The Republican party stands at a crossroads. For the last four years, it has bowed to a president whose only agenda was himself. By sacrificing truth on the altar of political power, Republican leaders enabled the first assault on the U.S. Capitol in over 200 years and the worst pandemic since 1919 and ensuing recession. Now, having forfeited both truth and power, Republicans must decide if they will continue paying homage to a disgraced former president or build something better instead.
To meet this moment, the Republican party should learn from its storied past and unite to rebuild our ailing republic.
Two centuries ago, in a burst of patriotic fervor following the War of 1812 and destruction of the U.S. Capitol by British troops, a united Congress implemented the American System of national improvements. Led by Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky, the goal was to stimulate widespread economic growth while “uniting and binding together the distant parts of our common country [to secure] the cheapest and best system of commercial intercourse.” Federal investments in infrastructure, along with tariffs and a common currency, facilitated rapid private investment in industry and agriculture, creating a template for economic growth that would stand the test of time.
As founder of the National Republican Party, Clay’s vision to see “the face of the country improved, our people fully and profitably employed” would define succeeding Whig and Republican politicians for generations to come. In a landmark 1832 speech, Clay described himself as “a humble but zealous advocate, not of the interest of one state, or seven states only, but of the whole Union.” He wore his appellation “the Great Compromiser” with pride.
That same year, a young lawyer and Clay acolyte by the name of Abraham Lincoln launched his political career as a candidate for the Illinois State Legislature by calling for state-sponsored internal improvements, from railroads to waterways to public education. As the first Republican president of the United States in 1860–65, Lincoln not only ended chattel slavery and preserved the Union but also made historic investments in America’s long-term economic growth.
In 1862, as the Civil War raged outside Washington, the Republican-controlled Congress passed the Homestead Act to provide poor settlers with 160 acre plots of land for cultivation; the Morrill Act establishing land-grant colleges to advance public understanding of agriculture, science, and engineering; and the Pacific Railroad Act enabling the transcontinental railroad. Later, they ushered in Reconstruction, in which Black Americans were briefly granted economic and political rights as equal citizens of a rebuilding South. These initiatives were financed, in part, by the first federal income tax in American history, which Republicans deemed the fairest means of raising revenue.
The Republican dream of public investment for the public good did not end with Lincoln and Clay.
A century after the American System was first introduced and in response to the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic and resulting “Forgotten Depression” of 1920–21, America set out to build again. Under Republican leadership, Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921 and facilitated massive investments in energy and communications infrastructure to deliver electricity, telephone, and radio service to millions of homes and businesses. As a cabinet secretary to Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, my great-great-granddad John Weeks embraced the Republican vision of public investment, which he had previously employed as Congressman to establish the national forest system under the Weeks Act of 1911.
That vision would culminate after World War II when America elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower on a platform of national unity and economic growth. Topping the Republican president’s domestic policy agenda was a massive expansion of the Interstate Highway System to link every city over 50,000 people, which my great-granddad Sinclair Weeks oversaw as Secretary of Commerce. It was the largest public works project in our nation’s history, credited with creating over 7 million jobs and stimulating long-term economic growth as shipping and travel costs plummeted, tourism and hospitality boomed, and long-depressed southern states joined the national manufacturing economy.
That was then.
Now, Republican leaders must decide if they will continue their divisive and destructive path as the party of Donald Trump, or reclaim their righteous tradition of unity and reconstruction as the party of Eisenhower, Lincoln, and Clay. Now is their chance to repair the Republican party by investing in America again. They needn’t do so alone.
President Joe Biden has issued an ambitious Build Back Better plan that would mobilize manufacturing and innovation to ensure the future is made in America; modernize American infrastructure and create a clean energy future in the face of climate crisis; establish a 21st century caregiving and education workforce to ease the burdens on working parents, especially women; and advance racial equity by investing in Black, Latino, and Native American communities and making good on the promise of educational opportunity for all. All told, the plan would add millions of well-paying jobs and narrow America’s extreme inequality, which only grew wider during the pandemic.
For their part, Democrats who control Congress by the narrowest of margins should welcome Republicans of good faith into this bold endeavor without compromising their rebuilding plan, even as they hold the former president and his enablers accountable for their destructive acts which mar the Republican legacy.
Time and again, America has shown that the best way out of crisis is to build — not just for the economy but for our souls. It’s time for Republicans and Democrats to, in Lincoln’s words, “bind up the nation’s wounds … and do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
It’s time we make America build again.