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Radical Republicans, then and now


Alex Pareene has an interesting essay on the largely forgotten impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and its relevance to today. (Among other things, Johnson himself was a kind of proto-Trumpian unhinged demagogue).

The rough consensus about the Johnson impeachment when I was a child, which was when Richard Nixon was getting impeached, was reflected in Charles Black’s judgment at the time that the whole thing had been more or less trumped up (sorry) by radical Republicans who went too far:

Thaddeus Stevens insisted on adding two sweeping charges encompassing the entirety of Johnson’s offenses against the authority of Congress and the public good. And these charges again went back to Johnson’s attempts to thwart Congress’s authority to manage Reconstruction. And yet Black—a lifelong supporter of civil rights, someone who ought to have considered Thaddeus Stevens one of the great American heroes—dismisses Stevens’s entire case as a politically embarrassing ploy that mostly managed “to bring disgrace and ridicule on Congress.” The proceedings against Johnson hinged, in Black’s estimation, on “a ridiculous charge.” This is what happens when the actual stakes of politics are forgotten, or become muddied by self-justifying moderates. In America, extremism in defense of equality is always a vice.
 (My emphasis)

Black was a great scholar, but he was dead wrong about this, and for just the reasons Pareene adduces:

However, the actual lesson of Johnson’s impeachment could not be more different. The Radicals were right about nearly everything, and the moderates—who made a big show of caution and deference to the Constitution and generous accommodation to the office of the president—were plainly wrong. The ones who didn’t even have skin in the game but who wanted representation for those who did were correct to be fanatical in their pursuit of a more perfect country—and, more important, they were right about the baleful and regressive consequences of moderation in the face of extremist and reactionary unreason.

And any actually reasonable observer of American politics over the last several decades would have to conclude that it isn’t the diversity of one party that has led to gridlock. Rather, it’s been the brittle, homogeneous outlook of a conservative party that increasingly counts on a base that is overwhelmingly white and male—but, of course, anyone posing as a moderate interlocutor of good faith can blame their extremism on the diversity of the other side. “Radical liberals made me more racist” is, alas, not a remotely novel claim in American politics. Wineapple writes how, after Johnson angrily declared that “this is a country for white men, and, by God, as long as I am president it shall be a government for white men,” The Chicago Times—a reasonable Republican paper of the time—wrote: “If he used the language attributed to him, it was undoubtedly in reply to fanaticism and impudence.” In other words: The Radical Republicans made him do it.

But the belief in the reasonableness of the dispassionate white male senator walks hand-in-hand with the Johnsonian (and Jacksonian) belief that the real American subject is the humble white working man. When you wonder why it took so incredibly long for today’s Democrats to hint that their oversight of the president’s crimes amounted to preparations for impeachment, remember that many leading liberal legal and political theorists have long taught that the moderates were the unacknowledged heroes of the Johnson impeachment debacle. Yes, Democrats also initiated impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon’s criminal presidency in 1973, but the lesson there also ultimately proved to be a moderate one: The president, recognizing he could no longer function as an effective arbiter of the people’s business, resigned in 1974, before things got too ugly and confrontational. The lesson of the Watergate inquiry was that the system worked, as the self-congratulatory consensus of that moment went—which is to say, Congress was relieved of forcing any kind of ultimate showdown with the executive branch over matters of serious constitutional principle. But while Nixon may have relied on white reaction for his political power, he was never its overt avatar in the White House—as the longtime right-wing activist M. Stanton Evans put it to Rick Perlstein: “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate.”

The extent to which Watergate and its aftermath radicalized the Republican party continues to be under-appreciated (Perlstein himself doesn’t make that mistake: The Invisible Bridge lays out very clearly how Reagan’s support for Nixon, which never wavered in the slightest, was perhaps the key factor in his eventual takeover of the GOP).

150 years ago, Washington was dominated by radical Republicans as well, who tried and largely failed to remake a nation that was founded on the principle of white supremacy. But at least they really tried:

The Radicals had a clear understanding of what they were fighting for—Johnson had to be stopped, not for the sake of restoring a comfortable status quo, but in order to allow the Radicals to remake the country itself. Today’s congressional Democrats are hoping to pass a bill to allow annual price negotiations for 250 prescription drugs. Expecting them to go to war with a president who will go to any length he can to shield himself from scrutiny of his activities or consequences for his actions seems a lot to ask. As the consensus has long held, impeachment is a political process, and many of the leaders of today’s Democratic Party long to hold power in a world without politics. 

Hey Joe, where you going with that bill in your hand?

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