America can accomplish a great deal when the most reactionary states pick up their marbles and leave Washington. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Pacific Railroad Act, which authorized government bonds and land grants to build the transcontinental railroad. The legislation had languished until the Southern states seceded. Then it sailed through the Republican-controlled Congress and was signed by President Lincoln on July 1, 1862. Other major pieces of the new party's agenda that never would have passed the filibuster of Southern Democratic senators also became law: Land-grant colleges and the Homestead Act. All three would prove decisive in the nation's development.
It's also worth noting that in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which broke the back of de jure segregation, 80 percent of Republicans voted for the legislation, a higher percentage than among Democrats. The Democratic majority included a solid segregationist Southern bloc, including most powerful committee chairmen and the wily Sen. Richard Russell. As Robert Caro majestically narrates in The Passage of Power, Lyndon Johnson knew how to "get" people — and as the new president, he got essential GOP support by relentlessly reminding foot-dragging Republican lawmakers that they were "the Party of Lincoln."
In the same year, Barry Goldwater won his party's presidential nomination. His opposition to federal civil-rights legislation ensured support in the South (before his assassination, President Kennedy's polling was showing him losing the South in a Kennedy-Goldwater matchup). But, still, there were Nelson Rockefeller, Kenneth Keating, Jacob Javits, Hugh Scott and George Romney, liberal Republicans all. Richard Nixon funded the Great Society, established the Environmental Protection Agency and proposed far-reaching improvement to health-care coverage. Ronald Reagan, demigod of today's Republicans, was more often pragmatic than ideological in his governing. And we don't even have to get into Poppy Bush.
Both they and the Democrats were mass political parties, with liberal, conservative and centrist members. For example, some Republicans supported the New Deal; some Democrats opposed it. Theodore Roosevelt (R) and Woodrow Wilson (D and a Southerner) were both progressives, although Wilson embodied the racist/segregationist thread that ran through the progressive movement a century ago. Democrats and Republicans both had their know-nothings, isolationists and reactionaries. Abraham Lincoln (R) freed the slaves, but it was Lyndon Johnson (D and a Southerner), who, as Caro writes, "led them into voting booths, closed democracy’s sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life.”
Could the landmark civil rights laws of 1964 and 1965 even pass if they were introduced today? "Of course," you say, but think again. It all comes back to what one of our two major political parties has become. Not just the inheritors of the Dixiecrats (thanks, Barry) and the (old) White Man's Party. Not just narrowed down to one dogma that might be described more as ultra-reactionary theocracy than conservatism. Not just that their leaders and members exist in an alternative universe, hermetically sealed with answers for everything, but that unfortunately has no connection with reality. Or that they are highly disciplined and many of their stars very telegenic in an era when "looks privilege" buys more than ever before. Or that all this is backed by money and infrastructure that the Democrats can't match. It is all these things. This is what the Republican Party is today.
Some will protest that the GOP has been the home of reactionaries for decades and once they are in full power they won't actually do the radical things in their manifestos. You might say that Congress has often been dysfunctional (Jack Kennedy's legislation was bottled up, for example). Yet consider that congressional Republicans, acting in their usual lockstep discipline, were willing to risk the full faith and credit of the United States last year to defeat President Obama. Where is the precedent to that (much less among conservatives)?
[UPDATE] Romney's choice of Rep. Paul Ryan confirms the radical and revolutionary aims of today's GOP. Essential reading here is Jonathan Chait's profile of Ryan in New York magazine.
Something fundamental has changed and its consequences for our politics and national future have yet to be fully realized. Much less countered.