May 5, 2016: REPUBLICANS I HAVE KNOWN
I grew up in a Republican household, it was middle-class, my father commuted to New York City every morning and worked in railroad insurance, he had met my mother in the office when they were both young, and she was the boss's daughter and his secretary. She could type 120 words a minute. All these people were Republicans. We lived in a solidly Republican town, Westfield, N. J., an old suburb. My older brother, my only sibling, went to Cornell, took chemical engineering, worked for a couple of years at an oil refinery in Perth Amboy, then enrolled in law school nights and ultimately became Westfield's town attorney, holding the job for twenty-three years, a state record. He was Republican through and through. When my wife and I went to see him late in life you could not walk into the house without finding Fox News going on the TV. All hours of the day and evening.
I was seven when FDR died. I had been hearing all my little life that Roosevelt was a "traitor to his class," so I grabbed a pot out of the kitchen, took a large spoon, and started walking around the outside of our house beating on the pot and crying, "Roosevelt is dead, Roosevelt is dead," and that lasted until my mother rushed outside and grabbed me and took me back inside. You get the picture.
So--quite a long life I've had, long enough that I voted my first time around for JFK. I've voted Democrat ever since. Princeton did this to me, deepened my knowledge of history, explained issues to me, got me interested in politics and what the two parties stood for. One of my roommates one year was the son of a Democratis kingmaker in Hartford, Connecticut. He subscribed to the New York Times. There was political talk in our rooms, and I listened. And began to follow the news. And abandoned my family's politics, which wasn't very strong anyway. Their politics were a small element in their overall character. They were respectable, conventional people with a great sense of humor, loving to their children, determined to give us every opportunity. Solid. You could rely on them completely. Cornell, Princeton--they made large sacrifices to send us there. They were great parents, and what I came to think of as classic Republicans, business oriented, traditional, relatively tolerant, patriotic, family centered.
What happened? How did a party into whose hands you could put the country without fearing for its life become the party of people like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump--people so inherently evil or so stupid and ignorant as to make the U. S. the laughing stock of the world, and/or a source of bafflement and panic internationally? Look back. Wendell Wilkie was a one-worlder along the lines of Woodrow Wilson. Dwight Eisenhower was boring but quietly effective, and wise. Thomas Dewey would have made a decent President. The only joke on the scene was Harold Stassen, and he never had a chance in any of the many elections he threw his hat into. No one took him seriously. The Republican Party was an educated party then, it was the party of business and always opposed regulation, but it was not irresponsible. Was it Nixon?
Yes, no doubt that was part of it. He was a strange bird, quite intelligent, deeply paranoid, never sure how to behave with people. You can cite his famous "Southern strategy," liberating the racism inherent not only in the South but also lurking in shallow burials all over the American landscape, and thereby turning the Republicans, the party of Lincoln, racist. But it took a long time after that for the party to become completely mindless, to give it over to know-nothings like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, to tolerate people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and let them become the party's voice. Nixon wasn't the whole story. Much more had to happen for the U. S. to become an outlier among the civilized, developed nations of the world.
Shall we call it the failure of the Establishment? No doubt that's another element, but then we have to define exactly what the Establishment consists of, and that's not easy. I'm pretty sure that if I had chosen another line of work I could have become a member of the Establishment. My mother saw me becoming a college president. In a large and extremely diverse country like ours, I think an Establishment is pretty much a necessity. A kind of semi-permanent government, the top edge of a permanent bureaucracy, it develops a sophistication about government that is often cynical but seldom reckless. We can all think right away of the many mistakes made by establishments, but you don't do away with them because they make mistakes. Or because they're intertwined with business interests. Business interests are part of the foundation of America. Alexander Hamilton understood that, and, as a friend of mine says, we're all Hamiltonians now. We deplore business lobbies and their power, but there are environmental lobbies and artist lobbies and PBS lobbies as well and wealthy people are necessary to support them.
I could go on and on citing reasons. They're no doubt endless; we could cite a perfect storm of reasons for the decline of the Republican Party. But they add up to a major tragedy. As a home for people like my parents, my brother, it has simply vanished. Now all in Republican World is illogic and rage, a profound stupidity, anti-educational, anti-science, anti-factual, hypocritical, overtly racist. It no longer has a moral compass, a sense of noblesse oblige, a sense of responsibility, and these are things that an opposition requires to have a real place in the country's sense of itself. There is no longer any intelligence in it, or anything but a kind of inept calculation. We can no longer trust it. Once we could. And this is tragic. It is doing the country permanent damage.