- - Wednesday, June 23, 2021

At a time of struggle for racial justice and economic equality in America, the past has become a battleground.

Culture warriors are fighting over what children should be taught in history classes about racism and slavery. The very nature of America is up for debate as decades of progress toward becoming a more just society matter little, in the eyes of some left-wing activists, compared to persistent inequities in housing, income, policing and educational achievement.

These debates raise an unavoidable question: How might activists fuse their social movements to effective electoral politics? Legislating change is impossible without winning elections, and electoral victories are improbable unless social movements are as persuasive as they are passionate.

On this episode of the History As It Happens podcast, the liberal roots of the Republican Party are viewed as a historic example of taking ideas once considered radical into mainstream politics.

If today’s Republican Party — from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump — is known for fighting the left in the Congress, courts and culture, the Republican Party of the 1850s rose to prominence by building on “the foundational left-wing social movement of the modern era,” which was the antislavery movement, according to Princeton historian Matthew Karp.

Four years after the major antislavery party in the U.S., the Free Soil Party in 1852, received barely 5% of the popular vote, the Republican Party had become the largest political force in the North, Mr. Karp said.

In 1856, the first Republican presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, lost to Democrat James Buchanan. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican to win the White House, a remarkable breakthrough considering anti-slavery forces had only recently been “consigned to the margins of national politics for over a generation, and regarded as zealots or freaks by most national politicians,” Mr. Karp said.

“The Republican Party emerged from the ashes of the Whig Party, principally,” Mr. Karp said, but “the ideological core of the party came from the small third-party tradition, figures like Salmon Chase and Joshua Giddings, anti-slavery radicals who had been in the Liberty or Free Soil Party.”

Unlike the Garrisonian abolitionists, who disdained and rejected electoral politics as a path toward progress, the anti-slavery Republicans of the mid-1850s embraced a radicalism “that shook the system to its root,” Mr. Karp said. “It was not anti-electoral, though. It believed in contesting elections and winning an anti-slavery majority.”

After the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise, the new Republicans sharpened their anti-slavery rhetoric. Their aim would be, as Abraham Lincoln later put it, to place slavery on a path to extinction.

The use of rhetoric and crafting of a successful political program was “an art, not a science,” Mr. Karp said.

Republicans could neither appear too radical nor too soft in their moral and political critique of slavery if they wished to win state and federal elections in the North. Pro-slavery Democrats and other critics attacked the Republicans for supporting Black civil rights and for being willing to risk disunion to end slavery.

“The lesson from the 1850s for the left, and I say this as someone on the left, is the fusion between a moral and material politics,” said Mr. Karp, reflecting on the current battles over racial justice as well as economic equality, i.e. universal health insurance or higher taxes for billionaires.

“If your political vision, no matter how noble and just and egalitarian in aspiration, is not capable of speaking also in material terms to the immediate and embodied self-interest of a majority in democratic politics, you are going to struggle. … To date, the left has struggled to achieve that political fusion,” despite public support for some liberal or progressive policies, Mr. Karp said.

For more of the conversation with Mr. Karp, who is writing a book on the origins of the Republican Party, listen to this episode of History As It Happens

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