With division in Washington a solidifying fact of modern American politics, this is a smart moment for a deep examination of the political faction that gave this country the income tax, that railed against business trusts on behalf of working men and women, that championed immigration, exponentially expanded the size and responsibility of government and invested in vast infrastructure projects — a political party devoted for much of its history to taxation and deficit, big government and social justice.
That's precisely the history that Heather Cox Richardson presents in her latest work. The surprise, of course, is that her subject is the Republican Party.
And yet the same GOP that stood for those principles also has stood against them, and Richardson traces the party's transformation from an egalitarian and broad-minded coalition into a narrow and disappearing one, increasingly trapped in a demographic isolation booth of its own making.
She's right to lament that evolution, and she marshals her evidence thoroughly though not always neutrally. Her book, "To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party," is the most comprehensive account of the GOP and its competing impulses. The result isn't always pretty.
Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College and author of previous American histories, begins her story with the debates over slavery as it applied to America's westward expansion. From there, she methodically re-creates the GOP's wobbly path as it bounced between populist and elitist impulses. The party of Lincoln created the income tax and land-grant colleges and built the intercontinental railroad; after Lincoln's death, it abandoned those democratic instincts and cozied up to Eastern finance.
Teddy Roosevelt revitalized the party by force of personality and introduction of Progressivism to its program. He waged war against the powerful business trusts in pursuit of a "square deal" for average Americans, but his party turned away. Roosevelt's successors included Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, who seemed unmoved by those same Americans as they presided blandly over economic misfortunes, culminating in the Great Depression.
By the 1950s, the party had been shut out of the presidency for a generation until Dwight Eisenhower's immense popularity — it helped to have been the man responsible for defeating Hitler — swept him into office along with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. As president, Ike's commitment to "balance" in national affairs steered the GOP toward defense cuts, construction of the federal highway system and, wonder of wonders, a federal budget surplus that he handed to John F. Kennedy (since then, every Republican president has deepened the budget deficit, and the only president to balance it was Bill Clinton, notably, a Democrat).
Even Eisenhower's version of peace and prosperity was not enough for Republicans. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush tacked away from all that, again ballooning deficits and presiding over a protracted purification of the party to expel its moderates and leave room only for the faithful, so-called Movement Conservatives.
Those are the signposts of Richardson's history, and she delivers them with force and intelligence. As she moves toward the present, however, her analysis and language occasionally undermine her credibility.
Ken Starr's investigation of the Whitewater/Monica Lewinsky case against Clinton was excessive and prurient, but to call Starr's approach, as Richardson does, as "much like McCarthy's" stretches the point. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, Bush's first director of Homeland Security, may not have been ideal for the job, but to brush him off as Bush's "jogging buddy" is glib. Richard Nixon was paranoid and a criminal, but to suggest, as Richardson does, that his paranoia was "inherent in Movement Conservatism" is to disparage Nixon's singularity. He was paranoid all on his own; indeed, he was paranoid even when he was a moderate. No movement made him do it.
Still, Richardson's tendency to color those historical judgments is distracting but not fatal, and the story she relates is tragic and timely.
The party of Lincoln freed the slaves and, in the person of Chief Justice Earl Warren, shepherded the end of institutional segregation. And yet that same party has managed to squander the support of slavery's descendants. Compounding that majestic political failure, the GOP, despite its natural affiliation with many Latinos on certain social issues, has so dogmatically resisted immigration reform that it has lost connection there too. And it somehow has even driven off Asian voters.
The result: In 2012, Barack Obama carried more than 90% of blacks and more than 70% of Latinos and Asians. Mitt Romney's votes came almost exclusively from whites. That's enough to be competitive for the moment but not for long.
The Republican Party, once at the vanguard of social and political activism in America, now is fighting a rear-guard action for relevance. Richardson shows how that happened, and that makes hers an important contribution to understanding where we are today.
Newton is editor-at-large and a columnist for The Times. He is the author of "Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made" and "Eisenhower: The White House Years."
To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party