‘Make America Great Again’: The 1956 Republican vision
I woke last Thursday morning to find that in the middle of the previous night (at 1:30 a.m.), the U.S. Senate had voted to strip essential elements from the Affordable Care Act, including protections with regard to pre-existing conditions, a provision allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26, and contraceptives coverage.
I thought immediately of the 1956 GOP National Platform, one of my favorite historical documents. (It is available online at the University of California - Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project.)
The 1956 Platform outlines a vision for America almost entirely incongruous with that of modern conservatives. To wit:
On employees’ benefits and wages:
■ Raising the federal minimum wage, and “(extending) the protection of the Federal minimum wage laws to as many more workers as is possible and practicable.”
■ Expansion in “strength and responsibility” of employee unions.
■ “Protect more effectively the rights of labor unions, management, and the individual worker.”
■ “Vigorous” enforcement of the “laws which protect the working standards of our people” via “assistance to the States, employees and employers.”
■ Increase assistance programs to “workers with special employment problems, such as older workers, handicapped workers, members of minority groups, and migratory workers.”
■ “Increased workmen’s compensation benefits for longshoremen and harbor workers, increased retirement benefits for railroad employees, and wage increases and improved welfare and pension plans for federal employees.”
■ “Broadened unemployment benefits.”
On feminism and civil rights:
■ “We recommend to Congress the submission of a constitutional amendment providing equal rights for men and women.”
■ “Assure equal pay for equal work regardless of sex.”
■ “Continue to fight for the elimination of discrimination in employment because of race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry or sex.”
On immigration and the plight of refugees:
■ “The Republican Party supports an immigration policy which is in keeping with the traditions of America in providing a haven for oppressed peoples, and which is based on equality of treatment, freedom from implications of discrimination between racial, nationality and religious groups, and flexible enough to conform to changing needs and conditions. We believe that such a policy serves our self-interest, reflects our responsibility for world leadership and develops maximum cooperation with other nations in resolving problems in this area.”
■ A discussion of the Republican-sponsored “Refugee Relief Act to provide asylum for thousands of refugees, expellees and displaced persons.”
And on various other matters:
■ “A notable expansion and improvement of voluntary health insurance, and urge that reinsurance and pooling arrangements be authorized to speed this progress.”
■ “Better health protection for all our people.”
■ “Expansion of Social Security,” including increasing benefits.
■ “Improved housing” availability, including expanded “additional low-rent public housing.”
■ “Federal assistance to help build facilities to train more physicians and scientists.”
■ Fighting inflation as a means to “halt the skyrocketing cost of living.”
■ “Closer federal scrutiny of mergers which have a significant or potential monopolistic connotations” and “procedural changes in the antitrust laws to facilitate their enforcement.”
On further inspection, the 1956 platform is not merely disconnected from the 2016 Republican Platform. It is… well, Bernie Sanders-lite. Bernie and his supporters were called fringe. Radical. Socialist. Greedy. Entitled. Idealistic. In reality, “1950s Republicans” would have been a more accurate label.
Why is this point important? “Make America Great Again” has been ceaselessly and indiscriminately tossed around over the past 18 months. But this phrase has been used rhetorically instead of practically. The question of how to simulate the multi-decade era of economic prosperity after World War II has been left unanalyzed. A look back at the era’s bipartisan economic policy agenda is a good place to start. (I say this notwithstanding the rotten state of racial and gender politics throughout said era.)
For the record, I reject the phrase “Make America Great Again.” The United States is a constantly evolving experiment with a unique place in history, and this bus only goes forward. (And this bus no longer has rules telling groups of people where they can and cannot sit.)
However, it is frustrating when our leaders decline to apply principles from a decades-long period of excellent economics to contemporary times. Lessons from history, both positive and negative, should be a guiding light as we struggle to make sense of 21st century economics. And we are kept in the dark when central pieces of the 1956 Republican platform are dismissed as “fringe.”