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The Republicans I grew up with – revisited

by Jim Elliott
| March 14, 2024 12:00 AM

I wrote the following article nine years ago, on Feb. 23, 2015. Some of the terminology is outdated, but the thoughts are not.

My father and his brother, younger by 20 years, were both ardent Republicans. They came from rural poverty, worked hard, and became successful, each in his own fashion. Along the way, they got an education in public schools, went to taxpayer-supported land grant colleges and worked for the privilege of an education.

In the summer, after the farm work at home was done, my father borrowed his father’s team and did custom field work for neighbors. Summers, my uncle muscled 300-pound blocks of ice to cool railroad refrigerator cars. They knew the value of hard work, the value of a dollar, and the value of having a government that recognized that its ultimate purpose was to provide the tools so that people could get ahead.

They each hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt to their dying day and blamed him for whatever evils, real or imagined, that the country suffered. They were conservative, and in the 1952 Primary preferred Taft to Eisenhower, who they felt was too liberal. They dismissed the John Birch Society as far too radical.

But more than anything else they believed in America and knew that they couldn’t have gotten where they did without a government-provided educational system, so they bought school bonds, and paid for college educations for young men and women who couldn’t pay their own way.

They also knew that they were protected from unscrupulous business practices of their competitors by government agencies. They believed that their employees were their businesses’ most valuable asset so they paid them well and treated them with respect.

After a successful career, my uncle devoted his life to public service, pounding nails for Habitat for Humanity, founding homes for unwed mothers, and serving on the South Carolina Parole Board.

He believed in people. “Everyone deserves a second chance in life,” he would say, “and sometimes even a third or fourth.”

Those were the Republicans I grew up with.

I’m telling you this so you will understand what I mean when I say I am grateful for both the common sense and the sense of obligation to the public that is exhibited by those elected officials who used to be called simply Republicans, but now are forced to qualify that by calling themselves Responsible Republicans to differentiate themselves from angry, unproductive politicians who have assumed the cloak of a party that would not have recognized them 10 years ago.

No past Republican President could pass muster with the ideologues of the far right; not Eisenhower (Interstate Highway System), not Nixon (Environmental Protection Agency), not Reagan (simplified, but raised taxes), nor either of the Bushes (raised taxes, Wall Street bailout – both to avoid financial disaster), and certainly not Teddy Roosevelt.

The difference is not merely one of ideology. It is the difference between understanding the purpose of government and trying to improve it versus hating government and wanting to destroy it. It is the difference between believing that compromise in times of crisis is better than complete failure and believing that not compromising is more important than anything, even if it brings the government to its knees. It is the difference between taking pride in getting something done and taking pride in seeing that nothing gets done.

The radical right accuses mainstream Republicans of moving to the left. They haven’t. If politics were like baseball we would see that the playing field has changed. This doesn’t mean that the Responsible Republicans have moved over to play left field, or even center field. It means that the right field foul line has been moved so far to the right that it’s in the parking lot, but they’re still inside the stadium.

Much to the dismay of my family, I became a Democrat. I am proud of that, but I am prouder, still, of those Republican legislators – many of them my friends – who have stood fast for their principles rather than abandon them to avoid conflict and political retaliation.

It takes courage to do that; I know, because I often was in their position and bucked party leaders, just in a different party.

Montana Viewpoint has appeared in weekly and online newspapers across Montana for over 25 years. Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.