06/25/2013 11:54 am ET Updated Aug 25, 2013

How Doom Became the GOP's Core Principle

Today's GOP brings together social issue reactionaries and economic reactionaries establishing a blocking position not seen in the U.S. since Southern democrats controlled Congress, a block that encompasses about 20 states -- seven more states than the Old South had. They've managed to change much of the national conversation from optimism about America to an angry, fearful pessimism. Not since the 1850s has this happened in our politics.

Let's look back at the America we forged since that fateful decade, one that I think we should be very proud of:

Beginning in the 1860s with the Land Grant and Homestead Acts, America has made real a land of social progress, economic fairness, and civic justice. From the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, to the Civil Rights acts of 1870-75; from the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission, Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and Clayton Anti-Trust act, to the Federal Reserve system, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act; from the vast reforms of the "New Deal," including Social Security, TVA, and the NLRB, to the desegregation of our Armed Forces by Harry Truman; from the social advances that sprang from many game-changing decisions of the Earl Warren-led Supreme Court, applying the 14th Amendment especially, to the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1965; from the Interstate Highway Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act to the Lily Ledbetter Pay Equity Act and -- finally -- the legislating of national universal health care; and, only recently, a consensus, almost, on civil rights for gay Americans, including marriage equality.

This record is the envy of the world. It's a monument to the power of optimism.

How can Americans not be optimists ? We came here as immigrants to make or find a better life. Not just for ourselves, but for all of us. This was the very purpose of the Constitution, which states in its Preamble that "a more perfect union" is to be formed in order "to promote the General welfare." The operative word is "general." The Constitution does not exist for the benefit of only some but of all.

Republicans had, until recently, stood in the forefront of this mission. The party was founded to bring it about. The Civil Rights acts of 1870-75 were Republican measures. So was the first anti-trust legislation. Progressivism gave us Teddy Roosevelt. It gave us both Senator George Norris and Congressman Fiorelllo LaGuardia. That's right: BOTH sponsors of the most important labor legislation prior to the New Deal were Republicans.

During all those decades, Democrats were the party of the defeated South and its burdens and of its "Bourbon" business allies -- railroads operating through the South, railcar makers, and textile mill owners needing Southern cotton. Not until Woodrow Wilson did a Democrat take up the Progressive agenda; not until FDR's presidency did the Progressive agenda (and its supporters) move to the center of a still very Southern Democratic party. And not until Lyndon Johnson, as "Master of the senate," in a saga brilliantly told by Robert Caro in his Johnson biography volume of that name, did the Democratic party wrest the core Republican issue -- Civil Rights -- away from the GOP, a taking whose consequences Richard Nixon well understood.

Many writers have noted that Johnson, saying, about later Civil Rights legislation -- the Voting Rights act of 1965 -- that it would "cost the Democratic Party the South for a generation," created the modern Republican Party. Also well documented is how Richard Nixon, running for President in 1968, adopted a "Southern strategy" of electoral votes sufficient to win the presidency. But it need not have been so. Johnson, that master political fox, dangled a temptation in front of Republicans -- "lost the South for a generation" -- and all but begged them to take it. And they did.

It is an American political truth that you never, ever pick up the other party's discard. Political parties in America look to tomorrow's voters, not yesterday's, to forge election coalitions. The Tories of our Revolution were left out entirely; those who opposed ratification of the constitution in 1787-88 -- almost a majority -- had scant influence on either of the two factions that formed in the 1790s. The South lost the Civil War and was politically out for the next 47 years. Those who opposed the New Deal and post-World War II legislation -- loudly and often racist though they spoke -- were left entirely behind; and all of them, rightly, in a nation heading forward with no regrets.

Yet the GOP of 1968 took Johnson's booby trap home to roost.

The party might have said "no, thanks." In 1968 there were still many Progressive Republicans in office all over the GOP's northern, mid-western, and upper West heart-lands. There were progressive GOP university faculties, progressive GOP capitalists to provide the money, progressive mayors doing social justice in our large cities.

It was not to be. But for a while it seemed to work. Elections were won. But meanwhile the ground was shifting, and rejectionist voters moved one way and acceptance voters the other. And pretty soon rejection became to the GOP what Civil Rights had once been: a core principle.

Rejection has led the GOP into believing its own isolating hype. Which is why the current GOP rhetoric reads as double-talked as books written in the 1850s by Southern slavery apologists saying what a boon slavery was to the slave.

It is self-hype to talk about reducing the deficit when what is needed is greater public spending on infrastructure. Same for GOP complaints about our national debt even though it is a strength, not a weakness. And so on. We've heard it all, the disaster talk and the anti-everything.

Robert Reich's insight, posted on this site about a week ago, about the GOP seeking to consolidate in its core states explains the impetus of this agenda but says little about how it got here. Three factors chiefly made it possible :

First, the social reactionaries, most of whose predecessors were Southern Democrats from 1865 on, have, as Johnson predicted, been lost to the GOP. Their god had been William Jennings Bryan, agrarian radical and a Bible-thumping, temperance racist. In 1896 he almost won the Presidency. The capitalists of the north, Republicans all, opposed him root and branch; and so did most Northern working men. Hard to believe that today these voters' descendants have moved into the party of the rich; but Bryan was an evangelical minister; and his career-long message of racism, sin, and Armageddon, minus its economics, sounds almost exactly like what his GOP successors foretell.

Amazing how in a nation of change cultural traditions change hardly at all.

Second, a great part of America lost faith that the nation's future will be better than its present. What Republican-leaning voter today says, as did Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, "it is morning in America"? The wages of most Americans have fallen increasingly behind the cost of living and way behind the salaries of executives. Many who struggling to get by, much less get ahead, have taken to blaming those even worse off, or immigrants, or people of color -- of whom many such Americans are often afraid, like Mad Max in a patriot suit.

Thus the guns, guns, guns. And the Flag profile pictures on Facebook.

Thirdly, and most powerfully, some money people also fear the future. Fear it enough to spend huge sums to turn it away. This is new. Money people in America have never feared tomorrow. Money people have dared everything. Then came globalization. It changed money facts. No longer is it an economic plus to locate a business in America. Paying ample wages to workers once guaranteed a market for a company's products. Today many entrepreneurs think only of cost cutting.

They are responding to the same profit-maximizing, institutional short term investors who have made publicly traded companies huff and puff from one quarterly report to the next rather than see their stock price drop. No more is the long haul the key thing. Cost-cutting -- at workers' expense especially -- is the first line of institutional investor support.

Half the news in business sections of magazines is of job cuts, plant closings, mergers and consolidations and how many jobs will be cut as a result.

The workers thus displaced, or threatened with layoffs, don't just disappear. They become afraid of life -- some may never find work again -- and thus ready additions to the politics of pessimism. And these workers then become, wittingly or not, supporters of moves by some money people to roll back, even undo, the social safety net that the money people see only as an obsolete obstacle.

Hard to believe that it has worked. But it has, so far. Rejection indeed, maybe even Doom.