Canadians following the Republican race for the presidential nomination might well be puzzled: the party of big business and free enterprise savaging its front-runner as a heartless capitalist exploiter, sounding more like the Occupy Wall Street protesters than Republicans; the party of the American Empire and the interventionist foreign policy of George Bush and Dick Cheney with a candidate (Ron Paul) who fires up his followers with a defence of isolationism that Michael Moore joked sounded like it was lifted from him.
What happened to the Republican Party we thought we knew?
Actually, all of these positions – and contradictions – go back to the American Founding. Thomas Jefferson fervently wished America to avoid foreign entanglements, restricting its contact with the outside world to trade. But he avidly sought America’s own internal empire through westward expansion. The tension between Main Street (the small-town world of agriculture and local business) and Wall Street (high-stakes investment) was etched in the American psyche early on. And both Republicans and Democrats have embraced one or the other tendencies.
By the time of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, many believed America’s international trade should be accompanied by the projection of military power abroad – in America’s self-interest and to spread the ideals of American liberty. Both Republicans and Democrats have embraced an interventionist foreign policy.
Beginning with Woodrow Wilson, then from FDR through Harry Truman down to JFK and LBJ, the Democrats were the party of hawkish interventionism. When the debacle of Vietnam spiralled the Democrats toward hair-shirt pacifists such as George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, those who remained hawks began gravitating toward the Republicans, joined by younger neo-Wilsonian idealists such as Elliot Abrams and Paul Wolfowitz. The neo-conservatives, as they came to be known, found in the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes vehicles for the interventionism that the Democrats had abandoned. Only with Bill Clinton did the Democrats return to the foreign policy hawkishness they had once dominated.
During the FDR-LBJ period, the Republican Party had increasingly become the home of the old isolationist streak that wanted to avoid involvement in what George Washington had called “foreign wars,” crystallized in Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about the “military-industrial complex.” Even under hawkish Republican presidents from Mr. Nixon onward, that isolationism never went away. Similarly, when Mr. Clinton intervened in Kosovo, Republicans began complaining – as Mr. Paul does now – that America should not be the “world’s policeman.” When George W. Bush invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq, many heartland Republicans followed him only reluctantly, mainly out of their personal affection for him.
In the realm of economic policy, there has been a similar back and forth between the two parties. It was Republican Theodore Roosevelt who decried “the malefactors of great wealth,” favouring the break-up of monopolies and stealing the populist thunder of William Jennings Bryan for his own party’s advantage. With FDR and the New Deal, help for the little man moved over to the Democrats. Neither party ever truly turned its back on Wall Street in favour of an exclusive concern with Main Street. But in general tone and temperament, it’s fair to say that Mr. Nixon, Mr. Reagan and both Bushes were more Main Street presidents, while the Clinton and Obama administrations have been intimately connected to Wall Street.
In the current Republican presidential primaries, in the absence of a strong and effective leader such as Mr. Reagan or George W. Bush, all of these differing policies have come flying apart. Mr. Paul’s isolationism appeals to a long-standing constituency in the party. The savaging of Mitt Romney as a corporate raider and high-finance shark taps into the party’s deep ambivalence about “New York” venture capitalism and its preference for rural and small business Main Street populism. The fundamentalist Christian strain of that heartland leaning – a powerful base of support for both Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush – has propelled Rick Santorum’s candidacy.
Can anyone put these pieces together again? Only an effective leader will be able to reunite them in such a way that all groups will feel they’re getting something of what they want. But that leader has yet to emerge. Mr. Reagan ran to the right and governed from the centre, uniting Main Street rhetoric with Wall Street backing. Mr. Bush was perhaps more truly Main Street in both rhetoric and policies but was also the biggest interventionist hawk of them all. His popularity based on a heartland constituency that remained deeply ambivalent about “foreign wars,” he used his presidency after 9/11 to allow the neo-con firebrands previously restrained by his father and Mr. Reagan to have complete sway.
This capacity to combine contradictory values and policies into a coherent political coalition bridging the divisions between Main Street and Wall Street, isolationist and hawk, is the sign of real leadership. The current factions have spun off, uniting only to savage Mr. Romney. Should he be the nominee, it will be a long and slow haul for him to rise above the fray and bring the squabblers into a big political tent.
Waller Newell is a professor of political science and philosophy at Carleton University.