Kevin Baker: America’s Revolutionary Party ... It’s always been the Republicans

The midterm elections have brought us a sweep of both houses of Congress by the Democrats. Just what this means in terms of the war in Iraq or specific legislation is still unknowable, but it now seems undeniable that we are living in an age of radicalism.

Republican radicalism, that is.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who followed reports of a September Oval Office press conference George W. Bush gave for a group of selected columnists. “I got into politics initially because I wanted to help change a culture,” President Bush asserted, according to the conservative journalist David Brooks, who was in the audience. Bush went on to reiterate his conviction that he was at the forefront of “a series of long, gradual cultural transformations,” including a new “religious awakening” and “a generations-long struggle” against international terrorism. “He said the events of weeks or months were just a nanosecond compared with the long course of this conflict,” Brooks reported admiringly.

A cultural transformation and a war that will make weeks and months seem like nanoseconds: Has any American President ever set so ambitious a course? And not only has President Bush committed the nation to this struggle, he has even decided to fight it in a radically different way, steadfastly backing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s concept of a smaller, more flexible military (at least until the day after the election) and becoming the very first President (and perhaps the first ruler of any nation, anywhere) to fight a war while institutionalizing tax cuts.

President Bush has long backed up such rhetoric with action. Since taking office, this administration has indeed sought radical, cultural change in any number of areas, fighting with varying degrees of success to privatize Social Security and transform other entitlement programs, deregulate much of the economy, end abortion rights, lower some of the barriers between church and state, curtail civil liberties and transfer vast new powers to the Executive branch for the purposes of fighting the war on terror, and disengage from long-standing American treaty commitments, from the Kyoto Agreement on global warming to the Geneva Convention. Others in and around the administration have even talked of being able to create their own “reality” and of the formation of an American “empire.”

Whatever one thinks of such ideas, there is no denying that taken altogether, they would drive a vast reshaping of American society. But then, the Republican party was born as a radical movement and has remained—for better and for worse—the true radical party in American politics since its inception in the 1850s. The very first Republican President would turn another national crisis into a transformative moment, throwing over a series of painstaking compromises worked out in the course of decades—and launching a crusade to give the nation “a new birth of freedom” even if it meant that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” To win his war, he would resort to the suspension of habeas corpus; the first U.S. military draft; the arrest and deportation of an elected congressman; even—most radical of all for the times—the arming of tens of thousands of freed black men. After his death at the hands of an outraged citizen, the original Radical Republicans would push through the first amendments to the Constitution in more than 60 years, ending an age-old American institution (slavery) and endowing African-Americans with full rights....

What will become of modern Republican radicalism depends, of course, on how well it matches the challenges of its time. Abolitionism and progressivism, to name a couple of examples, were ideas that came to suit not just Republican voters but also the needs facing the nation. Social Darwinism, Prohibition, and company unions, on the other hand, were disastrous notions. How will radical, Republican nation-building in Iraq come to be regarded? The verdict is still out, although this past November it did enable Democrats to reassemble a remarkably diverse coalition, pushing an array of ideas that are, typically, both pragmatic and reactive at the same time. If they can find the right improviser to weave them together, the current age of American radicalism may last no longer than a few of President Bush’s nanoseconds.

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