Oh, for a return to the days when the Grand Old Party was actually grand

July 27, 2020 7:00 am

Abraham Lincoln consults his generals during the closing days of the Civil War in this painting by George Peter Alexander Healy. Credit: The White House Historical Association

Younger readers may find it impossible to believe, but many Republicans used to be perfectly reasonable people.

Some of them were even what you might now call “progressive,” deep believers in racial equality, women’s rights, and environmental stewardship.

Without Nathaniel Reed of Jupiter Island, every inch of South Florida would have been paved during the 1960s. He stopped the world’s largest jetport being built in the Everglades and helped create Big Cypress National Preserve.

Bob Milligan, the former commander of the Pacific Fleet Marine Force, served as a famously bipartisan state comptroller from 1994 to 2002. He didn’t care about ideology, he just wanted taxpayers to know what they were getting for their money.

The witty longtime legislator Betty Easley may have had an R next to her name when the Ds ran Florida, but she cared about the poor and the disadvantaged.

They had whole hives of bees in their bonnets about low taxes, big business, and small government, but you could talk to them, even hang with them, without the strong conviction that, somewhere along the line, their souls had become moth-eaten and their brains moldy in the service of money and power.

William H. Seward. Credit: Wikipedia.

Even further back, a streak of revolutionary fervor flourished among a subsection of the Republican Party. William Henry Seward, secretary of state from 1861 to 1869, was present at the creation of the party, organized in 1854 to oppose the expansion of slavery to the western territories.

Seward might have become the nation’s first Republican president, except he had to compete for the nomination against a certain backwoods lawyer, a guy who was a splendid orator, a bit more moderate on race (Abraham Lincoln initially supported sending black people back to Africa), and taller.

The white South hated Seward, but not as much as they hated Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, famous for calling a plantation-owning South Carolina senator a “pimp” for slavery in 1856, or Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, who thundered in 1862: “abolish everything on the face of the earth but this Union; free every slave — slay every traitor — burn every rebel mansion, if these things are necessary to preserve this temple of freedom to the world and to our posterity.”

Sumner, Stevens, and a handful of other Republican leaders believed in universal suffrage and rights for women, although they caved after the Civil War, crafting the 14th and 15th Amendments more narrowly than feminist allies such as Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wanted, assuring that black men could vote but no females of any color.

Stevens also supported reparations, recommending that every white-owned plantation be broken up and the land given to the former slaves.

Imagine America if Stevens and Sumner’s ideas had prevailed instead of being quashed by Democrats and the moderates of their own party!

We might almost be living up to our fine founding documents with all that stuff about being “created equal.”

Alas, the “radical” Republican tradition faded after the compromises, sell-outs, and failures of Reconstruction, and the remnant of those visionaries limped into the 20th century, much diminished, a bit like Florida’s endangered Lake Eustis pupfish, which is an elusive species but one which may prove to be more important to the ecosystem than we know.

Even the overarching cynicism, racism, and criminality of Richard Nixon couldn’t quite destroy the progressive Republican tradition; the likes of Nelson Rockefeller, the Chaffees of Rhode Island, Olympia Snowe, and John Warner (among others) forged important political careers.

But it’s 2020, and the Party of Lincoln is dead.

In its place we have a bunch of venal, reactionary politicians leading a rump of mean, scared, hate-fueled caucasians.

U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney. Credit: Wikipedia.

That’s why decent Americans celebrated when one of whiteness’s whitest exemplars, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, son of a progressive, civil rights-supporting Republican governor of Michigan, joined a Black Lives Matter march in D.C. this year.

Will Hurd of Texas and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have their occasional moments, but right now, Romney’s pretty much a party of one.

Sadly, Florida is rich in examples of how far the Republican Party has fallen and how violently it has rejected its older, better, anti-racist, anti-sexist self.

When John Lewis, the great civil rights leader and “conscience of the congress” died last week, Marco Rubio, Florida’s “senior senator,” tweeted an affecting photograph of him with the late Maryland congressman Elijah Cummings.

Rubio later corrected his error (hell, they all kind of look alike, right?)

The American right struggles not only to view people of color as full human beings but struggles to distinguish one from another; last year, Fox News aired a picture of John Lewis when they meant to show Elijah Cummings and couldn’t tell the difference between Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle.

And how about Gov. Ron DeSantis, who, when a reporter asked for a comment about Rep. Lewis, gawped like a widemouth bass with a bad attitude, and finally sniffed that he’d prefer to talk about coronavirus, thank you.

Florida’s U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz speaks during impeachment testimony by constitutional scholars before the House Judiciary Committee on December 4, 2019. Credit: Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images.

DeSantis should consider: Even the bratty Rep. Matt Gaetz managed to issue an adroit tribute to John Lewis and, Governor, when Matt Gaetz looks more statesmanlike than you do, well, I’d reassess my self-presentation.

Maybe he figures he doesn’t need any black votes and so can easily afford to diss one of America’s mightiest freedom fighters, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the age of 23, an organizer of the march on Washington in 1963, and a hero who was nearly killed on the Edmund K. Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965.

Which brings me —as you knew it would — to Rep. Ted Yoho, who probably has no idea that the heart of his party was once dedicated to empowering women.

The bovine veterinarian from Alachua County took it upon himself last week to insult Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, ostensibly because she dared put forth the perfectly sensible theory that poverty can drive up crime.

He called her “disgusting,” then, as a parting shot, a “f—–g bitch.”

A woman — and a woman of color to boot! Congratulations, Rep. Yoho, you are this week’s GOP Poster Jerk.

This is the inevitable outcome of the period in the 1960s and 1970s when Democrats and Republicans switched brains (also known as The Southern Strategy), with the Democrats (and what was left of the liberal Republicans) delivering the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts to African Americans and the emerging conservative Republicans vacuuming up all those freaked out white people who definitely didn’t want to share a school, a golf course or, God forbid, a political party with, you know, them.

President Donald Trump, in October 2019. Credit: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

It can be easy to forget that Donald Trump is not the cause of the Republican Party’s pitiable decline but a symptom of it, the embodiment of how far the party has fallen, from advocates of social justice and equality to enablers of a stupid, racist, misogynist president.

In the same week that John Lewis died, Donald Trump dishonored him by rolling back an anti-segregation fair housing regulation, warning “the suburban housewives of America” that if Joe Biden gets elected, he’ll ruin their nice, white ’hoods by allowing “who knows who” to move in, wrecking property values.

And just like that, we’re back to the 1950s.

If Republicans had any sense, they’d go way further back in history, back to the 1850s.

Not the whole package, of course (we don’t want slavery, we do want penicillin), just back to the old Republican philosophy of equality, anti-racism, and women’s rights; back to the party they almost were, and — if we survive Donald Trump’s assault on American ideals — could be again.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books, most recently Dream State, an historical memoir of her Florida family, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee, except for the times she runs off to Great Britain, desperate for a different government to satirize.