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Book Review: To Make Men Free

By (September 21, 2014) No Comment

To Make Men Free:to make men free cover

A History of the Republican Party

by Heather Cox Richardson

Basic Books, 2014

The history of the American Republican Party makes for a naturally rousing narrative, stretching as it does from the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, through the great progressive Republican presidents at the turn of the 20th century, men like Theodore Roosevelt and his trust-busting successor William Howard Taft, to hold-the-course giants like President Eisenhower, and culminating, in many ways, in the towering figure of Ronald Reagan. This is the grand story Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson takes as the subject of her sharp and readable new book To Make Men Free, and although she’s excellent in a brisk way on the party’s formative years (emphasis on “brisk” – utterly fascinating figures like Presidents Harding or McKinley, or, more pointedly, Barry Goldwater – are treated with an intelligent but hurtling economy), she knows as well as any of her readers that there’s, you’ll pardon the expression, an elephant in the room.

Much of her book is necessarily curtain-raiser, therefore. We get the story of a party that was always more enamored of “lives, fortunes, and sacred honors” and less of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The early Republicans she chronicles have an avidity for power, yes, but not programmatically less so than their Democratic counterparts, and they’re capable of great patriotism and public sacrifice. The longer momentum of her narrative moves ineluctably toward that one pomaded figure, the living lynchpin of the modern Republic party. She sets the stage for that “ruggedly handsome charmer,” Ronald Reagan, by showing us the porch-and-patio stage he was soon to stride:

People in the booming California suburbs were recent arrivals without community connections, living in sprawling new developments that had been built without town centers. Organizations like the John Birch Society, with its local, homey chapters, helped to foster a sense of community while pushing an ideology that served the economic interests of the suburbanites. So did the coffee klatches, barbeques, and bridge clubs where people shared ideas about individualism and their fears of communism. And so did churches, for central to combatting the godless communists was a strong faith in religion.

Richardson is insightful on the ways Reagan harnessed the iconography of the Old West – or rather, the Hollywood version of the Old West he so perfected in his earlier career – in a new incarnation of the Grand Old Party, and she links this new state dressing with “Movement Conservatism,” a subset of a philosophical system that Richardson does he best throughout the second half of her book to grapple with through all its transformations. She can’t avoid the honest conclusion that it’s a virulent subset, although she’s unfailingly scholarly and even-handed about it:

America’s founding principle was not equality, Movement Conservatives asserted, but the protection of property. The only way to achieve this goal was to dismantle the federal government and return to a system of states’ rights … Movement Conservatives turned to the idealized image of western individuals, who wanted nothing from the government and embodied hard work and self-made success. That image was no more valid in the 1950s than it had been in the 1870s made no difference.

But inevitably, she comes down to the aforementioned elephant in the room: the fact that the present-day Republican Party, for whatever complex of reasons, has degenerated into something that would be completely unrecognizable to Lincoln or Roosevelt or Eisenhower. She quite correctly locates a key fracture zone in the presidency of George W. Bush (and the Vice Presidency of Dick Cheney) in the immediate wake of the terrorist attacks of 9-11:

By November 2001, Bush had begun to use signing statements to redefine congressional laws according to his wishes. One of his first significant signing statements was on a bill providing appropriations for the Interior Department. Congress had required congressional approval before the executive carried out the different provisions in the measure. Bush announced that he would “interpret such provisions to require notification only.” The Bush administration would not be bound by Congress.

The years of the second Bush administration (an administration whose record of mendacity and rapacity Richardson very politely elides in favor of her larger points) exacerbate a rift in the party “between reality and image,” and that rift only widens when the party finds itself turned out of power by Barack Obama and the Democrats. Here the last echoes of her subject’s days of greatness die away finally; here, despite her best efforts at intellectual impartiality, Richardson is forced – as are all hapless Americans old enough to have called themselves Republicans in the decades when that was an explication rather than an implication – to describe something that’s hardly less than delusionally evil:

Republicans’ single-minded determination to stop this man, this one man, regardless of the actual nature of his policies and regardless of the very real needs of a nation trying to recover from a devastating economic recession, revealed that, having been captured by Movement Conservatives, the Republican Party could no longer engage with the reality of actual governance.

Unspoken but heavily implied by our author – and of the vast and vastly depressing downward spiral depicted in To Make Men Free – is the obvious extension that a party no longer able to govern or even to perceive reality should no longer share in actual power over people’s lives, and yet the Republican Party described in Richardson’s final pages stands a good chance of gaining (through lies, fear-mongering, and outright voter disenfranchisement among minorities) a great deal of additional power in the upcoming 2014 midterm elections. Her book is essential reading about that Republican Party – essential and damn sad.