March 17, 2007

Back a year or two ago when Karl Rove still seemed to be an all-powerful mastermind, one trope that turned up a few times on the political right was a comparison between the Bush-Rove partnership and that of William McKinley and Mark Hanna, whose ability to appeal to the ordinary voter set the stage for decades of Republican dominance.

However, the one thing McKinley and Hanna did not do was pander to Evangelical Protestants. If anything they ran in the opposite direction.

One thing to clarify: it wasn’t so much a “religious right” in those days. Evangelical fervor outside the South was Abolitionist as much as Prohibitionist. It was sympathetic to women’s and workingmen’s concerns. But it was Prohibitionist, pro-Blue-law, – and also tended to be anti-urban, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic. It was a very close question in the 1850’s whether the new opposition party to replace the Whigs would be anti-slavery or Know-Nothing; outside the South, both movements appealed largely to the same rural and small-town Protestant electorate. When the anti-slavery Republicans triumphed, both in the elections and in the Civil War, the evangelicals stayed largely loyal to the party, using it as a vehicle for all their causes, progressive and priggish alike.

Until the 1890s.

By that time, throughout the Midwest – this is based on two books that came out about the same time around 1970, Paul Kleppner’s The Cross of Culture and Richard Jensen’s Winning of the Midwest – the Republican party was divided between leaders like McKinley and Hanna, who realized that they needed to appeal to the growing urban and Catholic populations, and leaders like Foraker and LaFollette who wanted instead to intensify their appeal to their traditional rural Protestant Prohibitionists.

After several years of complex interplay involving third parties like the Populists mostly appealing to hardline Protestant sentiment, and an economic crisis that happened on Grover Cleveland’s watch and so was blamed on the Democrats, evangelical Protestants under William Jennings Bryan took over the Democratic party, and McKinley and Hanna said in effect “Great, let the Democrats have them!” The Republicans built their new majority by focusing on economic recovery and largely abandoning Puritanism.


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