The Grand Old Party of Secession

Commentators view the rapid exit of moderates like Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania from the GOP as a culmination of its increasing political narrowness and ideological rigidity.
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Is the Grand Old Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln that saved the Union and destroyed southern slavery, becoming the party of secession and political extremism? Recent events that indicate an affirmative answer to this question would make most Republican Party founders turn in their graves. Some Republicans have even unearthed the constitutionally and militarily discredited notion of a state's alleged right to secede from the Union, albeit more as a flamboyant political gesture than a serious threat. Texas Governor Rick Perry's call for secession to crowds chanting "Secede!" was not only a politically bankrupt response to the economic policies of the Obama administration, but was also riddled with historical inaccuracies. In his speech, Perry curiously evoked the founder of Texas, Sam Houston, an unconditional unionist who opposed disunion even during the secession winter of 1860-61 when most Lower South states including Texas exited the Union. In fact, Houston gave one of the best speeches against the so-called right to secession on the eve of the Civil War. If Perry was searching for predecessors then he would have been better off using the name of Hardin Runnels, the secessionist Governor of Texas who recommended the re-opening of the African Slave Trade, an extreme proposal that startled even most southern slaveholders. And like secessionists of yore who tried to legitimize their movement by appealing to the American Revolutionary heritage, Republican conservative ideologues have used the symbolism of tea parties to bestow legitimacy on their extreme politics.

In fact, the Republican party today resembles the Democratic Party of the 1850s, a party that was held hostage by its southern wing and regularly read northern Democrats who did not hew closely to an extreme proslavery position out of the party. Commentators across the spectrum view the rapid exit of moderates like Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania from the GOP as a culmination of its increasing political narrowness and ideological rigidity. Northern Republicans find themselves in an inhospitable environment where extreme conservatism is the norm and all dissenters are treated with disfavor. Senator Olympia Snowe has rightly bemoaned this self-defeating political strategy. For a party that in the last few decades launched a battle against liberal "political correctness," the GOP's own current brand of right-wing purity on issues ranging from abortion to corporate welfare is telling. Liberal Republicans, especially after the Reagan Revolution, have of course been a dying breed for a long time. But the untimely death of Jack Kemp, a Reagan conservative who bucked his party's line on race and civil rights, indicates the passing of an era when even relatively conservative Republicans who differ with the party on discrete issues were still a political presence in the GOP. Perhaps the greatest historical irony is that a party that began as a northern, antislavery party is now confined to the Deep South and a shrinking band of western states where white supremacy and right-wing militancy is still in vogue.

If President Obama has been remarkably successful in channeling the ghost and words of Abraham Lincoln, Republicans should do a lot better than follow the losing tactics of Lincoln's opponents, southern secessionists from the nineteenth century. The right-wing media demagogues of today from Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity to Glen Beck, who seem to determine the GOP platform, have much in common with the bunch of fire-eating southern separatists who destroyed the Democratic Party in 1860. Republicans should learn the lessons of American history and finally renounce their racially divisive southern strategy and narrow conservatism that only promises more electoral defeat and political oblivion. It would indeed be a pity if the Grand Old Party of the Union and the party of Lincoln became an increasingly regional party of political separatism and right-wing extremism.

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