Over the past weekend, I undertook a pilgrimage of sorts: I visited the birthplace of the Republican Party. It’s in Ripon, Wisconsin, about 90 minutes northeast of Madison.
There is a night-and-day difference between the Republican Party at its founding in 1854 and the party today.
“The birth of the Republican Party brought a dedicated following of individuals together who pledged to organize and fight against the spread of slavery,” states the website of the Little White Schoolhouse, where it all began. “At the time, a young lawyer named Alvan E. Bovay was living in Ripon. … He urged the formation of a new party that would bring together all the anti-slavery forces in the country.” A booklet available at the site adds further context.
The schoolhouse is “also a monument to the extremely important public school movement in America, a movement that contributed strongly to the success of democracy in our nation,” writes William J. Woolley for the Ripon Historical Society. “The most famous element of the movement was the ‘Abolitionist’ crusade to end slavery. But reformers were also keenly interested in social issues such as temperance and women’s rights as well as religious reform.”
What a contrast to today’s party members, with their active hostility to concepts such as public education and women’s rights.
And speaking of booklets, the one that really surprised me was a kids’ pamphlet for sale on Robert La Follette, the founder of The Progressive. (I immediately bought one each for my two daughters.) In addition to that, there was a bust of La Follette prominently on display behind the sales counter. It’s hard to imagine, but La Follette was a Republican for a good part of his political life.
La Follette, Abraham Lincoln, and other early Republican stalwarts would be totally out of place in the party today. (The GOP today would drum out someone with the views of their most famous member, who once said: “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.”)
Instead, the party currently “is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe,” in the words of former GOP congressional staffer Mike Lofgren.
The current showdown is a manifestation of this mindset. And for those who have a “pox on both houses” approach for the Washington impasse, this observation by the conservative thinker Norman Ornstein and liberal scholar Thomas Mann in a recent book should be instructive: “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Over the same weekend as my visit to Ripon, the rightwing of today’s Republican Party participated in an invective-filled and racially charged rally. It was headlined by poseurs like Senator Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin and was organized to protest the closing of World War II monuments that the party itself caused.
What a contrast to the abolitionists who gathered together in 1854 at the Little White Schoolhouse to give birth to a new organization. It’s no wonder that the current-day GOP has little use for this historic landmark.
“By the 1970s, the Republican Party began to lose interest in the Schoolhouse,” Woolley writes in his history of the monument. “In 2004, Ripon celebrated the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Republican Party, but this time neither the national nor the state Republican Parties took any active role in the celebration.”
Perhaps the difference between the party then and its current incarnation was too embarrassing for the leadership.
Photo: Flickr user cometstarmoon, creative commons licensed.