The Myth of the Moderate Republican

Liberal Republicanism’s collapse didn’t spring from some loss of decency in an age of polarization, but from the transformation of class struggle in America.

Michigan Gov. George Romney and his son, Mitt, look out over the New York World's Fair grounds in May 1964. AP

The rise of the Tea Party has generated a powerful nostalgia among liberals for a generation of “sane” and “reasonable” Republicans. Once upon a time, so the tale goes, this breed of moderates was willing to compromise, to accommodate many of the basic reforms of the New Deal.

This nostalgic narrative of moderate Republicanism venerates a political moment exemplified by the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, who claimed in an oft-quoted letter to his right-wing brother Edgar that total electoral annihilation would greet any Republican who “attempt[ed] to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs.”

Eisenhower’s begrudging accommodation of the welfare state represented a tactical concession to specific elements of the political order brought into existence by the reforms of the New Deal. But another set of Republicans, who first emerged in the 1930s and 1940s at the state and local level across the urban-industrial Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast — the places where working people had mobilized most effectively under the auspices of the New Deal — went further. They made much larger, strategic concessions, as self-identified “liberal Republicans.”

These concessions stemmed from an understanding that mass mobilizations of working people had created a world in which the New Deal would be a permanent part of the political landscape. These liberal Republicans actually looked to the rhetoric and institutions of the New Deal itself to forge a new conservative politics able to quell and contain the ascendant constellation of the labor and civil rights movements.

In many ways, it was the defensive entrenchment of New Deal politics by such Republicans — even more than its proactive embrace by their liberal Democratic counterparts — that cemented the hegemony of mid-century liberalism. Above all, it was the political and economic empowerment of rank-and-file workers actively “making a New Deal” which gave rise to that regime’s remarkable ability to transform the political landscape.

Though designed to prioritize capitalist economic recovery, and riddled with discriminatory exclusions, New Deal legislation like the Wagner, Social Security, and Fair Labor Standards acts nonetheless forced Republicans and Democrats alike to come to terms with a more capacious notion of “civil rights” — one extending from labor’s right to organize to racial and gender equality.

The upsurge in labor militancy, not to mention the great migrations into American cities, sharply divided the Republican Party between those representing heavily rural districts and deeply anxious about the pace of social change, and those urban politicians desperate to remain relevant and electorally viable amid what Samuel Lubell called “the revolt of the city.”

A significant segment of the Republican Party effectively “New Dealized” itself in an effort to adapt to these insurgencies. New Dealized or liberal Republicans not only recognized the legitimacy of unions; they also bowed to organized pressure to identify poverty, segregation, and job discrimination as social problems requiring government intervention. Much like their Progressive forbearers, New Dealized Republicans acknowledged that a mass production and mass consumption society could only be governed by an expansive state.

To be clear, those liberal Republicans who first came to national prominence in the 1940s and 1950s — such as New York Gov. and two-time presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, California Gov. and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, former auto executive and Michigan Gov. George Romney, and robber-baron-heir-cum-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller — all fought tooth and nail against the social-democratic possibilities that the New Deal had conjured. But they each made a major strategic concession by assuming its permanence as a political reality.

Institutions like the National Labor Relations Board or the Social Security Administration provided a foundation for social stability, but they needed to be depoliticized and insulated from bottom-up pressure in order to maintain the deeply entrenched hierarchies of American society. Thus, New Dealized Republicanism embodied the clash between reformers striving to reshape American society and conservatives struggling to slow the social transformations wrought by the Great Depression, World War II, and the deeply unequal distribution of postwar affluence.

Differentiating liberal Republicans from their conservative “Old Guard” rivals like Robert Taft of Ohio requires distinguishing between the realms of electoral politics and policymaking. At the crucial moment in the late 1940s when postwar American social democracy remained a (waning) possibility, Taft was a politician with presidential aspirations, and above all a politician who needed to be reelected as a US senator. He cosponsored postwar public housing legislation with liberal lion Robert Wagner of New York, and after tremendous union mobilization against his signature labor reform law, he tempered his position on organized labor and sought the votes of working-class Ohioans in his 1950 reelection campaign.

Unlike the troglodytic, union-hating New Jersey conservative Rep. Fred Hartley Jr, Taft needed the votes of a cross-section of statewide voters, not just those of one conservative district. As Corey Robin recently (and rightly) argued, Taft the anticommunist, antiunion, anti–New Dealer cannot be rehabilitated today as an icon of moderation; understanding him as the leading right-wing Republican means acknowledging the piecemeal tactical concessions he had to make in the circumstances of a still-powerful labor movement. Like Eisenhower (and later Nixon), Taft’s tactical compromises only acknowledged the immediate power and popularity of the New Deal order, not its long-term legitimacy.

Truly liberal Republicans registered their greatest impact at the state level by assuming the durability of the New Deal as a political order. Although the 1936 elections are remembered as the beginning of a federal New Deal-Democratic regime, only two years later Republicans staged a comeback that gathered steam state by state over the next two decades. By the 1944 election, twenty-six states covering 70 percent of the country’s population claimed a Republican governor. In states like California, Michigan, and New York, New Dealized Republicans first won office by seizing popular elements of New Deal reform while sharply criticizing its class politics.

Harold Stassen of Minnesota and Earl Warren each won major office by resolutely championing the virtues of “free” collective bargaining to minimize supposedly coercive and unbalanced government involvement in labor relations. Warren staunchly opposed antiunion right-to-work laws, and even convinced Southern California’s fiercely conservative aircraft firms to back off a 1944 ballot initiative banning the closed shop, arguing that such efforts actually energized the labor movement.

George Romney, who denounced Walter Reuther as “the most dangerous man in Detroit” during the 1945–46 strike wave, also struggled to make a depoliticized unionism acceptable to the business community, weary after decades of shop floor conflict. As president of American Motors, he strove to make bargaining routine and called for capping the membership of unions at ten thousand. These efforts contributed to the ghettoization of unions into a private labor relations regime that reaffirmed capital’s tremendous class power over workers.

The struggle against industrial labor militancy led New Dealized Republicans to forge alliances with the more elite segments of the American working class. While the shop floors of massive manufacturing corporations like General Motors became sites for the CIO’s proletarian “culture of unity,” the socially homogenous craft economies of skilled, white, and male workers, concentrated in the AFL unions, represented a world far less interested in the egalitarian potential of the New Deal.

The cultural and ideological gulf dividing diverse and deskilled mass production workers from the “labor aristocracy” of typically “old-stock,” native-born men created a constituency anxious to maintain their privileged place in a highly stratified labor market and eager to cut deals. (The fact that AFL-affiliated unions in the craft union bastions of trucking, service work, and the building trades grew twice as fast as those of the CIO from 1937–1945 only made the craft unions more attractive.)

New Dealized Republicans saw in the craft unions a working-class fraction able to counter the influence of the left-leaning CIO and fragment the labor base of the vaunted New Deal coalition. As governor of wartime California, Earl Warren counted the Teamsters (then engaged in a fierce jurisdiction dispute with the Communist-linked International Longshore and Warehouse Union) as an important political ally. In Minnesota, Gov. Harold Stassen and the Republicans who followed him in the 1940s and ’50s appointed craft unionists to administer the labor mediation bureaucracy established to cripple Minneapolis’s powerful Trotskyist-led Teamsters local.

The New Dealized Republican position on job discrimination, the signal civil-rights issue of the day, similarly grew from an effort to contain and quell dissent. Unlike labor-based civil rights activists who called for the creation of an institutionally muscular agency in the mold of the National Labor Relations Board able to confront systematic racial discrimination, Republicans favored non-binding fact-finding and public education commissions that left enforcement up to the courts on a case-by-case basis.

In New York, Thomas Dewey hoisted the banner of the Party of Lincoln under intense pressure from New York City’s Black Popular Front and enacted a statewide fair employment practices commission (FEPC) premised on what sociologist Anthony Chen describes as “a color-blind, individualized model of social regulation.” In Michigan throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, a minority bloc of liberal Republicans, seeking to outmaneuver conservative rivals, built cautious and tenuous alliances with labor-liberal Democrats close to the United Auto Workers in order to pass (without success) FEPC legislation.

Ultimately, in the 1960s, George Romney presided over Michigan’s first statewide FEPC, but as with the model supported by Dewey, it lacked sufficient enforcement powers, remained chronically understaffed and underfunded, and workers reported that filing a claim proved more trouble than it was worth.

Gov. Earl Warren toyed with civil rights, too, but largely as a way to undermine what he saw as “communist” subversion among racial minorities. Indeed, Warren’s best-known opinion for the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, which sanctioned a halting and piecemeal process of school desegregation, functionally emerged as a symbolic gesture not designed to topple the racial hierarchies of American society.

By the late 1960s, though, New Dealized Republicans found their brand of moderation without a mass constituency. The Civil Rights Movement had become increasingly militant, the war in Vietnam had discredited bipartisan foreign policy internationalism, and much of the labor movement had become entrapped by just the kind of narrowly structured collective bargaining for which liberal Republicans had long fought. This opened the door for an emboldened Republican right wing armed with a forceful free market, anti-union, and anti-government line to dispense with moderation and accommodation.

Barry Goldwater’s ill-fated 1964 campaign and the election of Richard Nixon four years later dashed the presidential aspirations of Romney and Rockefeller Republicans, demonstrating the electoral vulnerability of the New Dealized Republican position. The “law and order” bluster of the Nixon campaign, for instance, pushed Rockefeller to order New York state troopers to open fire into the Attica prison yard and pass draconian drug laws. Meanwhile, Nixon’s effort to build a working-class “New Majority” had deep roots in much earlier strategies among New Dealized Republicans to break apart the nascent New Deal coalition.

But the ravages of capital flight continued to eat away at the unionized political economy of the Northeast and Midwest, destabilizing the electoral base not just of Democratic labor-liberalism but also of a liberal Republicanism predicated on political détente with an organized working class. The economic and political opportunities offered by Sun Belt conservatism finally enticed the Republican Party to abandon its support for the taxes, regulations, and labor relations of the old industrial core in the midst of the crises of the 1970s.

The lessons are two-fold. First, even as they came to grips with the new consensus behind state-sponsored social reform, the New Dealized Republicans proposed doing so precisely to restrain those forces — a powerful amalgam of working-class and civil-rights activism — that had been empowered by the egalitarian policies and ideologies of the New Deal.

Second, and most importantly: if there is anything to wax nostalgic about in mid-century politics, it isn’t the loss of Republicans whose conservatism was tempered by a bit of reason and compassion. It is the remarkable fact that the working class, when organized, has the power to reshape even the most reactionary quarters of American politics.