Sunday, February 10, 2013

Tanenhaus: GOP is the party of Calhoun

Sam Tanenhaus traces modern Republican ideology and tactics to John C. Calhoun of South Carolina in The New Republic.

The most brilliant figure in this "reactionary enlightenment" was John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina political giant. Vice president under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, he became the great philosophical defender of the South...Calhoun, "the Great Nullifier," was "Lincoln's deepest and most intransigent opponent," John Burt writes in his new book, Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism, "and it was with Calhoun that the issue was joined whether the United States is to be a liberal society, offering civil rights and possibly even political rights to all persons by virtue of their being human, or a merely republican society, offering procedural equality only to a handful of elite players."

Calhoun's innovation was to develop a radical theory of minority-interest democracy based on his mastery of the Constitution's quirky arithmetic, which often subordinated the will of the many to the settled prejudices of the few..."Be it called what it may—State-right, veto, nullification, or by any other name [it is] the fundamental principle of our system. ... [O]n its recognition depend the stability and safety of our political institutions." In sum, each state was free to override the federal government, because local and sectional imperatives outweighed national ones.

Tanenhaus notes echoes of Calhoun's 19th century beliefs in today's Republican party.

But as the GOP continued remolding itself into a Southern party—led in the '90s by the Georgian Newt Gingrich and by the Texans Dick Armey and Tom DeLay—it resorted to an overtly nullifying politics: The rise of the Senate veto as a routine obstructionist tool, Jesse Helms's warning that Clinton "better have a bodyguard" if he ever traveled to North Carolina, the first protracted clashes over the debt ceiling, Gingrich's threat to withhold disaster relief, the government shutdown, Clinton's impeachment despite public disapproval of the trial.

This remains the perspective of the American right, only today the minority of "concurrent voices" speak in the bitter tones of denial, as modernization and egalitarianism go forward. In retreat, the nullifying spirit has been revived as a form of governance—or, more accurately, anti-governance. Its stronghold is the Tea Party–inflected House of Representatives, whose nullifiers would plunge us all over the "fiscal cliff." We see it too in continuing challenges to "Obamacare," even after it was validated by the Roberts Court. And we see it as well in Senator Rand Paul's promise to "nullify anything the president does" to impose new gun controls. Each is presented not as a practical attempt to find a better answer, but as a "Constitutional" demand for restoration of the nation to its hallowed prior self. It is not a coincidence that the resurgence of nullification is happening while our first African American president is in office.

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