America the Obstructed

Timothy Egan on Lincoln:

Now think of the legacy on this anniversary of the American passion play. Think of free land for the landless, the transcontinental railroad, the seeding of what would grow into national parks, the granting of human rights to people who had none. …

… But beyond: Could the Republicans who control Congress in 2015, the party of no, ever pass a Homestead Act? That law, which went into effect the very day, Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln’s wartime executive order to free slaves in the breakaway states did, carries a clause that very few Republicans would support now.

Former slaves, “famine Irish,” Russian Jews, single women, Mexicans who didn’t speak a word of English — all qualified to claim 160 acres as their own. You didn’t have to be a citizen to get your quarter-square-mile. You just had to intend to become a citizen.

In that sense, the Homestead Act was the Dream Act of today. It had a path to citizenship and prosperity for those in this country who were neither citizens nor prosperous.

Consider the vision to stitch a railroad from east to west, an enormous tangle of infrastructure. In 1862, Lincoln signed legislation spurring construction of the transcontinental railroad. That same year, he approved a bill that led to the creation of land grant colleges.

And so on. He also signed a bill that allowed California to protect the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoias from being developed by private enterprise. President Ulysses S. Grant would later make Yosemite Yellowstone the first National Park in the history of the world.

All these things were essential to building the United States into the economoic powerhouse it would become in the 20th century. And Egan’s point is that today’s Republican Party would have just obstructed all of it.

Today, Congress will not even approve enough money to keep decrepit bridges from falling down, and has whittled away funds to help working kids stay in college. It’s laughable to think of Republicans’ approving of something visionary and forward-looking in the realm of transportation, energy or education. Government, in their minds, can never be a force for good.

And then there’s this:

The great, nation-shaping accomplishments of Lincoln’s day happened only because the South, always with an eye on protecting slavery and an estate-owning aristocracy, had left the union — ridding Congress of the naysayers.

There’s a lot of truth in that. The 19th century Democratic Party was anti-progressive. They not only favored slavery and later Jim Crow laws; they were also opposed to the role the federal government played in getting the railroads built. A lot of them reflexively opposed spending tax money on infrastructure projects, I have read.

The parties switched positions in the 20th century, so now the Dems are the progressives and the Republicans are the obstructionists. The point, though is that in the 19th century for a time the nation was able to invest in itself, and it became more prosperous thereby. Today’s Republicans like to warble about exceptionalism, but their policies are rendering the U.S. nothing but an exceptionally crappy place to live.