Time to take Lincoln away from the Republican Party
Yes, I’ll be there bright and early that November day to participate in one of the most exciting political moments of my lifetime.
Oh, no, I don’t mean Election Day, though that will fun too. Did you know Roseanne Barr’s on the ballot? For president? I’m not even kidding. What a country, huh?
But what I’m talking about is Nov. 16, 10 days later. That’s the day the mammoth biopic “Lincoln” descends from upon Mount Spielberg. Now, I approach “Lincoln” in the same frame of mind in which I voted for Barack Obama four years ago – genuinely excited by the hype, hopeful for something amazing and transcendent, but prepared for the inevitable letdown of dashed expectations. In fact, that’s how approach every day.
The best hope here is that the film will be the perfect articulation of why history nerds like me continue to find Lincoln fascinating, even though he is quite possibly the most overexposed individual in American history – at least, pre-Michael Jackson. But it’s possible Steven Spielberg bathes Lincoln in Rembrandt light for two hours in an attempt to Jesus-ify him, and we end up with the world’s most expensive museum tour film.
Either way, and regardless of which way the election turns out, the release of “Lincoln” gives us Americans a great opportunity to do the decent thing, the patriotic thing, the thing we should have done long before now – take Abraham Lincoln away from the Republican Party.
History records that Lincoln was, in fact, a Republican. He was only the second Republican to run for president and the first one to win. Before that, Lincoln was part of the Whigs, the only political party in American history to dissolve because of a silly name.
But a Republican in 1860 was a different animal than a Republican in 2012, kind of like a turtle is a different animal than a velociraptor.
So when Republicans claim Lincoln as one of their own for partisan ends, as I heard the 2010 joke Senate candidate Christine “I Am Not a Witch” O’Donnell do on television a couple of weeks ago, someone has to throw the flag. Old Abe is not walking through that door to say it himself, so someone has to say it for him: for Lincoln and the GOP, it’s time for a divorce.
It’s important to remember that in the years leading up to the Civil War, when Lincoln was an obscure one-term Congressman widely regarded as a frontier hayseed, the Republican party was the progressive party in the U.S., a coalition of anti-slavery activists and northern industrialists. And it was the Democratic Party that was the conservative party, bellowing about states rights from its base in the South, willing to fight to the death in defense of a society that held millions in bondage.
I am in no way saying or implying that the modern Republican Party is at all sympathetic to slavery. My mother raised me better than that.
But the parallels with today’s political fault lines are all too obvious. It’s as if the Dodgers and Giants traded uniforms sometime back in the ’70s, and it’s the Dodgers now building Willie Mays statues. It’s as if ice back in the 19th century was called “fire” and vice versa.
To insist otherwise is to believe the South, that region of the country with the longest cultural memory, has done a complete 180 in the last 150 years to embrace the man it once vilified as the devil. You can’t hear Texas Governor and GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry grumble about seceding from the Union, as he did earlier this year, and give that notion the least bit of credibility.
Lincoln, in fact, never really had any meaningful authority over the Southern states. About half of them seceded from the Union before Lincoln took office and none of them were re-admitted until long after Lincoln’s assassination. So, in many of the most hard-core Republican states today, such as South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Texas, in a very real sense, Abraham Lincoln, the original Republican was never technically their president.
For generations after his death, Lincoln was lionized all over the world for his steadfast leadership during the Civil War, except in the South where he was often viewed as a barbaric tyrant and where his assassin John Wilkes Booth was widely viewed as a martyr and hero, a sentiment that exists to this day in the scarier corners of Southern white pride.
It was Lincoln, in fact, who doomed the Republicans to decades of irrelevance in the South.
It wasn’t until a century later when Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, horrifying the South, that the political party re-alignment began. And thanks largely to Nixon’s Southern strategy and Reagan’s masterful embrace of Southern social conservatism, the red tide of Republican dominance took hold in old Dixie. The name of the party has changed, but Southern ideology has not.
Would Lincoln today be a Republican? It’s like asking would Babe Ruth be a superstar athlete today? Who knows? The eras are too difficult to compare, so all we have are speculations.
But the spirit that animates today’s Republican party is rooted in an anti-Federalism that itself is rooted in the South, a region that technically committed treason rather than to submit to the election of Abraham Lincoln.
If you were to tell an average politically aware American a hundred years ago that the South today would be uniformly Republican it would be no less of a shock to them than if you told an American today that 100 years in the future, the Southern right-wing would claim Barack Obama as one of their own.
The Lincoln of the history books was indeed a Republican. But the living, breathing example of Lincoln that continues to inspire us today is nothing of the kind. Sorry, GOP, Abraham Lincoln is not yours. He belongs to the rest of us.