Short-term thinking is politics’ most epic failure
Has the Republican Party forgotten its past?
Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker. A prize-winning professor, she teaches classes in evidence, historical methods, humanistic inquiry, and American history. Much of her scholarship explores absences and asymmetries in the historical record, with a particular emphasis on the histories and technologies of evidence and of privacy. As a wide-ranging and prolific essayist, Lepore writes about American history, law, literature, and politics. She is the author of many award-winning books. Her latest book is These Truths: A History of the United States (2018)
JILL LEPORE: If you look at the history of political parties, the Republican Party is founded in 1854 in Wisconsin and it's founded by a bunch of people who were exiles from other parties, which were mostly short-lived parties. It's founded by both women and men; it's the first political party that is founded by women as well as by men, and it's founded as "the party of reform" because there's a bunch of people who just think the other political parties are not actually reforming American politics as fast as they ought to – and chiefly what they mean by that is ending slavery and coming up with a new form of national unity to replace the brokenness of the American political arrangement under a country that's divided, half slave and half free, as people would have described it at that time. So it's a pretty significantly important vision, that what the party is going to do is take the religious energy of abolition, which was a movement of Christian evangelicals who believe that all people under God are equal – men and women, black and white – and that slavery had to be ended immediately and without compensation to slave owners.
To take that evangelical zeal, but instead of asking people to do that work outside of electoral politics, to say, 'We're going to do this using the tools of party politics, we're going to form a party that can achieve these ends,' that's a pretty substantial moral commitment and commitment to instituting change using a really important set of political institutions, mainly the party system, but also newspapers, say.
And so when people say, today, "the Republican Party is the party of Lincoln" that's what they mean. Well you would say the Republican Party has reinvented itself many, many times – it's like Odysseus's ship at this point, like 'What does this Republican Party have to do with that Republican Party' would be a really interesting question. Similarly, the Democratic Party, you could tell a completely zigzag-y story about the history of the Democratic Party.
One of the reasons that the party system isn't especially inspiring, and I don't think either party is especially inspiring as an example of an enduring institution, is that both of them are pretty willing to trade their constituencies out for short-term gain. And you can see, I think if you were to do case studies, you can see where nonprofits and for-profit businesses fall apart in that same way, thinking very much in the short-term about an immediate market gain, say, or dividends for their stockholders, some particular new deal or acquisition or sell-off, and they've actually dismantled the whole intention of the institution in the first place. So the Republican Party – I don't mean to pick on the Republican Party because you could do the same dismantlement of the Democratic Party – but the Republican Party is for almost all of its history the party of women. It is, as I said, founded by women, it's the first party to support suffrage, it is the first party to support equal rights, and the Republican Party in the 1970s, under Ronald Reagan, says, "Let's just give up on the women because we could get these white men and it will be better for us."
And there's just a deep abdication of the long, deep tradition of a commitment to — I won't say that the Republican Party delivered suffrage or equal rights, because they really didn't, women had to do that work outside of the Republican Party — but that continuous support means that the party is quite in a pickle in terms of understanding itself and its relationship to its own past because it, for various reasons of immediate political expediency, has forgotten its own past.
- The Republican Party was founded in 1854 in Wisconsin as the "party of reform". It was the first U.S. political party to be founded by women as well as by men, the first party to support suffrage, and the first party to support equal rights. It was the party of Abe Lincoln! So what changed?
- In the 1970s, Ronald Regan made the mistake that ultimately dooms all political parties: He made a short-term decision for instant gratification. The party decides to focus on getting the more immediately profitable voter share of white men.
- Jill Lepore isn't just picking on Republicans. This problem is large and widespread. "Both of them [Republicans and Democrats] are pretty willing to trade their constituencies out for short-term gain," says Lepore. Businesses and non-profits fall apart in the same way. The cost of short-term thinking has devastatingly long-term effects.
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