President Roosevelt was returned to office in a landslide in 1936. He carried all but two of the 48 states — Maine and Vermont. In seems incongruous that those two states, which are the now the most liberal in the Union were the only two to vote against a Democratic President in 1936. In May 2003 I had a chance to look into this. I was invited to a Kentucky Derby party in northern Vermont at which there were some very old Vermonters who could remember back to the 1930s. I asked them about what had changed in Vermont to take it from solidly Republican to solidly Democrat.
They posited two explanations. First, that the building of the interstate highways in the 1960s had led to people from Democrat New York and New Jersey moving to Vermont. Second, and more importantly, it was the Republican Party that had changed and not Vermont. The Republican Party of Calvin Coolidge (a Vermonter and the 30th President) stood for small government, fiscal conservatism and an isolationist foreign policy. Some of them pointed out President Bush, regardless of what he had promised as a candidate, stood for big government, big deficits, and overseas entanglements.
The old time Vermonters also said that the Republican Party had been radically changed by two factors that arose in the 1960s. First, the Civil Rights debate which moved a lot of socially conservative southern Democrats into the Republican column. Second, the conservative religious awakening in the US (the ‘Fourth Great Awakening’ as Nobel Laureate Robert Fogel would have it) in the 1960s (to the present) which created the Christian Conservative wing of the Republican Party.
This morning I was reminded of the change in the Republican Party by Senator John McCain’s warning to his party against becoming isolationist. McCain is concerned about the growing tendency of the Republican Presidential hopefuls to promise to reduce American engagement in the world. Some of them have been promising to end America’s engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course Presidents Bush and Obama made similar promises to “not engage in nation building (Bush)” and ” immediately end America’s involvement in the immoral war in Iraq (Obama).”
Nonetheless, something seems to have changed. It appears that the Tea Party is pulling the Republican Party back towards its old time positions of being fiscally conservative and internationally isolationist. Many political pundits on the left want to associate the Tea Party with the socially conservative wing of the Republican Party. I think that have it wrong. The Tea Party is tapping into the old time beliefs of the Republican Party for which there is a lot of demand in middle America. The Tea Party has been winning the budget debate so far and President Obama has moved a long way in their direction on plans to cut spending.
Isolationism could be next. Throughout US history an isolationist foreign policy has been the norm. From 1788 to 1917 the US had little engagement in the world. The US did force Japan to open its markets in 1854. It did have colonial aspirations for a short time around the turn of the century which took it to the Phillipines and Cuba. In 1917 it entered WWI after severe German provocation, but then return to isolationism between the wars. The US did not even join the League of Nations. From 1941 to 1989 it was inevitably drawn into leadership of the struggle against facism and communism. But nonetheless global engagement has not been the norm for the US. It is surprising that the US has not already become more isolationist in the 22 years since 1989.
The push for a more isolationist US may become quite strong in the US in the this political cycle. I hope that does not happen. A world with a disengaged America is a scary place. Australia is relying on a strong and engaged US to underwrite our security for the whole of this century. We are paying for that underwriting day by day in the Afghanistan.