Off the Rails: How the Party of Lincoln Became the Party of Plutocrats


For a century now, Republicans have confused being the party of plutocrats with being the party of prosperity. Thus Mitt Romney.

To win back the so-called 47 percent—an insulting description Romney doubled down after the election when he blamed his loss on Obama’s “gifts”—Republican might look farther back, past Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover to their first president, Abraham Lincoln.

Not only did he spring from the ranks of the plebeian, not the preps, but—as Michael Lind points out in What Lincoln Believed—he aimed to both increase opportunity and expand national power. A corporate attorney, he backed railroad interests and their expansion, which paced the nation’s economic ascendancy, but saw this as part of creating greater opportunity, particularly in the West, for the country’s middle and working classes. He also enacted the Homestead Act, which supplied aspiring settlers with a gift: 160 acres of federal land.

Whether or not these acts were populist in their intent, their effects helped people achieve their aspirations. Expansion westward was nothing less than the basis of the American dream, allowing millions, many from land-poor and feudalized Europe, an opportunity to strike out on their own.

This aspirational element should be the centerpiece of the Republican message in this age of growing class bifurcation. The loss of upward mobility long predates President Obama, though it has accelerated under him—with median household incomes down by more than $4,000 since he took office. Even the tepid economy has not done much to improve middle-class fortunes since nearly three-fifths of new jobs are in lower-wage positions.

Without some unforeseen economic rebound, class issues will dominate our politics in the future even more than they do today. To recover, Republicans, now losing consistently (and often deservedly) on cultural issues, need to outmaneuver the Democrats on their ability to provide opportunity and upward mobility to a broad range of Americans.

In his time, Lincoln understood the usefulness of class warfare. Tied to industrial interests, he waged a bloody class war on the slave-owning gentry of the South, a group so detestable it makes today’s Wall Street elites seem almost saintly by comparison. Financiers and industrialists may have supported this brutal war between the states, but it was largely aspiring yeoman farmers, skilled workers, and small merchants—all beneficiaries of Lincoln’s expansive economic vision—who fought it.

In recent decades, Republicans—conscious of their patrician backers—have suppressed thinking about class, often criticizing Democrats for having no such scruples.

This made them unable to turn issues such as the bank bailouts to their favor; Romney, himself an economic royalist, could not bring himself to denounce the administration’s policies that have worked out wonderfully for large banks now enjoying record profits while pummeling the middle class.

In the past, Republican deflected class concerns by focusing on cultural issues, national defense, or ideology—but these tactics have worn themselves out. Of course, some conservatives will blame their defeat on a candidate of uncertain convictions and without commitment to the social regressive policies. Yet evangelicals mounted a record effort to get out the vote; it’s hard to see how Romney would have done better trying to sound more like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock.

What should concern Republicans was declining turnout in traditionally GOP-leaning suburbs, the very places where middle-class professionals and business owners reside. These voters were not energized by Romney. So even though he improved the GOP’s 2008 vote among the middle class and independents, Romney’s total was about 1,000,000 below that of John McCain. Had Romney equaled McCain’s performance in four states (Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado), he would have won, rather than losing to a president who received 7 million fewer votes than in the previous election.

Let’s take a measurement of base stagnation: the nation’s population has grown 20 million since George Bush was elected in 2004, but the GOP vote has actually shrunk. This correlates as well with a stunning decline of roughly 8 million white voters compared to 2008. The white population may be getting old, but it’s not dying off that rapidly.

This low turnout is remarkable given how unfavorably Obama is viewed by much of the yeoman class. In fact, as Gallup notes, nearly 60 percent of small-business owners disapprove of Obama. The problem was many simply did not see Romney as a viable—let alone an attractive—alternative. In contrast, the Obama team did a far better job of turning out their base of minority, youth, single and childless women, and union members—an effort that delivered their margin of victory in swing states including Ohio, Nevada, and Colorado.

To change the political dynamic, Republicans need to address class concerns, particularly those of small property owners and aspirant small entrepreneurs. Yet the GOP has no program for this group other than lower taxes and hollow promises to cut the budget (which, of course, they have not done, even when holding both houses of Congress and the presidency). The party’s hodgepodge of corporate managerialism, social regressiveness, and, above all, protection of the plutocratic class is demonstrably not compelling to most Americans.

It’s hard for a Main Street business owner, or sole proprietor working from home, to relate to a plutocrat, like Romney, who pays lower effective tax rates than they do. Outrage against looming tax hikes would be justifiable, if the true motivation were not so plainly to preserve the privileges of the haute bourgeoisie. This is a politically doomed approach; while small business is widely revered by Americans, big business and banks are among the least well-regarded.

Class also would provide a means to define negatively the current regime. Instead of making silly attacks on President Obama as a “socialist,” he would be more accurately portrayed as the tribune of both the crony capitalists on Wall Street or Silicon Valley and of big labor, particularly public-employee unions. Obama should also be toxic to grassroots entrepreneurs, who will bear the brunt of the new regulatory regime, health-care system, higher energy prices, as well as rising income taxes.

Rather than label him as a radical, Republicans should identify him as an avatar of those who are doing best in our concussed economy, and presumably want things to stay that way. His most ardent backers include many of our richest, most celebrated citizens—fabulously wealthy Hollywood types, the Silicon Valley elite as well as those controlling our major media and universities. There’s a reason Obama bested Romney in eight of America’s 10 richest counties.

In Marin County, Calif.—where Obama claimed nearly 75 percent of the vote—expensive energy and higher housing prices represent not a burden but an environmental good, and, when it comes to housing, an economic opportunity for some to benefit from artificial, government-imposed scarcity. Ban new single-family homes, and the value of the existing stock goes up; for the elite investing class, incentives for “green energy” developments offer insider opportunities to enjoy windfall profits at the expense of middle-class-rate payers.

If Wall Street wants to join the “progressive” gentry parade again, as it did in 2008, Republican should encourage them. Being the candidate of the phenomenally unpopular financial overclass may have bought Romney the nomination, but it sealed his fate in the general election.

To reclaim its Lincolnesque transformation, the GOP needs to fundamentally pivot on the role of government. Laissez-faire ideology has its merits, but cannot compete successfully with a population weaned on the welfare state, whose members are keenly attuned to their vulnerability in our volatile era.

By admitting that government is sometimes a necessary partner in nurturing and sometimes financing infrastructure critical for economic expansion, Republicans can offer their own vision of what growth-inducing services such as new roads—as opposed to the increased regulation and transfer payments and pension bloat peddled by Democrats—government can and should provide. This could appeal to Hispanics, Asians, and younger people who would be the prime beneficiaries of tangible investments.

As generational chroniclers Morley Winograd and Mike Hais have suggested, most younger people support government action to solve problems but generally dislike the kind of top-down solutions often supported by Democrats. As these voters age, seek to buy homes and start businesses, they might listen to a sensible alternative that does not seek to enhance the left-wing clerisy’s ambition to control all aspects of their lives.

It’s time for Republicans to break with the traditions of Goldwater, Reagan, and, particularly, Bush and shift to something more akin to the party’s roots in the mid-19th century. This party needs less preaching and libertarian manifestos that essentially defend plutocracy. Instead it’s time to embrace class warfare on today’s gentry, and embrace the aspirations of today’s middle-class. Honest Abe in 2016?

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and contributing editor to the City Journal in New York. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.

This piece originally appeared at The Daily Beast.

Lincoln Memorial photo by Bigstock.

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Small Business has been had...

It seemed to me neither Democrats nor Republicans offered the small Main Street business types anything other than continued growth of Wall Street and/or the Government - two different sides of the same crony capitalist coin.

Romney flipped and flopped so many times nobody could believe him and Obama at least tried to appeal to the majority who knows things are not getting better and know we are all being undercut.

As a small Main Street biz type I want to know why my Healthcare Insurance went up 34% for the coming year with the same benefits I had last year? What business can jack rates by 1/3 and still be alive the next year ?

We all know taxes are going up and inflation will soon run rampant eating up the value of savings so what are we to do ? Go buy some farmland, grow our own food and ride it out ?

Off the Rails

First, Mr. Kotkin, I congratulate you for “” as a forum for thoughtful exchange on matters geopolitical. I visit regularly and am seldom disappointed. Second, I have found your recent and prolific writings on the 2012 presidential election to be stimulating. Thank you on both points.

Your current column, “Off the Rails,” seems to me to be another of the “hand wringing” variety by many commentators that might have been justified by a wipe-out election loss (such as that suffered by Goldwater in ’64 or Mondale in ’84), but not by Mr. Romney’s very narrow loss (the narrowness confirmed by your own analysis in the column).

The premise of your column, that Republicans must relearn class warfare, a la Lincoln, to be successful in 2016 rings hollow for me on several counts, but perhaps most notably in this regard: You ding Mr. Romney for his “insulting description” of the “47%” and then his “doubling down” in blaming his loss on Obama’s “gifts” to voters, especially the younger voters. You then go on to favorably cite Lincoln as having “enacted the Homestead Act, which supplied aspiring settlers with a gift: 160 acres of federal land.”

I ask in all sincerity, Mr. Kotkin: Do you really believe the Republicans can credibly run in 2016 on a platform of “out-giving” the Democrats? The loss of support in the Republican base would be catastrophic. Well, they would lose me anyway! LOL!

Romney/Ryan ran a totally positive campaign based on the idea of an “opportunity economy” built on traditional American values of freedom, self-discipline, hard work, innovation, etc., et al. You, of course, state that, “This aspirational element should be the centerpiece of the Republican message in this age of growing class bifurcation.” Amen.

What must change? Advancement of economic literacy. First lesson: There is no free lunch (“gift”). That lesson seems to be in the pipeline. The tuition will be quite high.

(Just a couple of nits: Lincoln, of course, did not “enact” the Homestead Act of 1862; Congress did, and Lincoln signed it. But more substantively, the 160 acres were not a “gift”. From the U.S. Archives, one reads this description of the law and its implementation:

(“The new law established a three-fold homestead acquisition process: filing an application, improving the land, and filing for deed of title. Any U.S. citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. Government could file an application and lay claim to 160 acres of surveyed Government land. For the next 5 years, the homesteader had to live on the land and improve it by building a 12-by-14 dwelling and growing crops. After 5 years, the homesteader could file for his patent (or deed of title) by submitting proof of residency and the required improvements to a local land office.”

(Compare this “gift” with the relaxation by the Obama Administration of the work requirements of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act just prior to the 2012 election. Hmmm.)

And finally, though your column focuses on “class,” I think it worthy of pondering ever so briefly upon another form of “stratification” of the American populace which was so crucial to the outcome of the recent election: Race. The most recent figure I have seen is that President Obama received 93% of the “black” vote. (In scores of precincts, the Romney/Ryan ticket did not receive a single vote.) It seems entirely plausible to me (an old white male Republican, aka, fossil, with a very parochial worldview) that such bloc voting (so decisive in this election) may well have been much more of a sociological phenomenon than a “gifts” phenomenon. I can well imagine that Colin Powell and most other blacks did not wish to see themselves responsible for the electoral defeat of the first black American president, no matter the (possible) economic price. Most of us root for the home team, no matter how well or poorly they play.


@ Richard: I couldn't disagree more with your take on this article. In the past I had never voted a straight party ticket either way, but tended to lean heavily towards the Republican side. I even volunteered for a number of Republican candidates (and only one Dem candidate) and had a small blog on a conservative web site. Point being that I was clearly the epitome of the center-right suburbanite that gave the Republican party at least some wins.

This election was different. I voted a straight Democratic ticket this time (in WI, mind you, where Republicans had hopes of both a Romney win and a Thompson senate win). And it wasn't because I thought Obama was an amazing president. It was because the Republican party has become a joke in it's current state. This article was one of the best discussions of exactly why people like me voted Dem that I've seen yet. Jindal is exactly right when he says that the GOP has become the party of "stupid." I have a graduate degree and understand what the definition of socialism is and what it is not. And it is not Obama. All I can think when I hear some right wing blogger ranting about socialism is that the Republican party is just too dumb to agree with anymore. And the idea that government is ALWAYS bad and that's why we should elect you to be in charge of the government? Which rocket-surgeon marketing genius came up with that theory?

If the GOP wants to be taken seriously by people like me again they need to accept that there is a role for government and present solutions to actual problems, not fictional issues like voter fraud. They need to focus on policies that acknowledge that the wealthy have gotten much wealthier while the middle and lower classes have been stagnant or gone backwards and address those issues with market driven solutions. And the GOP needs to put a muzzle on the far right jokers that make then look silly (such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, the Creationists, the Tea Party types, etc.). I actually saw an article a while back on Townhall dot com that suggested we should be grateful in some grovelling sycophantic way for companies like Blackwater, US Bank, and Exxon. Really?

Listen to Jindal. Listen to Mr. Kotkin. Listen to David Frum. Or accept your fate as the new whig party. Unfortunately I don't think enough of the base will be willing to consider change and a likely decent showing in the mid-term election of 2014 will convince the GOP to continue as the party of stupid.

Not"Stupid" no one to vote for


The Far Right as you recent Obama admirers call us, aren't stupid, we simply had no one to support. Romney's reason for losing had as much to do with no shows on the RIGHT (though I was ABO), then Obama's total. Obama is playing redistribution, and Romney ran to the Middle (nowhere)using the Left's tactic of personally attacking its enemy the Tea Party. Calling the Tea Party stupid is like referring to a customer who sees nothing on the shelves he likes, so he leaves the store. On the way out you are calling him names.

All I hear from Obama supporters, and if you voted for him, you are a supporter (thus you take the blame for a decade long recession)is envy and wanting of something you didn't earn. TEA Party is not 'against' Gov't, we just believe the Federal Gov't has entered into areas it has no business being involved in, and it remains unlike local Gov't, unaccountable. It is corrupt, and without removing some of its influence will remain so. It is hard for me to accept someone with a right thinking mind would chose Obama over TEA Party thinking, unless your just afraid of being shunned at the work place by people who simply have no clue to what is politically going on around them. Thus an Obama victory.

I'm simply at a loss of anyone who worries about what the rich are doing. They or their parents have managed to work quite hard to gain their position, and for other Americans to think they are entitled what the rich have earned is wrong. This may keep me in the minority, as will the thinking that the Gov't should be more concerned with the LIFE of the unborn, than the circumstances in which a female has found herself being pregnant, I find Abortion abhorrent.

For me this is far from stupid, but if Americans want to go down the road of demanding from others something they didn't earn, not paying anything to the functioning of our federal Gov't, claiming Fairness, then I'll be happy remaining in the minority while others like yourself cross Party lines to dismantle our nation's economy.

Response to "Disagree"

Vigorously stated, vfr800cr250, ... strongly worded ... but, in my opinion, short on specifics which might address the current malaise of the U.S.economy.

(While one may be tempted, as apparently Gov. Jindal was, to resort to pejorative labels, it is unclear to me how this advances constructive exchanges about how we proceed. In the same vein, suggesting that "the GOP needs to put a muzzle on the far right jokers" hints at a limited capacity for rational dialogue. If one is offended by the offerings of the "jokers", don't listen.)

More substantively, you call for the GOP to "address those issues with market driven solutions." Have you a specific example of that type of solution? Romney/Ryan advocated the traditional market driven strategies of private sector saving, innovation, and investment, risk, and reward. President Obama (implicitly) offered his own examples: Solyndra and the GM bailout. Are these examples you would embrace for moving forward?

The 2012 election was close on very clearly drawn issues. Your voting choice largely prevailed, so we shall have full opportunity to see how that set of strategies continues to play out. But I am a bit puzzled by your concluding sentence.... If the GOP "continue[s] as the party of stupid," how is it possible that it will "likely [have a] decent showing in the mid-term election of 2014"? I'm not buying my Whig wig just yet.

Mid-term elections

Sorry if the wording comes across as harsh, I admit that this is a big deal to me. I'd rather be voting Republican (center-right), but these days I'll take center left over hard right any day of the week. I was willing to give Mitt Romney a chance as my knowledge of him was that he was a moderate.

The first big issue I had though was during primary when ALL the candidates said that they wouldn't agree to a deal that included $1 of revenue increases for every $10 in spending cuts. Seriously? Wouldn't any reasonable conservative think that's a great deal? At that point I began to seriously doubt the future of the Republican party.

Then Romney named Paul Ryan as his running mate. How does that help? The only people that like Paul Ryan are the hardcore righties which to me says that those are the folks controlling Romney's candidacy.

Now I was willing to give Romney/Ryan one last chance. As you said, they were proposing some market driven solutions so I was willing to listen. But I couldn't get past the fact that no matter how I looked at the numbers (and read others attempts to make sense of them) I didn't see any way that tax rates could be cut 20%, revenue could stay neutral, military spending could increase and the deficit could be addressed. It was pure fantasy. I'd rather hear that I'm going to pay higher taxes, but real problems will be addressed.

The solutions Romney was proposing weren't the problem, the problem was that he was wrapping them up in a fantasy that any reasonably intelligent person had to doubt.

On the 2014 mid-terms, the Republicans will do alright partly because of gerrymandering, but I would suggest that an even more important factor will be the electorate that shows up to vote. The people that vote in the mid-terms will be older, whiter and more married than those that voted in 2012 or 2008. James Carville wrote a book, 40 More Years, in 2009, predicting 2012 pretty well and dicussing shifting demographics. He very specifically points out in that book that mid-term elections won't follow the same patterns because of the make-up of that electorate.

If Republicans want to prove Mr. Carville wrong, they're going to need to do more than simply communicate better and maybe run an hispanic candidate. Just my two bits.

What does demographics have anything to do with intelligence?


Romney, O'Reilly and others were right that "GIFTS" had much to do with the results of the 2012 Election, but so did ones own ethnic background. Obama divided this nation across ethnic and gender lines to get to apply his Economic philosophy and Social agenda . Many Blacks voted for Obama, not for his economics, not for his stand on Gay Marriage, not for his stand on Abortion, or free contraceptives, or Obamacare, or keeping open borders, but because they felt the pressure from their community to do so. Many Hispanics didn't vote for Obama for Gay Marriage, Abortion, his economy, or Obamacare. Females didn't vote for Obama for his economic philosophy, or Open Borders. Seniors didn't vote for Open Borders, and the Youth didn't vote for Obama's economic policies or Open Borders. Each of these groups voted for their own selfish reasons.

To suggest that Obama now gets free rein on Economic issues, or in fact ANY issues is absurd thinking. Conservatives (Republicans are wishy-washy)can no more change their principles than can they change ethnic identity (regardless of their skin color). If these groups in which the Democrats envelope into their big tent are willing to be selfish to get their "Own", or their "Fair Share", then this country will walk its way down towards internal destruction that so many countries before them have done.

It is not in the control of Conservatives to change such a path, unless they can convince others they are correct. If Carville and so many others concentrate more on political victories than the health of this country, then we will have more of what we are sowing.

Being in a majority that has nothing in common but a President that will gladly hand you your "own" gift while at the expense of the health of the nation's future is not SMART, and for those that claim political victory over a group you consider DUMB, because they don't think like you, is why we have found ourselves in the position we are in.

Romney on the other hand attacking the TEA Party or its very popular leader Sarah Palin was just DUMB. It cost him the election.

MIdterm elections in 2014

Richard, you ask how it is possible to have a decent showing in midterm elections despite continuing as the party of stupid. The answer is the same way D's got a million more votes for Congressional candidates and yet did not take over the House. An extraordinarily successful gerrymandered re-districting in 2010.

MIdterm elections in 2014

Richard, you ask how it is possible to have a decent showing in midterm elections despite continuing as the party of stupid. The answer is the same way D's got a million more votes for Congressional candidates and yet did not take over the House. An extraordinarily successful gerrymandered re-districting in 2010.

Midterm Elections in 2014 - A Reply

Mr. Ledbetter, you are correct in significant part, certainly, but there are a couple of less-obvious points that are highly relevant.

First, the gerrymandering you mention was possible because of sweeping Republican election victories at all levels in 2010, particularly in state legislatures. And the trend continues: North Carolina will have a Republican-controlled legislature (and Republican governor) in 2013 for the first time in over 100 years. The simple explanation is basic citizenship: conservatives vote more consistently in "off-year" elections than do many in the liberal coalition.

Second, (as a conservative who found much to admire in Martin Luther King's stance for a colorblind society, I find the irony of this quite delicious) liberal dogma insists that there be "safe" districts for "minority representation" in the U.S. House of Representatives. Thus, the liberal insistence upon racially gerrymandered districts (always represented by liberal Democrats) is happily embraced by Republican legislatures. Blacks and Latino populations deliver overwhelming majorities (low turn-out or high) in "their" districts, but this has zero impact on neighboring conservative districts.

I would think that Democrats would wise up to this significant problem and seek ways to use their base blocs to leverage competition into traditionally conservative districts .... but I doubt the Members of the House Black Leadership Caucus would take too kindly to that idea. What do you think?

So, the "stupid" party appears to be in pretty good shape for 2014.