In my articles on LRC, I’ve been particularly harsh on the Republicans, mostly because they’re the ones in power (if they weren’t, this article would be about the Party of Wilson). I promise this is my last attack on Republicans before the election.
I don’t much like the Republican Party, but it wasn’t always this way. For years I considered myself a libertarian conservative, and, for a while, even after distancing myself from conservatism, I still regarded the Republican Party as the obvious lesser of two evils.
No more. But it’s not just George W. Bush that has made me rethink the Republican Party. I have determined that the GOP has always been, from its very beginning, a party of big government and a plague on freedom. Despite the deafening claims from the Left that Bush and modern Republicans have "betrayed the Party of Lincoln" or from the Right that Bush has turned his back on the "small government principles" of the Grand Old Party, the fact is that Bush perfectly represents what the GOP has stood for since its birth.
The party began as a coalition of Americans who wanted to expand federal power. Its heritage was with the Hamiltonian Federalist Party, which more or less transformed into the big-government Whig Party. When the Whig Party became defunct, the Republican Party emerged to include centralist big-government Americans and other opponents of the Democrats without a party.
The party also absorbed many folks from the Free Soil Party, which was, itself, a loose coalition of Americans who opposed the extension of slavery into the western territories. Some were genuinely anti-slavery, and even a few abolitionists, with nowhere else to go, joined the Free Soil movement. But the Free Soilers, by and large, only opposed slavery because they found it unfair that free white laborers should have to compete with black slaves. They wanted to keep blacks out of the West. Free Soilers and Republicans who were authentic abolitionists were rare and without influence, much like the libertarians in the GOP today.
The early Republican Party, especially as defined by Lincoln’s nomination in 1860, was mainly concerned with the American System of Henry Clay, a plan to use federal subsidies and high protectionist tariffs to establish economic nationalism and give large sums of tax dollars to corporations to build "internal improvements" — railways, waterways and canals.
Of course, Lincoln’s War wasn’t about slavery, except as a dishonest political expedient that came into play halfway through the conflict. Lincoln’s prime goal was instituting a corporatist-mercantilist central state, and he achieved this goal. The Civil War was the largest government program seen in American history, supported by inflation, income taxation, conscription, censorship, corporate welfare, and the killing of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
The Republicans after Lincoln monopolized the federal government, turning it into a virtual single-party state, massacred the Plains Indians, and instituted Reconstruction. Reconstruction was another big government program, riddled with corruption, cronyism and centralization, implemented by Republicans after Lincoln and only ending with the political compromise of 1876. In 1876, Republican Rutherford Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden ran against each other in a highly contested election. Hayes, who had campaigned on a platform of continued federal domination of the South, ultimately won the presidency; in exchange for the Democrats’ capitulation he ended Reconstruction.
There were surely some early Republicans with good intentions, with a greater interest in liberty and equality for blacks than in pillaging through the federal government. However, the party as an institution was always about expanding the central state and nationalizing sectors of the economy — and such goals, however well-intentioned or falsely associated with the more noble principles of abolition and equality under the law, undoubtedly had little to do with America’s founding principles of Constitutional and decentralized, limited government.
In the late 19th century the president most sensitive to liberty was the Democrat Grover Cleveland, who, in the 1880s and 1890s, defended the gold standard, reduced tariffs, relied heavily on his veto pen, and rooted out corruption. When the Republicans took over with William McKinley in 1897, they continued their trademark trend of expanding government and using subsidies and tariffs to benefit Big Business. In 1898, they took America on its first step toward global empire — the Spanish-American War.
Teddy Roosevelt, hero of modern Republicans everywhere, continued with US imperialism, intervening in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras. Under Roosevelt, the US government finally withdrew from Cuba, which it had been occupying after "liberating" it from Spain. The United States imposed paternalistic conditions on Cuba in exchange for withdrawing the troops: Cuba would need US permission to form alliances; the US would be allowed to intervene whenever and however it wanted; the US would have control of Guantanamo Bay.
If anything should stand as a reminder of the true nature of Republican wars of "liberation," past and present, it’s Guantanamo Bay.
Teddy Roosevelt also continued US intervention in the Philippines, which the US had likewise "liberated" from Spanish control. The "Christianizing" US occupation burned down churches, treated the population brutally, and, following orders to shoot resisters as young as eleven, slaughtered 200,000 Philippine civilians — or, in today’s Republican lingo, Philippine "anti-freedom insurgents." Republican Teddy was America’s first neocon.
Roosevelt also expanded government at home. He signed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, broke up dozens of companies, doubled the number of national parks, strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission, spoke out in favor of labor regulations and a graduated income tax, and even used his influence in the Bully Pulpit to try to change the rules of college football. Republican Teddy was America’s first Progressive.
William Howard Taft, another Republican, elected in 1908, was even more rigorous that Teddy Roosevelt in his antitrust suits against companies, in spite of all the propaganda that he was "laissez-faire." Taft strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission by signing the Mann-Elkins Act, oversaw passage of the dreaded 16th Amendment, and intervened militarily in Cuba, Honduras, and Nicaragua — where the US presence would continue for two decades.
But Taft used the power of government in ways that certain business interests didn’t care for, and so they supported Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive "Bull Moose" Party in the election of 1912. The interesting nuance here is that being anti-laissez faire is not the same as being anti-big business. In the election, with all three major candidates proposing more government, Democrat Woodrow Wilson beat the divided Republicans.
Woodrow Wilson, continuing the Progressive and imperial legacy of his three Republican predecessors, was the first genuinely big-government Democrat. His party revered him for avoiding World War I throughout his first term, but upon reelection he dragged the country into the European bloodbath. He nationalized the economy and erected huge bureaucracies, creating precedents for the New Deal.
Around this time, the Republicans began to take on the role of the smaller-government party, but probably mostly as a matter of circumstance. The "return to normalcy" under Republicans Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge was, on balance, a wonderful thing. Tax and spending rates sunk, the economy was considerably freed up, and the 1920s saw an era of liberty and prosperity, when compared to Wilson’s World War I days.
However, even in the 1920s the Republicans were hardly better than the pre-war days of Wilson. The government was not as small under the "laissez faire" years of Silent Cal as it was in the Progressive Era before Wilson dragged America into war.
Throughout the 1920s the Republicans, loyal to their business base and general affinity to big government, imposed the devastatingly protectionist Fordney-McCumber Tariff, which helped bring about the Depression, and enforced the catastrophic "Noble Experiment" of Prohibition. Although with the fiscally sane policies of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, Harding and Coolidge were probably the best two presidents of the 20th century, they were quite far from ideal. All illusions that the Republicans were the party of limited government shattered with Herbert Hoover.
Hoover, contrary to the propaganda, was a big-government president, with a bureaucratic background working in Wilson’s wartime US Food Administration. In response to the Stock Market Crash of 1929, Hoover ignored Treasury Secretary Mellon’s wise proposals to liquidate and cut government spending, and instead expanded government, created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, established the Federal Farm Board and instituted agricultural price supports, signed the Federal Home Lone Bank Act, passed the outrageously protectionist Smoot-Hawley Tariff, and attempted to impose a "bank holiday" (the Democratic Congress wouldn’t oblige him on this, but followed his suggestion once FDR took power).
FDR ran against Hoover’s big-government agenda, promising to shrink government, cut spending and lower taxes. Of course, FDR, once in power, turned the national economy into a corporatist, socialist experimentation lab with his New Deal, once again, like his predecessor Wilson, making the Republicans appear to be laissez faire in comparison. Many Republicans heroically fought FDR’s socialization of the economy, up until Pearl Harbor, at which point the parties became united in the war effort, including all the expansions of government at home. When an opposition party was needed most, there wasn’t one.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, the Republicans again took on the role of the party of smaller government, and again mostly as a matter of circumstance. There were genuine heroes, such as Senator Robert Taft, who opposed the welfare-warfare state in nearly all its manifestations. Harry Truman, a big-government Democrat if ever there was one, made many on the Old Right begin to feel at home with the Republicans.
Republican President Dwight Eisenhower warned against the "military industrial complex," and saw a reduction of government spending when compared to his immediate predecessors, FDR and Truman (not a hard thing to do!). But Eisenhower also met massive opposition from his own party; he was not totally representative of Republicans. However, Eisenhower never made government smaller than it was before World War II, and he spawned, with the coup that gave Iran to the Shah, a half-century US policy of intervention in the Middle East, which curses us in fatally apparent ways to this very day.
As John F. Kennedy and especially Lyndon Johnson expanded big government, the Republicans appeared to favor liberty and small government in contrast. The Great Society and the Vietnam War made Nixon’s candidacy appear to hold some hope, as he promised "peace with honor" and seemed less inclined to pander to voters by glorifying the welfare state.
With Nixon’s election, the Republicans once again shed themselves of their small-government veneer. Nixon created the EPA and OSHA and implemented the Philadelphia Plan, the first significant federal program of affirmative action, complete with racial quotas. He secretly carpet bombed Cambodia, continued the Great Society, started to give real life to federal drug policy, advocated draconian gun control, obliterated the last remnants of the gold standard, used the IRS to harass political enemies, and even implemented wage and price controls — one of the most significant assaults a social democratic state is capable of inflicting on the free market. The welfare state is bad enough; imposing standards on what people can charge customers and pay employees is economic fascism.
Nixon was a conservative, for sure, in that he complained about hippies in California and the deterioration of law and order — of course, he would never have broken the law himself — but his solutions were always more federal power, more federal agencies, more warfare. Incidentally, he also believed that, in an ideal world, handguns would be outlawed.
Gerald Ford continued Nixon’s rotten legacy until Jimmy Carter — that Democrat that so many libertarians can’t seem to hate enough — came along, deregulating industries, legalizing home brewing, taming down DC’s crusading stance on the Cold War and Drug War, pardoning draft resisters, and holding down federal spending. He did some very stupid things, of course, but he was probably among the least harmful presidents since Calvin Coolidge.
Enter Ronald Reagan — a man that personifies the deceptive faades and realities of the modern Republican Party. Reagan began acquiring his undeserved good reputation as a champion of liberty in the 1950s, when General Electric hired him to tour the country and talk about free enterprise — a topic that neither Reagan, a devout New Dealer and former president of the Screen Actors Guild Union, nor General Electric, a top player in the military-industrial complex, had a true, heart-felt passion for or interest in.
As governor of California, Reagan signed into law the largest tax increase in state history as well as the most egregious modern gun control law in state history — the 1967 Mulford Act, authored by a Republican, which prohibited the carrying of firearms on one’s person or in a vehicle or on a public street. The California budget grew at a much faster rate under Reagan than under either Democrat Pat Brown before him or Democrat Jerry Brown after him.
As president, Reagan increased government spending through the roof. Federal spending totaled $590 billion in fiscal year 1980; by 1988, Reagan’s last year, it rose to $1.14 trillion. Under Reagan, the national debt climbed from less than $800 billion to more than $2 trillion. Although some people like to attribute this to "defense spending," that’s largely a myth, and irrelevant to the question of sheer government size, anyway.
Reagan cut taxes on high-income brackets, but he also dramatically raised payroll taxes, causing tax revenues to go up. At any rate, his spending nearly doubled the size of government. Since all spending increases are tax increases, whether in the form of direct taxation or inflation, Reagan must be seen as a tax raiser. Unfortunately, this doesn’t register with all conservatives, who learned from Reagan the neo-Keynsian mantra that "deficits don’t matter."
Reagan also pumped up the War on Drugs. The number of drug offenders in federal prison rose from about six thousand in 1980 to more than twenty-two thousand in 1988; the percentage of inmates in federal prison for drug offenses increased from 25% to 44% during Reagan’s two terms.
In spite of his lip service to free trade, Reagan was an ardent protectionist who strengthened the fraudulent Export-Import Bank and imposed horrendous tariffs and quotas on everything from electronics to clothespins to motorcycles to sugar. Despite his getting credit for deregulation, he only continued what Carter had begun. Despite his promises to eliminate the Departments of Energy and Education as well as the Selective Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, President Reagan abolished none of these, or any other major bureaucracies, and actually inflated them, for the most part.
Reagan was also a shameless interventionist, bombing Libya, militarily assisting both Iran and its enemy Iraq, illegally supporting thugs in Latin America, and invading Grenada. Despite the Cold War mythology, the USSR fell under the weight of central planning, not because of Reagan. It is absurd to credit Reagan’s central planning as a paragon of economic liberty that defeated Communism by example, or to think his militarism kept Americans safe.
George Bush Senior continued the Reagan legacy, reneging on one of his only good campaign promises of not raising taxes. Bush I increased the federal budget by about a third; continued Reagan’s protectionism; took the Drug War to Panama, invading the country, killing hundreds or thousands, all to retrieve former US-alley Manuel Noriega in an utterly failed attempt to stem the inflow of cocaine; signed the Americans with Disabilities Act — one of the most ridiculous, economically destructive, and counterproductive legislative and regulatory attacks on the free market in recent years; and did nothing to stop or punish his ATF and FBI agents who, in a dirty entrapment ploy gone awry, ended a standoff at Ruby Ridge by killing fourteen-year old Sammy Weaver and fatally shooting his mother Vicki Weaver in the face with a high-powered rifle while she held her ten-month-old baby.
Perhaps most importantly, at the end of the Cold War, instead of declaring victory over Communism — taking credit, however disingenuously, for the fall of the Soviet Union — and bringing American troops home from the world, Bush The Elder lied America into a war with Iraq, thus squandering one of the best opportunities the US government has ever had to retract its overseas empire and to do it without the least bit of embarrassment.
William Jefferson Clinton brought the illusion of virtue back to the Republican Party. He embodied a sliminess and disrespect for tradition and the Constitution. He advocated tax hikes, tried to nationalize healthcare, and torched a religious community to the ground at Waco, Texas. The cultural traditionalists, the fiscal conservatives, the constitutionalists and libertarian-leaning Republicans felt that they could unite against Clinton like no other enemy since the USSR.
In 1994 the Republicans won both Congress and the Senate for the first time in decades, and took over in 1995. Almost immediately they betrayed whatever good principles they outlined in their Contract with America. They logrolled and pork-barreled their way through the 1990s and the government kept growing — though, probably because of gridlock, it grew at a considerably slower rate than under George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan.
But, beginning around 1999, the shaky ground on which the anti-Clinton coalition of conservatives and libertarians stood became painfully transparent. Whereas many Republicans discussed the Monica Lewinsky affair as the worst sin ever to occur in or around the Oval Office, the libertarian anti-Clintonians were more concerned with Kosovo. Some conservatives were genuinely against the war, but the more neoconservative Republicans upheld what was possibly Clinton’s worst crime as a good lesson in patriotic butt kicking. Bob Dole, who had run against Clinton in 1996, expressed solidarity with Clinton during the NATO bombings.
2000 rolled around with George W. Bush, who had been quite Reaganesque in his big-government polices as governor of Texas, carrying the banner of the Republicans and proposing a centrist agenda of "compassionate conservatism." On the one hand, he advocated a "humbler" foreign policy, lower taxes, and a modest Social Security "privatization" program. On the other hand, he proposed expanding Medicare and greater national involvement in education.
The two parties squared off in one of the closest presidential races in history. Sick of Clinton and fearful of Gore, many libertarians supported Bush, falling for the often-asserted nonsense that the Republicans, once they controlled both the White House and Congress, would finally deliver on promises of smaller government and greater individual liberty.
Now that Bush has taken power, and the Republicans dominate Congress and the Supreme Court, we see once again what fans of smaller government can expect from the GOP: the very opposite of liberty, big government in all directions. Endless war, Medicare expansions, protectionism, enormous agricultural welfare, the Patriot Act, campaign finance censorship, education nationalization, the end of due process, and half-a-trillion dollars a year in deficit spending.
Most small-government conservatives and libertarians feel betrayed by Bush, and yet are thinking of lending him their helping hands on election day. They hope the Republican Party will return to its supposed roots in small government and liberty. They hope that Bush will improve in his second term.
Give it up. The Republican Party — the Party of Lincoln, McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Hoover, Nixon, Reagan and both of the Georges Bush — is not, will never be, and has in fact never really been a party of smaller government. There were aberrations in history where they appeared to be the clear lesser of two evils, but it was usually illusory and always short lived. If anything, the Republican Party is the "Party of Bigger Government That Once In A While Gives Small Government A Bad Name." This has definitely been true since Nixon, and, indeed, aside from the historical anomalies, the Republican Party has never strayed from the founding principles it inherited from the Federalist movement of the early American republic and the Whig Party of the Antebellum Era. The party has never done injustice to the legacy of Lincoln, McKinley and Reagan.
The Republicans have most often appeared to be the better party for liberty — during Wilson, during FDR and Truman, during Lyndon Johnson and during Clinton — when they were out of power. Like clockwork, they have always managed to prove their hostility to liberty every time they actually gained power — during Hoover, during Nixon, during Reagan and during George W. Bush.
This Republican hostility to liberty rivals and at times even exceeds the contempt for freedom manifested by the Democrats. Whenever there has been an excuse to increase government — to "save the Union," "liberate the Philippines," "fight monopolies," "combat alcoholism" or "stamp out drugs," "strengthen the economy," "stop Communism," "stop terrorism," "protect American jobs," "keep the Democrats out of office" — you name it — not only have Republicans jumped at every chance to sacrifice tax dollars and liberty on the altar of Leviathan, they have relished each opportunity so visibly and bragged so loudly so as to become totally incapable of concealing their wretched excitement to outspend and out-govern the other big-government party in Washington.
Republicans might like to think or say otherwise, but there are no authentic small-government roots to which the Republican Party can return. All there is in the fertilized soil from which the GOP has grown are seeds of Caesarian imperialism, corporate socialism, and power lust. Whereas the Democrats often resembled a party of liberty until Wilson and FDR permanently led them astray, the Republicans have always been a corrupt gang of conniving government-worshipping crooks.
Of course, they love the word "freedom." But Republican freedom is never the genuine liberty of limited government, low taxes, personal sovereignty and peace. It is always the false liberty of nationalism, state-business partnerships, centralized police statism and war. Operation Iraqi Freedom, like all Republican wars in history, gives a good glimpse into the militarism and despotism Republicans really mean when they speak of freedom and liberation.
Despite the loud claims from Left and Right that Bush has betrayed his party’s principles, he actually fits right in with the GOP’s legacy; he is right at home in the Party of Lincoln.
If Bush becomes reelected, make no mistake about it: he will do justice to his party’s legacy, and his now-deceased Republican predecessors will be smiling in their graves.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research assistant at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.