Single issue parties are political organizations with a single political goal. They have just 1 thing they want to accomplish, and in most cases they disappear after they accomplish it. They don’t usually survive past that, and quite often their goals are co-opted by one of the major parties to attract their voter base. But what if I told you that the Republican Party was one of these single issue parties, and I’m not just talking about their early history. I mean that to this day the Republican Party has remained a single-issue party. Now, I’m not saying this as a dig at Republicans, as mentioned in previous videos, I am in fact a Republican. I just think that this is an interesting lens through which to look at the history of the Republican Party.
This theory of mine holds that at any point in the history of the Republican Party there is only one issue unifying all members of the party. This one issue remains the central focus of the Republicans until it becomes politically irrelevant, at which point the party goes through a transitionary period, when one of its secondary issues takes the old positions spot.
The Party has had 4 single issue eras, interspersed with three transitionary periods.
The Republican Party began its life as a single-issue party formed by the anti-slavery remnants of the Whig Party. It was formed in 1854 in response to the Kansas-Nebraska act that opened up the western territories to slavery. At the beginning the party’s only goals were to first stop the spread of slavery, and then to abolish it where it already existed. This stated goal would motivate the Southern Democrats to secede from the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln. By the end of the Civil War Slavery had been abolished, thereby accomplishing the only goal the Republican Party was founded for. Most single issue parties would have disbanded at this point, but it would be a shame to let all of this organization and infrastructure go to waste, so the party struggled to find a new path, thereby entering into its first transitionary period.
This transitionary period encompassed what most US historians refer to as Reconstruction. During this time you have different elements of the Republican Party battling for the new single issue to focus on. You had the radical Republicans fighting for the party to focus on civil rights, facing off against Old Whigs who wanted the party to return to Protectionism. We saw both sides gain victories during this period. The Radicals fought an armed conflict with the Ku Klux Klan and other paramilitary groups of the Democratic Party for the fate of the south, while the Old-Whigs got numerous internal infrastructure projects and tariffs passed.
But despite the successes of the Radical Republicans the American electorate grew tired of Reconstruction. Everything done in the south felt like it was 1 step forward, and then 2 steps back. The election of 1876 would put an end to Reconstruction and the first transitionary period when the Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South in exchange for retaining the presidency, effectively ending reconstruction, thereby ensuring the victory of the Old-Whigs. And like that the second era of the Republican Party began, and it was an era dominated by protectionism.
The Protectionist Era of the Republican Party would be the longest, lasting from 1877 to 1933. During this time the Republicans sought to protect and strengthen domestic industries from foreign competition by placing taxes on imported goods. This period also saw the rise and fall of Railroads which operated on subsidies, usually in the form of land grants. There was more profit to be made in building a railroad than in actually running one. This period saw increasing wealth accumulate into the hands industrialists whom are usually referred to by the pejorative term “robber barons.” This era would survive through multiple wars, but it would be ended by a domestic economic crisis. The Great Depression, sparked by the crash of 1929, and exacerbated by the Smoot-Hawley tariff, drained the appeal of protectionism within the American electorate, thus beginning the second transitionary period.
The second transitionary period more or less encompasses the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As described in a previous video, this period saw the Republican Party transition from being Hamiltonian to being Jeffersonian. It saw the massive expansion of the federal government, but even more importantly for the lens we are looking through, it saw the Second World War, which resulted in the destruction of most of Europe and Japan’s industrial capacity. Thanks to that and the Bretton-woods conference which gave the US dollar hegemony over international trade, the US became the dominant economic and military power of the world. With the rest of the world’s financial and industrial capacity destroyed tariffs became irrelevant. After all, there was no one left to protect your domestic industry from.
This transitionary period also saw the rise of the Republican Party’s third primary focus, Communism and the Soviet Union. The 1930s and World War Two saw the rise of the Soviet Union, and its eventual dominance over Eastern Europe. Bolshevism had spread across Eurasia, and now it had its eyes on the soon to be former colonies of Europe. During this period the Republican Party’s main focus shifted from domestic issues to foreign policy. The US sought to stop the spread of communism at home and abroad. This period encapsulates most of the cold war, but the third transitionary period would begin in 1981.
Though anti-Communism was still a big focus of the Republican Party in the 1980s, the next issue was beginning to assert itself. Under the leadership of Ronald Reagan the Anti-Tax faction of the Republican party began to rise. It wasn’t enough to stop political communism abroad, we also needed to stop big government at home, and the first step was to cut off its food supply… Taxes. During this transitionary period we saw the final success of the reigning issue with the collapse of the Soviet Union, all the while seeing the Anti-Taxes faction achieve the biggest tax-cut in modern memory. By 1988 Vice President George H.W. made lower taxes a mainstay of the Republican Party. (“Read My Lips” clip) The third transitionary period would end in 1993 after Bush the elder broke that promise, which caused a bunch of Republicans to vote for Ross Perot in 1992. That was the true sign that Lowering Taxes had become the MO of the Republican Party, and it has remained so ever since.
So what may the future hold for the Republican Party, you ask? Well, the future is uncertain. Despite President Trump trying to reintroduce protectionism into the Republican Party, I don’t think it will stay long past him. I see lower taxes remaining the parties single issue for the foreseeable future, especially with the direction the Democratic Party is heading in. The three previous issues; Slavery, Protectionism, and the Soviet Union, all became politically irrelevant because nationwide consensus was reached on those issues.
The major parties both agree Slavery should remain banned, and that Protectionism is unnecessary when you are the strongest economy in the world. And Anti-Communism became irrelevant with the collapse of the Soviet Union. So the only way lowering taxes will cease to be a relevant issue is if some kind of national consensus on taxes is reached, and that doesn’t look probable any time soon. Especially because the Democratic Party is marching headlong into becoming an openly socialist party, which will require them to push for even higher taxes.