By Jordan Jardine
In a 2017 debate with one of today’s most prominent libertarians, Stefan Molyneux, linguist and political scholar Noam Chomsky (an icon of the libertarian left) stated that the early Republican Party of the mid-19th century – specifically in the 1870’s – was opposed to wage labor and saw it as a form of “chattel slavery” because it took away the individual autonomy of workers and their own labor. As an interesting tangent, the website Fight Slavery Now defines chattel slavery as: “…what most people have in mind when they think of the kind of slavery that existed in the United States before the Civil War…” which means that the Republican Party equated wage labor with the kind of slavery they had just outlawed in the United States. As it turns out, Chomsky is correct.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, a faction of the Republican party originated from the Free-Soil Party, whose slogan read, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, Free Men.” The Free-Soilers integrated into the Republican Party after the Free-Soil Party dissolved in 1854. In 160 years, the GOP has gone from arguing against wage labor except as a temporary means of employment, to nominating and electing a president, Donald Trump, who said during a November 2015 debate that wages are “too high” in America (according to the New York Times). To be fair to the president, he is not the only prominent Republican to make this argument. According to Politico, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky claimed that raising the minimum wage would have a negative impact on minority communities and the community at large. The American Economic Association has found Paul’s statement to be false, as The Nation reported in 2014. So, a century and a half after its founding, the Republicans seem to have changed who they are loyal to. Now the party appears to have no problem with wage labor, and some high-ranking Republicans do not even support improved wage standards for workers.The party used to support workers, but they now support corporations and the ultra-wealthy. To be fair, speaking from the perspective of an ex-Democrat, the ostensibly “left wing” party is not much better on the issue of wages or standing up for the working class.
The one similarity between the current Trump administration and the Republican Party of old is their protectionist policies. While it is part of current Republican orthodoxy to advocate for virtually unrestricted free trade (again, the Democrats aren’t much better on this issue), Republicans from the Progressive Era such as then-Ohio Representative William McKinley (later the 25th President of the United States) proposed the McKinley Tariff of 1890, which, according to author Joanne Reitano, raised the tax on imported goods by 50% in an effort to shield the US from economic competition from abroad and to protect American factory jobs. During his tenure as President, McKinley approved the Dingley Act of 1897, which further increased tariffs after they had been briefly lowered under the Cleveland administration. Theodore Roosevelt standardized the eight-hour work day and the restriction of child labor as part of his so-called “Square Deal.” According to the BBC, William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s successor, opined in a 1910 New York Times article that every American worker should be entitled to two or three months of vacation time by law, a policy idea which not even the Democrats dare to entertain.
The changes in the Republican Party on the issue of the working class from its inception to today are nothing short of striking. Of course, today’s Republicans, whether part of the establishment, neoconservatives or libertarian-leaning Republicans, pay lip service to the idea of supporting working men and women, but they rarely back that rhetoric up with helpful policies. President Trump is a prime example of this in many ways. On the campaign trail, he repeatedly attacked American corporations for outsourcing jobs to other countries such as China and Mexico, but he himself outsourced over 93,000 jobs in his first year in office alone, according to a report from the United States Department of Labor. The kabuki theatrics of the Republican Party in regard to their “support” for workers has grown incredibly stale in recent years and needs to stop or be refuted by politicians from either party who actually care about the working class, though this task is akin to finding linebackers in football who can simultaneously serve as starting quarterbacks. A final piece of evidence that President Trump’s populist rhetoric has largely been just that, is his recent tax cuts. According to Politifact, Trump’s tax bill, passed in late 2017, provides permanent tax cuts for high-income earners and corporations. Though many middle class workers will see tax cuts until 2027, as much as 30% of them will see their taxes go up, not down. The Republicans used to be the party of American workers on paper and in practice, but now the GOP only supports workers only through empty rhetoric and platitudes.
The GOP used to oppose wage labor, but it now opposes wage standards. The Republicans, by and large, are not in favor of higher wages for workers. In fact, the conservative YouTube channel PragerU argued in one of their videos, “What’s the Right Minimum Wage?” that America should eliminate the minimum wage altogether. The GOP used to support some protectionist policies, but now oftentimes promotes unrestricted (or at least loosely restricted) free trade. Oh, how times have changed. If the Republicans really care about American workers, they should return to these Progressive-Era policies and not just talk a big game. What was once a progressive and nearly anarcho-syndicalist party is now a party whose sole function is to serve high-income earners and corporations, while duping over a desperate working class into voting for the very politicians (in both parties) and policies that led to said workers being left for dead in the first place. Americans need a party that actually stands up for workers, not one that only pretends to do so.