The Republicans' 100-Year Shift
I wrote Tuesday about continuities between the Democratic platform of this year and of a century ago. What about the Republicans? Again, the 2016 and 1916 platforms have some striking parallels. But on two major issues, the GOP of 100 years back was very different from the party today.
Again, a recap of 1916 politics: Woodrow Wilson was the Democratic incumbent. The Republicans, in a stab at unifying a fractured party, nominated Charles Evans Hughes, chief justice of the Supreme Court, a political moderate. The voters were worried about the economy. They wanted to avoid involvement in the spreading war in Europe, and bring an end to the brushfire war along the Mexican border.
The Republican platform that year began with a preface that one might consider a shorter version of this year’s rather rambling preamble. The 1916 GOP declared that the party stood for “a united people, true to American ideals, loyal to American traditions, knowing no allegiance except to the Constitution, to the Government, and to the Flag of the United States.”
From there the platform went directly to foreign affairs, beginning with a promise to protect “every American citizen” on land or sea. According to the Republicans, Wilson had made the same promise four years earlier and failed to keep it. Although the world then as now was a dangerous place, the reference as the audience would have understood it was to the war being fought along the Mexican border, and, in particular, to the raids into U.S. territory by Pancho Villa -- raids that worried most voters far more than the conflagration in Europe.
The European war seemed far away, and the Republicans, like the Democrats, wanted no part of it. The platform insisted on strict neutrality and called for “the pacific settlement of international disputes” and -- in language the GOP would never embrace today -- “the establishment of a world court for that purpose.”
This bit, however, would resonate quite strongly with today’s Republicans:
The dignity and influence of the United States, cannot be preserved by shifty expedients, by phrase-making, by performances in language, or by attitudes ever changing in an effort to secure votes or voters. The present Administration has destroyed our influence abroad and humiliated us in our own eyes.
The solution? “A firm, consistent, and courageous foreign policy.” This approach would be “the only true way, to preserve our peace and restore us to our rightful place among the nations.”
The 1916 platform strongly defended “the absolute right of expatriation” -- the switching of allegiance from one government to another -- a word that meant, in the context of the time, immigration. Moreover, the GOP opposed “discrimination of whatever kind between American citizens whether native-born or alien, and regardless of race, religion or previous political allegiance.” (The reference to “race” here is to country of origin, so that the principle once more involves the treatment of immigrants.) Although the 2016 platform’s position on immigration is sufficiently complex to deny easy description, it seems fair to say that the party’s view has changed.
Today’s Republican platform repudiates the party’s long-standing support of free trade. This approach links with the strong protectionism of the GOP of old, which was hardly the party of free traders. In 1916, as I mentioned in my last column, the Democrats trumpeted their support of the Underwood tariff, calculated only to raise revenue and not to promote “selfish” interests. The GOP took the opposite stance: “The Republican party stands now, as always, in the fullest sense for the policy of tariff protection to American industries and American labor and does not regard an anti-dumping provision as an adequate substitute.” The lowering of tariff rates by the Democrats had led to a substantial increase in imports “in spite of the fact that intercourse with foreign countries has been largely cut off by reason of the war,” and had also increased the cost of living. The war, in fact, was hiding the true effect of the lower tariff, which otherwise “would long since have paralyzed all forms of American industry and deprived American labor of its just reward.”
As to business generally, the platform of a hundred years ago would be ringingly endorsed by today’s party. The 1916 GOP supported “the rigid supervision and strict regulation ... of the great corporations of the country,” but criticized the Democrats for carrying out this duty “in a stumbling and piecemeal way” that tended to “choke enterprise and stifle prosperity.” Of course those who broke the law should be punished, but with a proviso: “Prosecution is very different from persecution, and business success, no matter how honestly attained, is apparently regarded by the Democratic party as in itself a crime.”
As to the federal government, the platform called for “a simple businesslike budget system” and condemned the Wilson administration’s “shameless raids on the treasury.” The GOP called for stronger enforcement of the Civil Service Law, condemned the Democrats for the creation of 30,000 new patronage positions (federal jobs outside the Civil Service), which it labeled a “gross abuse and misuse of the law.”
On domestic policy the Republican platform in most other respects resembled the Democratic. The GOP called for federal laws on child labor and workers’ compensation, and for the collection of safety data with an eye toward legislation on workplace hazards. Both parties supported women’s suffrage. The similarities in part mark the existence of a consensus. But they should also remind us of the relative smallness of the federal establishment of the day. There were only so many departments; only so many responsibilities; and only so many opportunities for sharp disagreement.
As I noted in my last column, the election was one of the closest in history. The switch of a few thousand votes in California would have meant a Hughes administration rather than a second term for Wilson. But the matter of how easily the past could have been different is less important than recognizing that although today’s Republican Party has largely retrenched on trade and immigration, on virtually everything else worth putting in a platform it is the same party it was a century ago.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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