Given the frenetic and bloody start this new year has taken with the Charlie Hebdo killings, the Boko Haram massacre of thousands of innocent civilians in northeastern Nigeria and the row over the murders of two NYPD officers, even the most well-informed among us would be forgiven if they hadn’t kept an eagle’s eye on the obits to look for national figures who died of more or less natural causes. After all, during a time when new, unspeakable acts of wanton violence seem to crop up on a daily basis, the last thing many of us want to do is spend our free time scanning the headlines for more death. Unavoidably, and perhaps appropriately, the bulk of the eulogizing in the media this year has been devoted to former New York governor Mario Cuomo, who passed away on New Years Day and whose death has engendered enough public reverence and remembrance to make it onto the radars of a large cross-section of Americans. However, just 2 days after Cuomo’s death, another American politician of arguably equal importance passed away to a much more muted public reaction.
Unless you’re a political junkie or an AARP-eligible New Englander, the name Edward W. Brooke likely doesn’t mean anything to you. Unfortunately, time has not been kind to Mr. Brooke’s legacy and his utility to the lives of most Americans these days has been reduced to that of being the answer to the trivia question, who was the first African-American elected to the US Senate after Reconstruction? In point of fact Brooke, who died earlier this month at the age of 95, was a trailblazer in the truest sense of the word and without his contributions to American politics the careers of men like Barack Obama and Cory Booker may have looked considerably different. Brooke, who was educated at Howard University and Boston University Law School, became the first black Attorney General of a state in American history in 1962 and would go on to serve 3 terms in the Senate between 1967 and 1979—accomplishments which are impressive in and of themselves, but are doubly so when you consider the fact that when he was first elected Attorney General only 2 percent of Massachusetts voters were black. Oh yeah, and it also bears mention that Edward W. Brooke was a card-carrying member of the Republican Party.
Brooke may have been the first black man to serve in the Senate since Reconstruction, but of almost equal importance is the fact that, with his death, he may have proved to be the last vestige of the Republican moderation that had been the party’s calling card for far longer than the uber-conservative claptrap they peddle today. Abraham Lincoln…Teddy Roosevelt…Robert LaFollete…Dwight Eisenhower…all of these giants of history were Republicans at one point or another. It is only in the last 35 years (and particularly the last 15) that the GOP has become a bloated parody of a political party that values blind loyalty to the rich and negative governance above all else. As hard as it may be to fathom in 2015, there was a time not all too long ago in this country when political parties where not ideology-driven vehicles and the fact that a black man like Edward Brooke could be elected on a Republican ticket in an overwhelming white, Catholic, Democratic state like Massachusetts is proof positive of this.
This is not to say that I’m a huge fan of all of Brooke’s policy positions or that I would vote for him in a contemporary election. Most notably, Brooke was not very strong on civil rights issues, ruling as illegal the NAACP-sponsored boycott of segregated Boston schools while he was Attorney General and generally distancing himself from and disapproving of the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement itself. However, Brooke was instrumental in the passage of The Fair Housing Act of 1968, which he co-sponsored with Senator Walter Mondale (D-MN) and which barred housing discrimination based on race, religion, color or ethnicity. Brooke may have believed in small government and the superiority of private enterprise to federal programs, but he also realized—as many of his moderate Republican colleagues did—that a good number of New Deal and Great Society programs were unequivocally beneficial to society and that it was his job to reform them, not remove them.
I bring up Senator Brooke because of his recent passing, but also because we have just embarked on what will certainly be the most conservative Congress in modern American history and probably its least productive. In the more than half century since Brooke was first elected to public office, the Democratic Party has, paradoxically, cemented its reputation as the “liberal” party in American politics, while simultaneously moving further and further to the center, embracing “third way” policies which have begun to divide the party into conservative and progressive wings. Meanwhile, the GOP has taken the Goldwater Revolution to its absolute extreme, eschewing pretty much everything their party once stood for in an attempt to placate Big Business and the Christian Right. For all of its faults and for all of the disappointment it has brought me as a progressive voter in my lifetime, I can at the very least say that the modern Democratic Party is somewhat rational and open to debate and discussion. On the other hand, the modern Republican Party has abandoned anything approaching reason or good governance in their never-ending quest to declare themselves the true believers of a conservative movement that has become so predatory and ideologically rigid that it would make Joe McCarthy blush.
Over the coming weeks, I will be writing a series of articles about the history of moderate Republicanism and about its import in 21st Century American politics. Barring the creation of a viable third party—be it conservative or liberal—I truly believe that our nation will self-destruct. I don’t know what that self-destruction would look like, but I’m fairly confident it would happen because a bipartisan government cannot survive if the only demonstrable political strategy of one half of it is to sabotage the other half. And, as you look the articles that I’ll be posting in the coming weeks, I would implore all my diehard Democrat readers to consider how the rebirth of moderate Republicanism would benefit the Democratic Party as much as it would the GOP. It may feel cathartic for progressives to root for the explosive demise of the Republican Party, but if the far right has taught us anything these past few years, it is that they are totally comfortable with bringing the whole ship with them if they know they’re going to go down. Republicans like Edward W. Brooke made their livings by working across the aisle and promoting compromise. The Republicans we have now make their living by lighting the aisle on fire and trying to push their less conservative peers into the flames.