Folks who know a lot about the Republican party, its origins and its organizing principles say that the discord inside what has traditionally been the more disciplined of the two major parties is remarkable. But the seeds of this party infighting were actually planted a long time ago. And to really understand what's happening now, voters need a little of that history, too.
We're going to speed through several decades of political history here. For the record, much of what follows comes directly from Lewis Gould, a professor emeritus in history at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of several books about American politics, including his 2003 book, "Republicans: A History of the Grand Old Party," which was republished last year.
When talk of forming a new Republican Party from the most politically active corners of the movement to abolish slavery -- remnants of the former Whig Party and Northern Democrats -- began in the 1840s, among the central issues that brought the group together were the ideas that slavery was either morally wrong or an unsustainable and destabilizing force. Some also thought the fundamental problem with the institution was how many black people it had brought to the United States. The party officially formed in 1854. Early Republicans advocated for strict limits on slavery and barring the practice in new territories. But these were white Americans in the 19th century. So those who have decided to read beyond 8th grade history know that the party wasn't universally in favor of black equality either.
Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican ever elected president, said early on that slavery should be phased out. And he ultimately had to go to war when Southern states seceded over the matter. But he also wrote about his doubts that black and white Americans were equally able. He freed the slaves but advocated a plan to send slaves -- most of of whom were American born -- to Africa.
During the Civil War, just a few short years after the party began, Republicans began to also talk about Democrats openly as a party of "traitors." Democrats were, in the minds of many Republicans, a group so disloyal that some seceded from the Union and even tried to secure foreign intervention or support for the Civil War. After the war, Republicans were themselves somewhat divided about how to bring the Union back together and after the period known as Reconstruction -- during which a number of black Republicans were elected to federal office -- began to back away from the work of legally assuring black equality and safety.
Over time, Northern industrialists and business owners also became a faction of the Republican Party. These money-minded men believed that slavery -- or more specifically, the free labor that came with slavery and the sharecropping that followed -- gave the South an almost insurmountable economic advantage. That gave Southern members of Congress and some who had participated actively in the Confederate cause too big a voice in all kinds of matters, including war and trade. Republicans advocated for high tariffs on imported goods -- something many American small business owners supported -- and early on, Prohibition. This brought trust-busting, environmental conservation advocates like Theodore Roosevelt in the party.
But the party's support for a ban on alcohol and a few other issues angered some Republicans and shifted one still very large group -- German immigrants and their progeny -- away from the party. Down South, Democrats built the infrastructure of Jim Crow and often used their official office to help sustain and enforce it. That included an almost universal ban on black voting in the region, despite the law. In other parts of the country, Democrats were not alone in supporting measures that kept black and other workers out of trade unions and industries which paid well -- or entire neighborhoods.
By the time another Roosevelt -- this time Democrat Franklin Roosevelt -- took office and and instituted social support and relief programs to help the Depression-ravaged American public, some black voters (primarily in the North) began switching parties. Some of Roosevelt's New Deal programs and social supports were open to blacks. Some major ones were not.
In the 1950s, Republicans remained committed to business interests and honed in on battling communism while accusing Democrats of trying to block reforms to expensive social programs and even of embracing Red ideals. By the 1960s, the Republican Party included conservatives like Barry Goldwater. Goldwater rose to national prominence with a strong anti-communism stance and claims that big legal changes wrought by social movements and other reforms were infringing on liberty and altering the traditional American way of life in damaging ways.
Republicans had helped to pass early civil rights legislation, but by the 1960s Democrats like Johnson played such a big role that Johnson wisely predicted that Democrats would lose the South for decades to come. Spotting a political opening, one that might allow the Republican Party to grow, Republicans and their political advisers employed what would eventually become known as the Southern Strategy (to varying degrees). In essence, Republican candidates made themselves appear to be or were sympathetic to pro-segregationists, neo-Confederates and people who feared that more traditional American way of life was vanishing. Also part of the message was the idea that increased liberty for some groups had given way to a black criminal menace and more intense competition for jobs.
The core idea was that "real Americans" and "regular Americans" were struggling and imperiled by all this change. That last bit of language -- what Gould describes as inherently coded but nonetheless bias-filled assumptions about who deserves work and access to opportunity -- remains part of our political discussions today.
We're going to move past Nixon and Reagan (prolific users of the Southern Strategy and its antecedents such as the "welfare queen" myth) because most readers are at least somewhat aware of this recent history or can read about it here, here and here. But what long-time party researchers like Gould say is most important to understand is that the history described above continues to seed what we see today.
Inside the Republican Party, industrialists continue to advocate for business-friendly tax, trade, employment and other politics. But, with growing frequency, the compromises that group of Republicans must make with Democrats in order to accomplish some of their goals also puts them in conflict with other Republicans. This second group of Republicans are, in many cases, wary of social change (they are called "conservatives," after all). Many are convinced that it will lead the country in the wrong direction. It's a set of ides that lends itself to a refusal to compromise and a dim view of even standard legislative practices such as negotiation and deal-making.
Any of this starting to sound familiar?