Ronald Reagan famously said government is the problem. Lawyers are taught to be very careful about making all or nothing statements like that. The real world is usually full of qualifications. Like all categorical statements, the claim that government is the problem is false, misleading and harmful.
We now see a movement of people who are distinguished largely by their ignorance simply demanding that government do less and less with less and less. And they justify their claims with references to America’s past. Actually they are ignorant of our history and merely reshape it to suit their assumptions. In fact they are undermining the great work of our ancestors in giving us a lasting Constitution with strong and independent branches designed to do a job – the job of improving the welfare of every American.
So too this movement of protestors are undermining the historic foundations of the Republican Party. The Republican Party was formed to solve America’s greatest problem – the scourge of slavery. And from its beginnings it also addressed our economic and social problems. It promised federal lands to those who would work it, and built the country’s great land grant universities to improve our farms and society with education.
The Republican Party was not formed as the enemy of immigrants, African-Americans or collective action to deal with common problems. It was not formed as a party of economic freedom to dump on everyone who didn’t have the clout to resist.
The Republican Party was formed as the can-do party that built transcontinental railroad – it didn’t stand on the sidelines and count pennies, saying developing the country was a job for business in which government had no role. It built on the tradition of positive government involvement symbolized by the Erie Canal, the canal that built New York into the Empire State, whose accomplishments continue to give this state one of the healthiest economies in the country.
The Republican Party controlled this country when we adopted the anti-trust laws and built the first public health systems. That Republican Party was not terrified by the hallucination that doing good is doing bad.
The Republican Party was not founded on the notion that anything and everything the government does is bad. It was founded on the notion that the government had a job to do to improve the health and welfare of this country. It was committed to that task. It kept the nation together, ended slavery and its economic agenda worked as well. Its land grants built the west. Its land grant colleges became our major universities and engines of American economic growth.
We need that Republican Party now. We need a Republican Party that joins in solving our racial divides, not a party that tries to hold the line against social justice. We need a Republican Party that stands for liberty, not for torture. We need a Republican Party that stands for public health, not a party that stands for the right to die of disease and gunshot wounds. We need a party whose principle is not a rejection of mutual aid but an embrace of public improvement.
It’s time for real Republicans to stand proud and take back their party.
This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April, 26, 2010.