12/07/2011 11:20 am ET Updated Feb 06, 2012

The Party of Cain

Herman, we hardly knew ye.

But, then, neither did the Republican voters who flocked to you several weeks ago. Herman Cain has two qualifications that were enough to make him the frontrunner for his party's nomination, and both are to be found in his surname: It is not Romney, and it is Cain.

Now that Republican family values voters have again demonstrated their political infidelity by deserting a man recently accused as a serial practitioner of marital infidelity to embrace a man long notorious as a serial marital infidel and Herman Cain's brief affair with the Republican base has been suspended, let us think about how metaphorically appropriate it was that he rose to the top of the Republican presidential field.

Cain has left his mark on the party -- or, rather, his party already bore his mark before it recognized him as its potential standard-bearer.

Consider where the party's values are these days.

When Herman Cain declared in early October, "Don't blame Wall Street, don't blame the big banks, if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself!" Republicans cheered mightily. The party's new frontrunner, Newt Gingrich, has contributed this advice to the Occupy movement: "Go get a job right after you take a bath."

Then, terming child labor laws "truly stupid" and saying that children as young as 9 should be put to work, Gingrich in essence called for transforming 21st Century America into a facsimile of the 19th Century London of which Charles Dickens wrote.

It is easy to imagine Gingrich reprising Ebenezer Scrooge: "Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation? If they would rather die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population." Surely these would be applause lines at Republican debates, where letting an uninsured patient die has already drawn cheers of approval.

Remember when the Republicans were the Party of Lincoln? They still merited that label during the early 1960s. Surprising though it seems today, in 1964 80 percent of Republicans in both the House and Senate voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act. That may be surprising; this seems incredible: In 1965, 51 percent of House Republicans and 43 percent of the party's senators voted for the bill creating Medicare and Medicaid.

Now, though, the party is unified in support of the proposition that the primary purpose of health insurance is not to provide healthcare and financial protection to people who are stricken by illness, but to maximize profits for insurance companies.

And what would be the reaction of most Republicans today to the following statement:

"Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

"Socialism!" most Republicans would certainly yell at this declaration. It is from Abraham Lincoln's first annual message to Congress in 1861.

Plainly the Grand Old Party is no longer the Party of Lincoln. Whose party, then, is it today?

Many of its members claim that it is the Party of Christianity.

Here, though, is a brief statement of the social policy of conservative Republican "Christians" today:

Give the hungry no food and the thirsty no drink.
Do not welcome strangers.
Do not clothe the naked.
Do not minister to the sick or visit those in prison.

A fair summary of the attitude of the Republicans who most loudly proclaim themselves to be Christians toward "the least of these" would be: "Let them die and decrease the surplus population."

So the "Party of Scrooge" would be an accurate name for what is so clearly no-longer the Party of Lincoln.

But there is more appropriate name for this new Republican Party.

It is, of course, mere coincidence that the surname of the Republican Party's 2008 presidential nominee means "Son of Cain" and that the man who for a time this fall surged into the lead for the GOP's 2012 presidential nomination has the surname Cain.

Coincidental though it is, this Republican infatuation with men named Cain is an apt metaphor for what the erstwhile Party of Lincoln has now become.

The infamous words of the biblical Cain, after all, could readily serve as the slogan of today's Republican Party: "Am I my brother's keeper?" Their answer is identical with that implicit in the rhetorical question posed by Abel's killer. With a resounding unanimity Republicans respond: "Hell, No!"

Many Republicans denounce the evolutionary science of the man born on the same date as Lincoln, Charles Darwin, but believe wholeheartedly in the antisocial doctrine mislabeled social Darwinism.

The Party of Lincoln has become the Party of Cain.

The Republican elephant has become the Mark of Cain.

Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm professor of arts & letters and Professor of History at Millsaps College, in Jackson, Miss. His books include The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941. He is now writing "Oh, Freedom! -- The Young ' 60s."