By Penny Smith
Both of my parents were Republicans, first by heritage and then by choice. My mother’s family was from Iowa farm country, a Lincoln Republican stronghold. They valued personal responsibility, a strong work ethic, stoicism in the face of challenges, and fiscal conservatism. Children of immigrants, they believed many of the messages we once wanted to send to the world: Work hard and rewards will follow; honesty pays; mind your own business, not your neighbor’s; treat everyone well; help others when you can; know about and respect diversity; love your family, community and country; and use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.
It’s a little like embodying a Boy Scout code of conduct. Remember, a scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. Or, to pull from another source, like Benjamin Franklin’s famous thirteen virtues: We should aspire to temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. Those lists seem quaint now and, at least in the case of Franklin and probably in the cases of some errant scouts, the virtues were more aspirational than actual.
However, they represented the sort of things my parents would tell us and that at one time we probably believed. Lincoln’s Iowa was about coming up, about bootstrapping, as much as it was about ending that pernicious institution and original American sin, slavery. Democrats, in the minds of my mother’s family, were associated with corrupt city bosses, machine politics, and racist southerners.
My father’s family bought into some of the same ideas. His hometown was small, in both size and population, with close-knit, connected families. They were relatively self-sufficient. Maryland was a border state, but tilted slightly more toward the north when Lincoln was elected, particularly in the west. It was a state of small planters and businessmen, with only one port city of any size.
My father was the one child of nine that left, entering the military prior to the start of World War II and staying afterwards. I think it was the military’s penchant for conservatism that kept him in the Republican column.
However, his Republican Party was that of Dwight David Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe during the war. Both Democrats and Republicans recruited Eisenhower, himself a product of the Midwest and all those Lincoln-land values, to run for the Presidency. That suggests there once was a moderate middle in both our major political parties.
Eisenhower would not recognize today’s GOP as the one that won the right to nominate him. He retained a basic worldview from his practical, plain-spoken Kansas boyhood. “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” “You don’t lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.” “What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight – it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” “History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid.” “I despise people who go to the gutter on either the right or the left and hurl rocks at those in the center.”
Nor did he think government was without a significant role in our lives. “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.” He eschewed most special interests: “I have one yardstick by which I test every major problem – and that yardstick is: Is it good for America?” “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” He respected his political opposition: “May we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.” He thought government could balance goals: “The purpose is clear. It is safety with solvency. The country is entitled to both.” And that government service was admirable: “Politics is a profession; a serious, complicated and, in its truest sense, a noble one.”
Eisenhower also had some perspective on the Presidency. “Any man who wants to be President is either an egomaniac or crazy.” “No one should ever sit in this office over 70 years old, and that I know.” “Unlike Presidential administrations, problems rarely have terminal dates.” “Only Americans can hurt America.”
The Depression and New Deal didn’t convert my parents, partially a function of being able to navigate its worst effects with the help of family cows, large gardens, and no Iowa or Maryland dust bowls. The military influenced them both, as did admiration for men like Eisenhower. And, I suspect, the excesses of the 1960s social climate and subsequent domestic unrest kept them with the GOP as did a tendency as we age to grow more conservative. However, true to their moderate opinions, they raised two liberals and loved them anyway.
If we really believe in “Making America Great Again,” I feel pretty confident we’re not going to do it with tweets, bullying, chaos, and confusion. I’ve always been persuaded that this was a remarkably good country in which to be born, but I’ve also known that I had certain advantages that made my road in it easier. I had good parents, an extended education, traveled widely (thank you, Air Force), a decent mind, good health, and economic advantages. I benefitted from being born white in a country still conflicted with race. But I’ve also thought we have not yet lived up to our high ideals, that we can always become better. I have a bias for the notion that the arc of history “bends toward justice,” but it does so only with our involvement and effort.
What would Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight David Eisenhower make of their party today?