William Scranton (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The dinosaurs are nearly extinct. One of the last of the liberal Republican giants, William Warren Scranton of Pennsylvania, died this week at the age of 96. Let us not so much eulogize the man. Let us eulogize the species.
His aristocratic identity was announced by his name. William Warren Scranton: his ancestors founded the Pennsylvania town. William Warren Scranton: his mother was from the Warren family that sailed over on the Mayflower. From that Mayflower side, the liberal convictions came at the knee of his mother, who began picketing for women’s suffrage at the age of 16; she had her son gathering precinct returns by telephone at the age of 9, and the next year took him to the 1928 Republican convention. Why the Republican convention? Well, for one thing, the Democrats were the party of low-bred louts: people like Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi who would go on to write the segregationist masterpiece Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization. And the bosses who gathered the teeming urban immigrant masses into a block vote that tried to turn the Democratic Party “wet.” So there was snobbishness. But there were also liberal heroes in the Republican Party of the early twentieth century—people like Robert La Follette Sr., who, before he founded his own Progressive Party in 1924, invented the direct primary, installed the first workers’ compensation legislation and championed the vote for women. That was part of the Republican living tradition in which Bill Scranton was born and bred to.
Another liberal tributary came from his father’s side: the biblical notion that to those whom much is given, much is expected. Taking care of people: dismiss it as noblesse oblige if you want, but at least rich people back then felt the obligation. Done right, it very well can become the seedbed of progressive change. As I wrote in Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus,
“A Pennsylvania squire who said that the free market brought only blessings would be run out of town on a rail. Scranton, the city, had been the anthracite coal capital of the world before the market for the fuel collapsed in mid-century, the nation’s industrial center began sliding southwest, and radical new automation technology began sluicing off some 40,000 industrial jobs a month nationwide. In Pennsylvania, unemployment was 50 percent above the national average and fifty-six of fifty-seven counties were federally designed as depressed areas; in the same years that Phoenix grew from 50,000 residents to 500,000, Scranton shrunk. It was a quiet, underlying dread in the 1960s that these economic forces, as Rhode Island’s liberal Republican governor John Chafee”—dad of Lincoln, who of course ran screaming from a Republican Party that no longer had a place for the likes of him in it—“put it, would ‘dump the unskilled and semi-skilled worker into the human slag heap.’”