In June, an unknown candidate with a hard-to-remember name defeated a long-entrenched incumbent congressman in a Democratic primary in a part of Queens, N.Y. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has never served a day in public office, but the blogs, talk radio, and the rest of the right-wing propaganda machine have anointed her the new “face” of the Democratic Party. Thanks to all the generous free publicity from her detractors, Ocasio-Cortez has achieved national prominence before being elected to anything. She comes across at first blush as smart, articulate, telegenic, and charismatic, qualities never at a surplus among politicians. So what is not to like?
Ah, say her denigrators, but she is a – cough, gasp, choke – “socialist,” the worst current opprobrium for the ultra right. It used to be the more pungent “communist,” but now that its erstwhile enemies admire the homeland of communism and its leader, a former KGB master spy, that particular vilification has been quietly retired.
So what if someone is a “socialist”? I ask this question as someone who was a Republican (and deemed a conservative one at that) Minnesota state representative 40 years ago and the Republican state attorney general nominee in 1982.
A very different party
The iconic modern Republican president in those days was Dwight Eisenhower, not Ronald Reagan and certainly not Donald Trump. The Republican Party and its philosophy were so different from today that it seems more in the realm of myth rather than history.
Under Eisenhower, America built the interstate highway system, the last national infrastructure project. Republicans were leading advocates of legislation to protect and strengthen human rights, civil rights, voting rights, rights of persons with disabilities, the environment and public health, and national parks and monuments. Many of these measures were adopted when Republicans were presidents.
Moreover, the highest income tax rate for the very rich under Eisenhower was an astounding 91 percent. The supposed victims were not hurt by the high taxes. The rich still prospered and so did the middle class in what was then a middle-class-dominated country. The middle class could live well even in the most expensive cities in the U.S.
Not only that, Republican presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford all appointed highly qualified Supreme Court justices with no litmus tests or ideological gate keepers like the Federalist Society today. These appointments included prominent justices who turned out to be liberal, like Warren, Brennan, Blackmun, and Stevens.
A humane face on capitalism, a mixed economy
Those on the right today might say that all this constituted Republican complicity with the dreaded “socialism,” but it is more accurate to say that all of it individually and in combination put a humane face on American capitalism. The U.S. in the middle years of the 20th century had a mixed economy, combining the best features of capitalism and, yes if you want to call it that, socialism.
Then, the Republican Party was capable of governing and governing well.
Since the advent of Reagan and most especially with Trump, though, Republicans have precipitously and unceremoniously gutted the laws and regulations that had tempered the excesses of capitalism. In addition, they have slashed taxes three times for the very rich and are threatening to do more of the same. They have been Robin Hoods in reverse – massively transferring wealth from what used to be a thriving middle class to the upper 1 percent or upper 1/10 of 1 percent.
The differences between Republicans then and now do not end there either.
GOP on free trade, national security
Republicans used to staunchly promote free trade. Now they oppose it.
Republicans used to be the party of strong national security against Russia, America’s No. 1 enemy then and now. To that end, they formed and nurtured alliances with our friends around the world against the common enemy, “the evil empire,” as Reagan called it. At one time, Republicans knew who our friends and enemies were. Now they don’t. Friends are now enemies and enemies are now friends. The repudiation of the Republican catechism on national security is the starkest betrayal of the principles of the party.
What, then, is to be done with the Republican Party today? Reform from within would be the ideal, but hardly viable, option. Despite his manifest unfitness to hold the office of president, Trump retains overwhelming popularity in his party. His support among Republicans crosses into worship. Any Republican in office who dares utter even the mildest criticism of the leader runs the very substantial risk of losing a primary challenge to a truer believer. Of the Republican senators staying on after November only one, Ben Sasse, has been a consistent critic of Trump.
How to save the party
No, the only way to save the Republican Party is to throw out as many Trump enablers as possible in November to send a message to encourage the remaining rational Republicans like Sasse to take back control of their party.
In the meantime, we may have a greater degree of “socialism,” or the type of governance we had under Eisenhower. Compared to what we have now, that would not be a bad thing at all.
Elliot C. Rothenberg of Minneapolis has been a legislator, attorney, author, and – most recently – Fulbright Ambassador of the Australian-American Fulbright Commission.
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