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The GOP has spent more than a century demonizing Democrats

Last month National Public Radio listeners said they were shocked when former House Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay explained why he wouldn't talk to Democratic lobbyists: "Why would I meet with an enemy?" But in saying that anybody "who wanted to make me the minority whip" was not just a political opponent, an American with legitimate if differing interests, but rather an enemy to be shunned, DeLay wasn't speaking some strange, new, fanatical language, he was using the vocabulary Republicans have traditionally relied on to rally support.

The Republican Party began as a crusade against the enemy within, and it has never strayed far from its origins. The early Republicans deserve full marks for identifying and waging a war to expunge a real domestic threat to the United States--the institution of chattel slavery. Slaveholders really did constitute a mortal threat, not only to the United States, but to the cause of liberty generally, and Abraham Lincoln rightly identified the establishment of a racial caste of bonded labor as "one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove."

We less often remember that those mid-nineteenth-century Republicans found slavery only about as threatening as the possibility that marriage might occur among people other than just a man and a woman. The first Republican Party platform considered it the "imperative duty of Congress to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism--Polygamy, and Slavery."

This generous definition of enemies within became a staple of Republican rhetoric. "In all quarters ... this country is becoming honeycombed through and through by disintegrating forces," presidential candidate James Garfield said in 1880. He meant labor unions, debtors, and Francophiles who were "letting 'the red foulfury of the Seine' run riot among our people." His successor as Republican nominee in 1884, James G. Blaine, picked on the Mormons for their multiple marrying ways: They "must learn that the liberty of the individual ceases where the rights of society begin."

Americans could only keep their unruly fellow citizens in check if they elected Republicans, who easily identified their party with the nation. As Calvin Coolidge said in 1924, "We had better stick to the American government, the American brand of equality, and the American brand of wages. America had better stay American." Back in 1880, Garfield had put it well: "In a time like this, more than ever before, this country needs a body of law-givers clothed and in their right minds."

Republicans identifying threats to social order were not wrong. Anarchists, communists, socialists, and even plain old trade unionists could cause chaos. But the GOP depicted every eruption of unruliness as a menace equal to the Confederacy. Every time was "a time like this," in Garfield's phrase, requiring stern leaders to discipline their people.

The enemy within was eternal and everywhere because the enemy was within each of us. "The worst evil that could be inflicted upon the youth of this land would be to leave them without restraint and completely at the mercy of their own uncontrolled inclinations," Coolidge said. Republicans knew what evil lurked in the hearts of their fellow men because they fought it within themselves. "How lofty is the nature of Mr. Lincoln," Blaine wrote during the Civil War. "How he keeps himself free from the ordinary passions ... . He has gained control over others by constantly maintaining it over himself."

Politicians who persuade themselves they've controlled their worst impulses and thus entitled themselves to control yours, who identify the good of their party with the good of the country, who see every dissenter as an enemy, can justify breaking the law--or so nineteenth-century Blaine-watchers concluded. The astute political observer Henry Adams thinly fictionalized Blaine in his novel Democracy as Senator Silas Ratcliffe, and let him defend his shady behavior thus: "We believed ... that the result of that election would be almost as important to the nation as the result of the war itself. Our defeat meant that the government must pass into the blood-stained hands of rebels, men whose designs were more than doubtful." It was a sincere belief, and also politically useful: Rutherford B. Hayes, seeking to avoid charges of party corruption in 1876, told Garfield, "Our main issue must be It is not safe to allow the Rebellion to come into power."

However plausible it was to describe the Democratic Party of the nineteenth century as "the Rebellion," the charge lost credibility in the twentieth century as the Democrats abandoned white supremacy for civil rights. Democrats have sometimes borrowed the enemy within trope, but usually when pushed to distinguish liberalism from radicalism (as when Democratic administrations launched the Red Scares of the 1910s and 1940s). Normally, as the political scientist John Gerring documented in an analysis of partisan rhetoric since the early nineteenth century, Democrats have tended to worry more about tyranny than about disorder, while Republicans usually have sought to benefit more from fears of disorder. If you believe personal probity in politicians will prevent public disorder, you'll probably vote Republican--which is why invoking the enemy within can also really hurt Republicans when they get involved in manifest corruption, as in the case of DeLay (who resigned from Congress after being indicted for misuse of campaign funds) and his lobbyist friend Jack Abramoff.

Republicans still try to draw on their nineteenth-century capital, claiming every source of internal disorder is equivalent to the slave power, identifying party with country, and calling the Democrats treasonous aliens: In recent years, the president campaigned against the pro-slavery 1857 Dred Scott decision, DeLay said he could flout the law because "I am the federal government", and Grover Norquist described the New Deal as "very un-American." DeLay's demonization of the Democrats isn't a shock or a product of his move to the blogosphere--it's what Republican leaders really believe.

By Eric Rauchway