraced by such free-market economists as William Graham Sumner. This school of thought drew a sharp distinction between the stagnant wealth accumulated by a narrow elite in a slave-owning plantation economy and the dynamic creation and spreading of wealth and opportunity unleashed by commerce and industry. Sumner does appear in To Make Men Free, but only as a conservative mythmaker of the Forgotten Man, described by Richardson as “the hardworking, middle-class taxpayer who got no attention from the government while special interests were snarling for benefits.” In fact, this is a gross misrepresentation of what Sumner actually said, which was: “The State cannot get a cent for any man without taking it from some other man, and this latter must be a man who has produced and saved it. This latter is the Forgotten Man.” This actual statement is even more pertinent today than it was in 1883. 

It was precisely that myth that the Republicans adopted, the book argues, in order to disguise their increasing dependence on Morgans, Rockefellers, and others of similar plutocratic ilk. That myth of the self-made man would be extended and made ubiquitous with the cultural fascination with cowboys and the West — a myth epitomized by the two most famous Republican “cowboys” of all, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Republican mythmaking is a major theme of the book: the Cowboy myth, the Forgotten Man myth, the rugged-individualism myth, the tax-cut myth (it wasn’t tax cuts that triggered the Reagan economic boom of the 1980s, Richardson tries to argue, but rising debt and government spending — an argument that six years of Obama would seem to undermine). Yet no one repeats myths more tirelessly and uncritically than Professor Richardson. We have Calvin Coolidge proclaiming that “America’s business is business” (Coolidge actually said, “The chief business of the American people is business,” a very different proposition) and Herbert Hoover meeting the Great Depression by preaching a doctrine of “thrift, morality, and individualism” (when in fact, as a good Progressive, he tried to stem economic collapse with an Obama-sized explosion of government intervention and spending). There’s Bill Buckley the McCarthyite elitist, whose National Review “was funded by a rich South Carolina mill owner who loathed labor unions and desegregation” (in fact there were many funders, including Buckley’s father; and Buckley’s key accomplishment was to exclude extremists such as the John Birch Society and anti-black anti-Semites such as Willis Carto and his Liberty Lobby from Republican ranks); and George W. Bush, whose war in Iraq led to “the exposure . . . not of WMDs but of corruption and huge payoffs to Halliburton.”

#page#And so on through virtually every page, a gross and systematic misrepresentation of the facts that one would expect in a Debbie Wasserman Schultz press release, or a Daily Kos blog post, but not in a book, even a tendentious one, by a University of Massachusetts history professor. Unfortunately, Richardson is out of her historical depth. As a specialist on the Reconstruction era, she is as incapable of characterizing different periods of recent American history as she is of distinguishing different strands of conservative thought inside and outside the Republican party. In her limited imagination, conservatives have no redeeming merits. Consider this sentence from her conclusion, regarding attacks on President Obama: “Republicans’ single-minded determination to stop this man, this one man, regardless of the actual nature of his policies and regardless of the very real needs of a nation trying to recover from a devastating economic recession, revealed that, having been captured by Movement Conservatives, the Republican party could no longer engage with the reality of actual governance.”

Still, Richardson suggests that if Republicans can somehow turn away from the racism, elitism, sexism, etc. of Movement Conservatives, and reembrace the principles of Lincoln, they may save themselves. Two figures point the way (predictable ones, of course, but then everything in To Make Men Free is all too predictable). One is the trustbusting Teddy Roosevelt; the other, Dwight Eisenhower, who was willing to embrace New Deal policies and understood the positive role of government in American society. Eisenhower, she writes, had been shocked at the Nazi death camps of Ohrdruf and Buchenwald — which, presumably, left him immune to the ideology of a Robert Taft or a Bill Buckley. Instead, “Eisenhower had faith in America,” she writes, and “the American ideal was economic opportunity for all” — which Washington had a duty not only to encourage at home but to export abroad as a way to stem the attraction of Communism. “If a job has to be done to meet the needs of the people,” she quotes an Eisenhower adviser as saying, “and no one else can do it, then it is the proper function of the federal government” — whether it’s building the Interstate Highway System or sending in the 101st Airborne to desegregate Arkansas schools.

This seems a hopeful message, except it’s not. Anyone familiar with Professor Richardson’s other work, including her book West from Appomattox, knows that, in her view, the Lincoln ideal of free labor and free men was a lie from the start. It was an ideal that applied only to white men, and could be realized only by elbowing aside Native Americans, blacks, and women, and sustained only by a desperate flight from reality known as the American West.

Indeed, Richardson writes in West from Appomattox that the emergence after the Civil War of “mainstream America,” or the middle class, was the work of people who “had harnessed a newly active American government to their own interests” while “retain[ing] a vision of America as a land of individualism” that it emphatically was not. No wonder, then, that Republicans kept winning elections: The lie they sold was the lie that sustained America’s broad and growing middle class. In light of Professor Richardson’s other work, then, even the title “To Make Men Free” (with an emphasis on men) is meant as vicious mockery. We claim to be a land of opportunity, when we are not; we claim to value individual freedom, when we systematically deny it to everyone else. But anyone who tells us our claims are true, we send to the White House.

Yet here our author faces a painful dilemma: This kind of postmodern cynicism, on which she has built her professional success, is precisely what can’t be put in a book that intelligent people will want to read. So she’s been forced to fake it, and pretend there’s some hope for America — and incidentally for the Republican party. That’s probably one reason, by the way, the book is so awkwardly written: It’s very hard to pretend a sympathy for your country, its recent history, and the majority of people living there, for over 300 pages of text, when you don’t feel it.

It also poses a dilemma for Republicans. They can embrace liberalism, as Richardson suggests — become the Republican party of latter-day Eisenhowers, Rockefellers, Colin Powells, and Christie Todd Whitmans — and win their souls but lose elections. Or they can embrace their dark side, Movement Conservatism, and lose their souls but win elections, the way Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush, and Governors Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and Mike Pence did.

Actually, it’s not that hard a choice — and one has to express some gratitude to Professor Richardson for demonstrating how simple it really is.

– Mr. Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of, among other books, Joseph McCarthy: Re-examining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator.

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