This week was a big one in the history of this country.
The House Committee on the Judiciary voted to impeach the President for the fourth time in American history. But that was not, actually, the biggest story. The big story was that it became clear that the leadership of today’s Republican Party, a party started in the 1850s by men like Abraham Lincoln to protect American democracy, is trying to undermine our government.
Even as I write that, it seems crazy. But I can reach no other conclusion after watching the behavior of the Republicans over the past few weeks, from their yelling and grandstanding rather than interviewing witnesses in the Intelligence Committee hearings, to the truly bizarre statements of Trump and Attorney General Barr saying the report of the Justice Department’s Inspector General about the investigation into Russian interference in 2016 concluded the opposite of what it did, to the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee making a mockery of the hearings rather than actually participating in them, and finally culminating in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announcing on Sean Hannity’s program last night that “There’s no chance the president will be removed from office.”
A look at the members of the House Judiciary Committee who voted for or against impeachment explains how we got here. It was a strict party vote, and of the 23 Democrats who voted to impeach Trump, 11 were women, and twelve were people of color (California’s Ted Lieu did not vote because he was recovering from surgery). Of the 17 Republicans who voted against impeachment, two were women. Zero were people of color.
That the Republican Party has turned itself into an all-white, largely male party is the result of a deliberate campaign of industrialists to destroy the national consensus after WWII. Unregulated capitalism crashed the world economy in 1929, then an activist government both provided relief during the Depression and enabled the Allies to win WWII. By 1945, Americans of all parties embraced the idea that the government should regulate business, provide a basic social safety net, and promote infrastructure. This belief was called the “liberal consensus,” and it was behind both the largest welfare program in American history—Social Security—and the largest infrastructure project in American history—the Interstate Highway System. Taxes of up to 91% under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower helped to pay for this popular system.
But a small group of businessmen loathed the idea that government bureaucrats could tell them how to run their businesses. Rather than having to abide by government regulations, they wanted to go back to the world of the 1920s, when businessmen ran the government. They insisted that the government must do nothing but defend the nation and promote religion.
They made little headway. The economy was booming and most Americans loved their new nice homes and family cars, and recognized that it was labor legislation and government regulation that enabled them to make a good living. The liberal consensus kept wealth spread fairly in society, rather than accumulating at the top as it had done in the 1920s.
But there was a catch. The logical outcome of a war for democracy was that all Americans would have the right to have a say in their government. The idea that men of color and women should have a say equal to white men in our government gave an opening to the men who wanted to destroy the nation’s postwar active government. When a Republican Supreme Court unanimously decided that segregation was unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the way was clear for these men to argue that an active government was not about protecting equality; it was simply a way to give benefits to black people, paid for by white tax dollars.
This argument drew directly from the years of Reconstruction after the Civil War, when the Republican national taxes invented during the Civil War coincided with the 1870 Fifteenth Amendment guaranteeing black men the right to vote. In 1871, white supremacist Democrats in the South began to argue (disingenuously) that they had no problem with black men voting. What they objected to was poor men voting for leaders who promised “stuff”—roads and schools and hospitals in the war-damaged South—that could only be paid for with tax levies on the only people in the South who had money: white men. This, they said, was socialism.
One hundred years later, this equation-- that people of color would vote for government benefits paid for by hardworking white men-- was the argument on which businessmen after WWII broke the liberal consensus. Their candidate Reagan rose to power on the image of the Welfare Queen, a black woman who, he said “has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names.” In his inaugural address he concluded, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” He promised to take tax dollars from welfare queens and give them back to hardworking white men.
These new Republicans slashed government regulation and social welfare programs, as they promised, but their laws did not help middle-class white men. Instead wealth moved upward. Voters pushed back, and to stay in power, Republicans purged the party of people who still believed that the government should regulate business and provide a social safety net—people Newt Gingrich called RINOs, for Republicans In Name Only—and then began to purge opposition voters. As Republicans got more and more extreme, they lost more voters and so, to stay in power, they began to gerrymander congressional districts. Increasingly, they argued that Democrats only won elections with illegal votes, usually votes of people of color. Those voters were “takers” who wanted handouts from “makers,” as Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney put it. It was imperative to keep people of color and women from voting. Their desire for government regulation, social welfare, and infrastructure funding was “socialism.”
A generation of vilifying Democrats as “socialists” has brought us to a place where Republican leaders reject outright the idea that Democrats can govern legitimately. To keep voters from electing Democrats, Republicans have abandoned democracy. They are willing to purge voting rolls, gerrymander states, collude with a foreign power to swing elections, and protect a president who has attacked Congress, packed the courts, and attacked the media, looking everything like a dictator on the make, so long as he slashes taxes and attacks women and people of color. While Republicans used to call their opponents socialists, they now call them traitors.
We are at the moment when Americans must choose. Will we allow these Republican leaders to establish an oligarchy in which a few white men run the country in their own interests, or do we really believe that everyone has a right to a say in our government?
For my part, I will stand with Lincoln, who in the midst of a war against oligarchy, charged his fellow Americans to “highly resolve that…, this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”