My father often warned me that a person is known by the company he keeps. Keeping company means associating with others by choice, not compulsion. In a political context, it means voluntarily identifying with one or another party.
While the media focuses on the Republican Party’s move to the extreme right, it forgets mainstream, Main Street Republicans facing some of the same issues which my father faced decades ago. So I offer his political transition and its likely trajectory as an example to those uncomfortable with the company they have been keeping.
My father was raised and remained a Republican for his first 60 years. He was a moderate on economic and military issues, a liberal on social and political issues. However, in his last 20 years, though he never changed his registration, he became ashamed of the GOP and voted Democratic. Today, he would change his registration to avoid keeping company with a party advocating beliefs and acting in ways which he would find morally and politically repugnant.
My father voted Democratic for the first time in 1964, when Goldwater proposed to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam and, many thought, risk World War III, and opposed civil rights legislation. He voted Democratic in 1968, when Nixon developed a “Southern strategy” to exploit the racism of Southern Baptists and Northern Catholics. Until then, he had approved liberal New England and moderate Midwestern Republicans who helped non-Southern Democrats pass Civil Rights legislation over the objections of racist Southern Democrats.
“White flight” to state Republican parties in the South metastasized throughout the national Republican Party and polarized the parties on matters of race. The virulent Republican antipathy to Obama is rooted in and prompted by racism glossed over by non-racial pejorative epithets: un-American, Muslim, socialist, fascist, communist, etc. Today, Republican racism would disgust my father, who would vote for Obama and most Democrats.
My father lost respect for Republican positions on taxes and the economy. He never complained about taxes because we lived well even when his tax rate neared 90 percent. He would have approved means tests for Social Security benefits. He never complained about regulations while he was owner-president of the family’s manufacturing company. However, after he sold it and became an investment banker, he began to echo his colleagues’ opinions and to grumble about the evils of federal regulations on his industry.
The infamous salad-oil scandal in 1963 changed his mind; he realized that laws and regulations prevent damage to people and businesses or permit compensation for it. Today, he would condemn Republican across-the-board opposition to regulation because it allows corporations to dodge responsibility for damage to others. He would scorn Republican claims that regulations kill jobs as economically false and criminally indifferent to polluted air and water, and contaminated food, which do kill people.
My father had a then-educated person’s respect for reasonableness, reason, and reasons in discussion and decision-making. So he would be appalled by the current Republican contempt for everything which education means for civic and civilized life. He would be disgusted by Republicans who routinely and repetitively assert fabrications and falsehoods. He would be disgusted by Republican officials who think than insulting any president is ever acceptable, much less justified; he would know that, in the case of this president, it is racist. He would disdain Republican leaders who think that portraying themselves as authentically middle class means being rude, crude, and stupid, and proud of it.
As his response to racism suggests, my father approved the end of other forms of discrimination on the basis of age, gender, or sexual orientation. Like many traditional moderate Republicans, he approved of birth control and elective abortion. Today, he would approve of same-sex marriage. He would challenge today’s latter-day Republicans who profess “personal responsibility” but—always a “but”—oppose women’s freedom to exercise personal responsibility for their reproductive choices. Their intrusive laws would strike him as the antithesis of “small government” and “less regulation.”
My father would be most upset by the Republican attack on fundamental principles of democracy reflected in Constitutional provisions fostering it. In a decades-old effort accelerating since Obama’s election—his mixed race signifies a more diverse demography of “We the People”—Republicans have been reviling, rejecting, and revising these principles. Transforming themselves into reactionaries, they are revolting against democracy. In forty states, they are enacting modern-day Jim Crow laws to restrict the franchise—all steps toward Republican tyrannical rule. If Republicans prevail in the 2012 election, the results may not express “the consent of the governed.” My father would express himself in no uncertain, but certainly unprintable, terms.
But he would also want to get beyond execrations. He would want an alternative. He would not believe that the Democratic Party has failed or gone too far; he would believe that its present monopoly on good sense by the default of the Republican Party is not healthy. America needs reasoned differences of opinion so that informed debate on the issues can lead to better decisions on the challenges confronting the country in the twenty-first century.
Unfortunately, the Republican Party, under pressure from Tea Party reactionaries and religious zealots, has adopted positions so extreme—and, in 2012, candidates for their party’s nomination so ignorant, ideological, or irresponsible—that it has allowed the Democratic Party to pre-empt most of the reasonable positions on both domestic and foreign policy issues. He would be appalled that the Republican Party represents the government of America’s Constitutional democracy, because of major social programs developed by both parties for three-quarters of a century, as the enemy of, and threat to, the people. We would be dismayed that the Republican Party has nothing constructive—nothing conservative about strengthening and saving such programs—for government to do for the good of the people or their country. He would think that having it get out of the way and get smaller in the name of free markets and low taxes offers a political vacuum, not a viable polity for going forward.