There is a new study out by a pair of political scientists saying that the current Republican caucuses in Congress are the most conservative in a hundred years. I think they are underestimating.
The 1911-12 congressional Republicans, after all, at least had some Teddy Roosevelt Republicans still in the Congress, so while a distinct minority, the party had some reformers and moderates in their caucuses. No, I think you would have to go back into the 1800s, into the Republican Congress swept into power with William McKinley's 1896 election, to find a party as thoroughly reactionary as this one. This is somehow appropriate, because these Republicans clearly do want to repeal the 20th century. Starting with the early Progressive movement reforms Teddy Roosevelt got accomplished, the tea party GOP is trying to roll back all the progress our country has seen over the last century plus.
Let's go back to those late 1890s Republicans -- who they were, what they believed, how they operated. This was the heart of the era dominated by Social Darwinists and Robber Baron industrialists, and the McKinley presidency was the peak of those forces' power. The Robber Barons were hiring the Pinkertons to (literally) murder union leaders, and were (literally) buying off elected officials to get whatever they wanted out of the government: money for bribery was openly allocated in yearly corporate budgets. These huge corporate trusts were working hand in hand with their worshipful friends in the Social Darwinist world, the 1800s version of Ayn Rand, who taught that if you were rich, it was because that was the way nature meant things to be -- and if you were poor, you deserved to be. Any exploitation, any greed, any concentration of wealth was justified by a survival of the strongest ethic. It was an era where Lincoln's and the Radical Republicans of the 1860s' progressive idea of giving land away free to poor people who wanted to work hard to be independent farmers through the Homestead Act was being overturned by big bank and railroad trusts ruthlessly driving millions of family farmers out of business. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act was being completely ignored by McKinley. And of course, none of the advances of the 20th century were yet in place: child labor laws, consumer safety, the national parks or later environmental laws, consumer safety, popular election of Senators, women's suffrage, a progressive tax system, decent labor laws, a minimum wage, Social Security, Glass-Steagall, the GI Bill, civil rights laws, Medicare, Medicaid, Legal Services, Head Start. None of it existed.
Flash forward to today. With the exception of women's suffrage (and given the gender gap, I have no doubt that secretly Republicans would be happy to get rid of that), various high-level Republicans from this session of Congress have argued for the repeal or severe curtailment of all of those advances. This is not just Conservative with a capital C, but Reactionary with a capital R.
This is why the worship by so many pundits and establishment figures of bipartisanship and meeting in the middle as the all-around best value in American politics is so fundamentally wrong as a political strategy for Democrats. With the Republicans in Congress actually wanting to repeal the gains of the 20th century, for Democrats to meet them halfway becomes a nightmare strategy. Repealing half of the 20th century is just not a reasonable compromise, even though that would be meeting the Republicans halfway. What we need to do instead is to propose our own bold strategy for how to move forward and solve the really big problems we have. Our country needs to have this debate, and I am confident once people understand the two alternatives, they will choose our path forward rather than the Republicans' path backward.
Ultimately, this is a debate about values. Conservatives believe in that old Social Darwinist philosophy: whoever has money and power got that way because nature intended it, and they ought to get to keep everything they have and to hell with anyone not strong to make it on their own. Selfishness is a virtue, as Ayn Rand said; greed is good, as Gordon Gekko proclaimed in the movie Wall Street; in nature, the lions eat the weak, as Glenn Beck happily proclaimed to a cheering audience. That is the underlying ethic of the Ryan-Romney Budget. What progressives argue is the opposite: that we really are our brothers' and sisters' keepers; that we should treat others as we would want to be treated, and give a helping hand to those who need it; that investing in our citizens and promoting a broadly prosperous middle class that is growing because young people and poor people are given the tools to climb the ladder into it is the key to making a better society and growing economy.
The debate is well worth having. The good news is that the Republicans are hardly shying away from it: by embracing this radically retrograde Ryan-Romney Budget, they are wearing their hearts on their sleeves and openly yearning to return to 1896. The Democrats should welcome this debate with open arms.
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