The Rockefellers get such a bum wrap among conservatives these days. But if you are as excited as I am by David Brat’s historic defeat over Eric Cantor, maybe it is time to dig up the bones of those old GOP centrists.
The Rockefeller Republicans were a coalition of Northeast “moderates” who contended with Barry Goldwater’s Southern and Mid-Western “conservatives” for control of the Republican Party leading up to the 1980s. They are named after Nelson Rockefeller, who served as Gerald Ford’s Vice President from 1974-1977, but their most important member is probably Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., who was Ambassador to South Vietnam during the war and ran as Nixon’s vice president during the unsuccessful 1960 bid. Mr. Nixon himself has been called a Rockefeller Republican too, which is worth considering.
So what were the Rockefellers all about—or, more importantly, what made them the moderates rather than the conservatives? We know that neither camp was going to score a 100% on the social conservative scale: for right or wrong, Mr. Goldwater’s camp were early Republican supporters of gay rights, and Mr. Rockefeller’s were known to entertain pro-choice ideas. The Rockefellers were pro-civil rights, where the Goldwaters were more inclined to let individual states chose their own policies. (Conservative or not, I come down with the Rockefellers.)
The real line in the sand is what has become the division between the Old Right and the New Right: free-market economics. The Rockefeller Republicans were scions of old New England merchant families. They were descended from ship-builders, railroad tycoons—you name it, they had a big hand in what we could call “the industries that built America.” And they were keenly interested in keeping jobs inside America. Yes, they were known to indulge in a bit of isolationism—at least before Vietnam—but not out of any cowardice. The Rockefellers knew that there was work to be done inside this country, and were not interested in gallivanting overseas looking for someone else’s problems to fix.
The Rockefellers were also the heirs to the Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft legacy of trust-busting Republicans. They were probably the last Republicans to be thoroughly concerned with the working-class. It is a perfect example of the noblesse oblige effect: Having inherited an incredible amount of political and economic privilege, the New England aristocracy took great pains to use that power for the benefit of those less fortunate, going so far as to count themselves among the earliest “establishment” (Democrat or Republican) supporters of trade unions. But this was not the welfare state—on the contrary, the Rockefellers were interested in making sure American industry could compete with foreign markets and that American workers were safe in their own country. It was not about hand-outs; it was about striking the balance between being business-friendly and worker-friendly.
Does this sound like David Brat? His explicit opposition to crony capitalism is how he earned his landmark victory. And that is a good start. If he is a Rockefeller Republican—allowing for principles to be adapted to contemporary needs—we can expect him to be the first in a new wave of Republicans looking to turn back big business in favor of the average working American. We can expect a refreshing break from class warfare rhetoric, bridging the gap between Romney’s 53%ers and Occupy’s 99%ers. We can expect a government that really understands that, as G.K. Chesterton said, “the problem with capitalism is not too many capitalists, but not enough capitalists.” The American people are seeing a Republican Party that wants Americans to be dependent on big business, and a Democratic Party that wants Americans to be dependent on big government. Whoever gets to the middle first is going to the White House in 2016. Whoever moves toward sustainable, bottom-up industry and agriculture is going to win America’s hearts and minds. And if it is the Republicans—that is, if they are rediscovering their roots in humane liberalism—authentic conservatism might yet have a place in the Grand Old Party.
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