Opinion: When Republicans Were The Progressive Party. What happened to their values?

By Kerry Kittel

December 6, 2023

Wisconsin resident reflects on the history and values of the Republican party.

The term “progressive” is perhaps the most frequent insult that modern Republicans use. They intend it as the vilest curse possible. Republicans are either forgetting or ignoring a rich history of progressivism within the party.

Their formation as an anti-slavery party and the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 stands as a monument to progressivism. Within about 15 years, that Republican Party had freed enslaved people, made them citizens, and given them voting rights.

Republicans elected progressive Teddy Roosevelt, who believed that all citizens deserved a “Square Deal.” Roosevelt was willing to regulate corporations that restrained trade, charged unfair prices, or mistreated workers. He forced arbitration during a coal strike that led to higher wages and a reduction in hours for miners.

Roosevelt created five National Parks and placed nearly 230 million acres under public protection. He also made America’s food and medicines safer, improved workplace safety, and helped end child labor.

In 1952 Republicans elected Dwight D. Eisenhower, who described himself as a “progressive conservative” or “progressive moderate.” His re-election platform in 1956 asserted that “our government was created by the people, for all of the people, and must serve no less of a purpose.” Republicans pledged to protect Social Security, provide federal asylum to refugees, extend the minimum wage, and expand unemployment.

Eisenhower’s second term saw the creation of the Interstate Highway System. Like President Joe Biden, Eisenhower understood the value of infrastructure improvements to our nation.

When Southern conservatives, driven by their extreme views on race, blocked nine African-American students from entering Little Rock’s Central High School, Eisenhower used federal troops to guarantee their entry and protect them during the 1957 school year. By taking bold action, he defended the Constitution and helped implement important Supreme Court decisions.

It is beyond dispute that none of these amazing leaders would be welcome in today’s Republican Party. Far from accepting the policies of each man, the MAGA crowd currently running the party would mock them as RINO’s and communists.

There is clear evidence that Republicans are moving further to the right every day. They have purged the party of nearly anyone who could be considered a moderate, especially in the House of Representatives. Mike Johnson, their eventual choice as Speaker, was the most radical of the nine options to replace Kevin McCarthy.

The debate over abortion shows us just how far to the right Republicans are moving. Roe v. Wade offered a compromise position that provided limits and rules relating to abortion. It protected a woman’s right to make decisions about her own health care while safeguarding doctors and other health care providers’ ability to do their jobs.

Most Republicans took the position that individual states should make rules regarding abortion. They maintained this position up to and for a very short time after Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization became the first Supreme Court decision to remove what had been a constitutional right. Then Republicans quickly abandoned letting individual states deal with abortion in favor of a variety of proposed national abortion bans.

A few weeks ago, 57 percent of the voters in Ohio amended their state constitution to protect abortion rights. Ohio’s Republican legislature is poised to ignore that vote, saying that “the Ohio Legislature alone” will decide this issue. They would allow 95 legislators to overrule more than a half-million voters.

The same thing is happening in Michigan and five other states where voters chose to protect access to abortion. Why have Republicans been so quick to abandon letting individual states decide? Because they no longer support letting voters decide anything unless it fits their radical agenda.

The Republican Party seems committed to re-nominate the only US president who refused to accept his defeat, and who would certainly do so again. After all of Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election were exposed,147 congressional Republicans still refused to certify the 2020 election results—even after the events of January 6th.

When it comes to elections, abortion, and many other issues, today’s Republican Party does not trust Americans to make decisions. A political party that once celebrated progressive changes and venerated the presidents who accomplished them is purposefully moving in the opposite direction. That is both tragic and very, very dangerous.


  • Kerry Kittel

    Kerry Kittel is a lifelong resident of Wisconsin. He has a Bachelor’s degree in social studies from UW Eau Claire, and a Master’s degree in history from UW River Falls. Kerry taught US history and civics in Amery and New Richmond for 32 years, and enjoyed substitute teaching in his retirement.


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