My family and I have been enjoying a brief post-Christmas holiday in Yosemite National Park. Yosemite was the first land — anywhere, at any time, in all of history — to be set aside by any government, protected against future exploitation and development, and designated for public use and enjoyment. The park was originally set aside 150 years ago by Abraham Lincoln and then expanded under Theodore Roosevelt.
It may strike some readers as odd that the National Park system would have been founded and then expanded under two Republican Presidents. Shouldn’t republicans have privatized the lands, delivering them up to the private marketplace?
Our wonder illustrates how far the Republican Party has diverged from its original founding principles; but also how poorly most of us appreciate those principles. From its very origins, republicanism stood for “the wealth we hold in common,” res publica. Thus its commitment to public institutions, public space, public programs that benefit all members of the public.
The Democratic Party, by contrast, historically was notorious for playing to the worst, private, base instincts of the nation. Remember, until Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democratic Party was the party of private property, including private human property, and hence the pro-slavery and pro-Confederate party.
Nothing, therefore, could be more natural than for the anti-slave Abraham Lincoln to also protect land for public use.
Today, by contrast, the Republican Party has become the anti-Republican Party; the party most opposed to public institutions, public property, and the public good. Did the Republicans have their will — just read Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom — all of this would long ago have been privatized.
And, now, with Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate; why not? Why not simply sell the Republic, thus bringing the irony full circle?