I Want My GOP

This post originally appeared in early 2016. Cassandra award?

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A divided national party . . . voices of extreme rhetoric . . . an ugly, contentious primary season. Does this spell doom for two-party system?

Sounds modern, doesn’t it? But the year was 1860, and the party in question was founded by Thomas Jefferson, and shaped in the image of Andrew Jackson: The antebellum Democratic Party.

On the eve of Civil War, the future of the Union appeared in fatal doubt. Political leaders in the Deep South: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida had all but washed their hands of the centrally powerful United States. Adding to the precarious atmosphere, a faction of Democrats in the North promoted a policy to permit slavery into the western territories under the principle of Popular Sovereignty, or direct vote. Others voices in the northern branch of the Democratic Party believed the Southern States should depart the Union in peace. And these pro-secession advocates became the most worrisome threat for Senate leader, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the leading Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1860.

Douglas found himself in a hell of a spot. He fervently burned to lead his party to the White House and save his nation, dangerously poised on the verge of civil war. As the principal heir to Senate leadership, Douglas had spent over twenty years in Congress working to stave off Southern secession, taking over when Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” died. Clay had also spent most of his earlier career drawing up one concession after another in a noble attempt to preserve the Union. Eventually the effort wore him out, and Senator Douglas pick up the cause.

As far as Douglas was concerned, slavery wasn’t a moral issue, merely a bump in the road. The issue could easily be decided by the good folks migrating west. Douglas believed if settlers didn’t want slavery, they would decline to establish laws necessary for supporting the “peculiar institution.” But the Senator was wrong—dead wrong. Slavery had, by 1860 become an issue impossible to fix. And it was this miscalculation, underestimating the power of the slave issue, that the Illinois Senator imploded both his party, and his career.

The new Republican Party had organized six years earlier in Wisconsin, founded on one central principle—slavery would not extend into the western territories, period. And this new party spread quickly. Composed of splinter groups, this now fully unified alliance insisted that free labor was an integral component to a flourishing free market economy. The presence of slavery in sprouting regions of the West would devalue free labor, and undermine future commercial growth.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these Republicans did not sing Kumbaya or braid their hair. These men did not believe in equality between the races—they were not abolitionists. Economic principles drove their political platform, (Emancipation came later with the transformation of President Lincoln through the caldron of war).

For Stephen Douglas the approaching 1860 election meant vindication for his support of popular sovereignty, and reward for his faithful political service. And Douglas was no political hack. He fully understood the solvency of the Union lay in the delicate art of sectional balance, and his ascendancy to the White House as a Democrat would go a long way to placate the Southern hotheads. But this Illinois Senator failed, once again, to fully comprehend the temper of the nation, or of his own party. The era of seeking middle ground had passed—America’s course had been set toward industrial modernity with no place for an antiquated, barbaric labor system.

Charleston, South Carolina, was selected as the site of the 1860 Democratic convention. Chaos immediately broke loose on the convention floor. While Southern Democrats demanded strict, precise language guaranteeing the extension of slavery into the territories, Northern Democrats and those from California and Oregon pushed for Douglas’ popular sovereignty. This tense deadlock forced the latter faction to walk out and reconvene in Baltimore where party business could function.

Southern Democrats moved on without Douglas or his faction. In a separate, Richmond, Virginia convention, Southern Democrats proceeded to nominate Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge.

Back in Baltimore, Senator Douglas indeed gained the Democratic nomination, preserving his precious principle of local voters determining the western migration of slavery. Meanwhile, the Democrats in Richmond took a step further, adding the absolute protection of slavery to their platform. Middle ground had vanished.

Though a long shot, a third faction of the Democratic Party broke ranks with both Douglas supporters, and the Richmond faction. Calling themselves the “Constitutional Union Party,” this coalition nominated John Bell of Tennessee.

So what can we make of this 1860 fiasco today, in 2016? If I could attempt a bit of divination I would suggest that the political party that can present the most united front will prevail in the general election. If current Republican candidates continue to employ such wide-ranging, and scorching tones to their rhetoric, and stubbornly defend the innocence of their loose talk, the party may run head long into oblivion, as did the Democrats of 1860. If the roaring factions, currently represented by each GOP aspirant goes too far, the fabric of unity will shred, crippling the Republican’s ability to field serious candidates in the future.

Looking at the past as prelude much is at stake for the unity of the GOP. In 1860 party divisions nearly destroyed the Democrats, propelling the nation into a bloody civil war. And though Republicans at that time elected our greatest Chief Executive, Abraham Lincoln, the Democrats suffered for decades, marginalized as the party of rebellion. And even the best lessons left by the past are still forgotten in the heat of passion, by those who know better. (The Democrats shattered their party unity once again a hundred years later, splintered by the Vietnam War.) This is truly a cautionary tale for today’s turbulent Republican Party.

Zealots do not compromise, and leading GOP candidates are spouting some pretty divisive vitriol. Southern Democrats self righteously rejected their national party, certain it no longer represented them, and ultimately silenced the party of Jefferson and Jackson for decades. The lesson is clear for today’s Republicans. By tolerating demagoguery, extremism, and reckless fear-mongering in their field of contenders, the RNC may indeed face a similar demise.

Though it is true that no party can be all things to all citizens, malignant splinter groups should not run away with the party.

The American public demands measured and thoughtful candidates—and both parties are expected to field candidates of merit and substance.

We deserve leaders worth following.

As Senator Stephen Douglas refused to recognize that the political skies were falling around him, and his party, the modern Republican Party must not.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight a two-part memoir. Available on Kindle

A Different Code

“He has created a false public sentiment, by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated but deemed of little account in man.”Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Declaration of Sentiments 1848.

Nurse Margaret Sanger related an experience that inspired her career in family planning. Called to a depilated tenement building, Sanger found a pre-teen girl in the throes of childbirth. 

Attempting to assist the girl, Sanger soon recognized the child was slipping away, bleeding out on a filthy mattress. Indifferent, the girl’s family crowded nearby in a small parlor appearing indifferent or resigned to the drama playing in the next room. 

Soon the bloody battle ceased, as both girl and infant were no more.

A mother herself, Sanger found her life’s work in promoting a woman’s right to choose if or when to bear a child. 

As for Sanger, she found herself arrested in 1916 for advocating sex education and birth control. The charge sheet read indecency. Still, despite legal obstacles, Sanger’s clinic, Planned Parenthood, found its beginnings that same year.

Today the Court decided women no longer have any choice. The government claims an overriding interest in American women’s reproduction. Plainly females are once again considered second-class citizens, leaving men free of any culpability for their actions. Justice Alito, in his majority opinion stressed moral judgement over legal. 

In fact, in overturning Roe has literally stripped women of self agency, holding true Mrs Stanton’s phrase in 1848, that “a different code” is alive and well. 

That Planned Parenthood offers so many other services is not the point. This is about equal protection. That neonatal disorders portend a fatal, and agonizing death for newborns isn’t the point, either.

One of the most precious American underpinnings is a right to privacy. And remember that Prohibition, too, attempted to police private practices. That fiasco ended in futility, because like it or not, people have the right to drink. 

The Supreme Court has not ended abortion in America. 

This isn’t over.

*Justice Thomas indicates he would go after birth control next. Does he realize he opens a pandora’s box that could threaten overturning Loving V. Virginia

A Scandalous Life

Through open doors down a long hallway, reminiscent of The Shining, a cacophony of noisy televisions competed. Soap operas, news reports, and talkshows spilled from empty uncleaned guest rooms. It was the summer of 1974 that I began a brief stint as a hotel maid in Spokane, Washington. Through the course of that summer I began to notice each maid had different approaches to their routine. Some girls stripped the beds, or beelined for the bathroom, but all, to the last dust mop, first switched on the television. 

And the biggest news that summer, outside of Expo ‘74, was the Watergate hearings. Chairman Sam Ervin, Senator Howard Baker, Congressman Pete Rodino, and others became my new favorite TV personalities. Watergate Burglar, Alexander Butterfield spilled the beans on Nixon’s White House taping system, and John Dean spoke of a ‘cancer on the presidency.” For me these hearings were riveting as I placed fresh towels on the rack, and changed toilet paper rolls.

By the end of that summer, August 9, 1974 Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. 

Fast forward 13 years later, and I had just given birth to my second baby, a girl, and she and I cuddled as the television introduced a whole new set of “off the books” operatives. This time the scandal concerned the Reagan Administration’s convoluted plot known as the Iran-Contra Affair. American arms were illegally sold to Iran, our sworn enemy, to continue their war against Iraq. The proceeds from those sales were funneled to anti-Communists fighters battling in Nicaragua. Both efforts violated the Boland Amendment, passed by Congress, explicitly prohibiting American meddling in Central America.

Reagan operatives had hoped that selling Iranians weapons would soften them up because the White House needed a favor. Would the Ayatollah Khomeini help encourage Lebanon’s jihadists to release American hostages secreted around Beirut? The Reagan people gambled that trading illegal arms would secure Tehran’s help. 

While rocking my infant I learned a litany of new names: NSA chief, Robert McFarland, Marine, Oliver North, North’s secretary, Fawn Hall, and the recently deceased mastermind, CIA director, William Casey. My take, as I patted my girl’s little back, was that the Reagan White House had privatized foreign policy in defiance of Congress through renegade agents.

In 1988 Ronald Reagan, in a video deposition, admitted he had done just that, but due to his failing memory, couldn’t recall. 

That brings me to my golden years. I tuned in to the January 6th hearings, as a retired grandma. My husband and I watched and listened to the evidence regarding the violent attack on our nation’s capitol. To say this hearing was electric would be an understatement. Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Capitol Police Officers, particularly Caroline Edwards, left me spell bound. Representative Liz Cheney owned the evening, making clear the person responsible for the attempted coup-the former guy. 

Donald Trump is the first sitting president in American History to be impeached twice.

So what element ties all three scandals together? For one, the course of a single life-from college kid, to motherhood, to grandmother. And I suppose one could conclude I’ve watched a helluva lot of television. 

But for me the message means something else. 

The modern Republican Party has undergone a long death spiral marked by greed, rot and decay. As Liz Cheney said, “there will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”

For nearly 50 years, from 1974 to 2020 the Grand Old Party has cast off its once, principled moorings, slowly imploding before our eyes. As my generation grew from young students to senior citizens the party of Lincoln silently died. 

And like Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining, there is no redemption, nor any future, only relief these mercenaries can do no more harm.

Gail Chumbley is the author of a two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Chumbley had also completed to historic plays, “Clay,” regarding the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” an examination of slavery and racism in America.

The Little Things

If you love . . .

Protecting a dim-witted, would-be dictator from legal consequences,

Suppressing a woman’s right to self-actuation and privacy,

Expediting white, unqualified patriarchs to the Supreme Court,

Rendering the US Senate inert,

Legislating so the wealthy have no tax burden,

The open targeting of Americans of color to brutality and murder,

The whole-sale destruction of the planet, and the rape of natural resources 

Abetting political misinformation and conspiracies through social media,

Targeting those of differing sexuality 

Pushing religion into American government,

Aligning apportionment and voter suppression to disenfranchise the poor, and people of color,

Withholding health care to the few with means,

The wholesale flood of firearms into civilian hands,

Cruelty dispensed upon desperate immigrants,

Coddling of white offenders over those of color,

Predatory treatment of consumers,

Blocking legislation to meet the dangers of the above list, and otherwise accomplishing nothing,

Vote for today’s Republican Party

Gail Chumbley, frustrated American History Educator.

The Long Haul

After the 1929 Market Crash, the world collapsed into nearly feudal isolation, and international trade quickly dried up. Like the rest of the world America focused inward, disillusioned by U.S. participation in WWI. Across the Pacific, the Japanese Empire, too, promoted a sphere of influence, sold to Asians under the moniker of a “Co-prosperity Sphere.” China, a vulnerable prize lay across the Sea of Japan, awaiting the wrath of Japanese aggression for land and resources.

Great Britain, too, struggled with a malaise of its own, as did the French–both nations saddled with debts extended by American banks during the war. Next to the new Soviet Union, Germany, struggled most of all, buried in war reparations the allies demanded from the vanquished.

As the financial fallout worldwide grew wildly unstable, regimes hunkered down and waited for better times.

The solution in that movement-elevate anti-democratic despots to power.

The Italians were the first, having produced a Fascist strongman, Benito Mussolini. He suppressed political diversity, harnessed economic efficiency, and soon, like the Japanese, pursued colonial inroads into Libya, and later the conquest of Ethiopia. Mussolini envisioned a return to the glory days of Rome.

Germany, soon flirted with fascism, as well. In a reaction to impossible debts, and of national pride, Adolf Hitler, a feckless dreamer, stood on beer hall tables, and passionately spoke of national betrayal, and the victimization of Germany. “Mein Kampf” the product of an earlier prison sentence, circled around much the same, blaming Bolsheviks, Capitalists, and Jews for the hated Armistice of 1918.

However, America, unlike the rest of the world, clung with all their might to the national system of Constitutional norms. At the same time Germany elected a Hitler in 1932, the U.S. found their champion in Franklin Roosevelt. 

A popular Roosevelt Coalition steered those hard years holding the United States together. That’s not to say there weren’t kooks, to borrow Lindsay Graham’s phrase, but Americans faced the long haul together, knowing better days had to be ahead..

As FDR did not cause the Depression, Joe Biden did not precipitate the inept handling of Covid-19. Moreover, Biden’s policies did not cause Putin to invade the Ukraine, nor trigger the inflation rate, as financial matters are linear, impervious to election cycles. This new administration is not responsible for China’s economic reach, Britain’s Brexit debacle, Russia’s saber rattling, or global warming, let alone shortages of baby formula. 

The utter incompetence of that last blowhard made the real mess. This moment, like FDR’s, will take more time to sort out and stabilize. 

So, here is the question. Can Americans again remain bound to the framework of our Republic? Will today’s misinformed kooks forsake our financial, social, and political traditions and turn to petty retribution and tyranny?

Will we, as a nation, exchange our democracy for a strong man who insists he has all the answers?

That is the question of this historic moment. 

Gail Chumbley is an author and history educator.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Punishment

District of Columbia, 2017

In 2017 American women and their supporters, to the tune of a half-million, marched to protest the unfit, incoming president. This joyous mass of participating citizens lent a true sense of history in the making; we marched that day as one.

In the days following that massive protest women returned home, energized, running for office, working for candidates, and witnessing our first elected female Vice President. This change was as breathtaking as it was exciting. So it comes as no surprise women would pay a steep price for our audacity.

At this writing American women stand on the precipice of losing fifty years of reproductive rights. And this retribution is especially nasty, a vicious retaliation on our medical and political autonomy. No quarter is given for rape, incest, or domestic violence. American women are, once again, fair game, relegated as second-class-citizens under the law.

In that light the striking down of Roe isn’t about abortion. Few women seek such a procedure, and even those numbers have continued to decline. The thrust is to punish and marginalize women standing up for equal protection under the law. There is clarity in this moment of looming suppression, and we have no choice but to double-down to protect ourselves, our daughters, and granddaughters.

Other select groups also feel that same oppressive heat. Americans of color, and non-binary sexual orientation, endure similar reactionary treatment, because, they too, have demanded justice. Today’s GOP serves only white, male, reactionaries.

Gail Chumbley is a history educator and author.

Why We Try

2017 Women’s March

When I first began this essay it ripened to nearly five hundred words to share one idea. Why I am a life-long Democrat. 

The original essay discussed the New Deal, the creation of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, the GI Bill, and how strengthening Labor Unions evoked a sense of common purpose; how the economy boomed, and the middle class flourished.

Now all I want to impart is that Ronald Reagan was wrong. Big government is not the problem. Big government checked by regulations works remarkably well. 

I am a Democrat because with all its flaws, we stand equal in the eyes of Constitutional Law.* People made the Constitution, and we must preserve it. In general, States’ Rights is no more than a distraction perpetrated by selfish insiders who legislate their own interests. Residents are convinced through a wink and a nod, that the enemy (Big Government) must be defied, using catch phrases like “our values,” and “real conservative.”

In truth, the Federal Government can do more for all of us than any individual state, or any individual citizen can do for themselves. As I write, Idaho’s governor has asked for, and been granted federal funds for drought aid. Talk about biting the hand that feeds the State.

I am a Democrat because I’m inspired by the nobility of America’s past champions; the persistence of General George Washington, the compassion of Abraham Lincoln, the purpose of Alice Paul, and the articulate vision of Barack Obama. I am a Democrat because James Madison instructed us to create “A More Perfect Union.” Without that persistence, compassion, purpose, and vision America cannot continue as “the world’s last best hope,” as Lincoln also described us.

At bottom I am a Democrat because I know not one of us is perfect. We just keep trying. 

*Just heard the headline regarding the reversing of the Roe decision. Time to gather 4,600,00 of my best friends (2017 Women’s March) and organize.