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How That Confederate Flag at the White House Got There

The intellectual romance of the new right and the old south


The appearance of a Confederate Flag at a Tea Party rally at the White House drew appropriately sharp responses online today—not to mention a schizophrenic array of defenses: To some online rightists, the rebel flag was a liberal plant; to others, critics who said there was something troubling about Confederate imagery at a protest against a black president were the real racists, since the flag was about heritage and not racism.

In fact, a flag waved in tribute to the history of the Old South would be very appropriate at the molten core of today's Tea Party right. In February, Sam Tanenhaus plumbed the 19th century Southern roots of the 21st century GOP for an essay about the Republicans' emergence as "the party of white people."

The true problem, as yet unaddressed by any Republican standard-bearer, originates in the ideology of modern conservatism. When the intellectual authors of the modern right created its doctrines in the 1950s, they drew on nineteenth-century political thought, borrowing explicitly from the great apologists for slavery, above all, the intellectually fierce South Carolinian John C. Calhoun. This is not to say conservatives today share Calhoun's ideas about race. It is to say instead that the Calhoun revival, based on his complex theories of constitutional democracy, became the justification for conservative politicians to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.

This is the politics of nullification, the doctrine, nearly as old as the republic itself, which holds that the states, singly or in concert, can defy federal actions by declaring them invalid or simply ignoring them. We hear the echoes of nullification in the venting of anti-government passions and also in campaigns to "starve government," curtail voter registration, repeal legislation, delegitimize presidents. There is a strong sectionalist bias in these efforts. They flourish in just the places Kevin Phillips identified as Republican strongholds—Plains, Mountain, but mainly Southern states, where change invites suspicion, especially when it seems invasive, and government is seen as an intrusive force. Yet those same resisters—most glaringly, Tea Partiers—cherish the entitlements and benefits provided by "Big Government." Their objections come when outsider groups ask for consideration, too. Even recent immigrants to this country sense the "hidden hand" of Calhoun's style of dissent, the extended lineage of rearguard politics, with its aggrieved call, heard so often today, "to take back America"—that is, to take America back to the "better" place it used to be. Today's conservatives have fully embraced this tradition, enshrining it as their own "Lost cause," redolent with the moral consolations of noble defeat. 

Tanenhaus writes that some Republicans were at the forefront of civil rights in the 1950s. But the ones who helped create the modern right embraced a different tradition—quite intentionally:

The movement had a voice, however strident. What it lacked was an organizing principle. In America, there was just one place where rigorously conservative theory could be found: the South. In the antebellum period, it had yielded a surprisingly rich and rigorous school of political argument.

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. He led the protest against the protective"Tariff of Abominations," which favored the industrial North over the agrarian South. Later, when the states divided bitterly over the issue of expanding slavery into the new western territories, he helped spur the conflict that led to the Civil War. 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. At the time of the constitutional convention, the total population of the Union, as reported by the most recent census, was just under 3.5 million; yet, Calhoun pointed out, the four smallest states, "with a population of only 241,490, something more than the fourteenth part of the whole, could have defeated the ratification." In other words, "numerical" or "absolute majorities" were severely limited in the actions they could take—or impose on others—especially on questions that put sectional interests at odds with the "General Government." One of Calhoun's classic arguments, the Fort Hill Address (1831)—written at and named for his home—defended South Carolina's "Ordinance of Nullification" of the tariff on the principle that the Union was a confederation of equally sovereign states, each in effect its own nation, its autonomy codified in the Tenth Amendment. And since the Constitution was itself "a compact, to which each state is a party . . . the several States, or parties, have a right to judge of its infractions" and to exercise it through the "right of interposition" (a term he got from James Madison). "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.

And as the late-century era of conservative ascendancy waned, the old Southern ideology grew more prominent

"American politics," Wills wrote in 1975, "is the South's revenge for the Civil War." He was referring to the rise of Southern and Sunbelt figures—the later ones would include Jimmy Carter, Reagan, Bill Clinton, and the two Bushes—whose dominance of presidential politics ended only with Obama's election in 2008. However, the two parties dealt with race differently. Carter and Clinton had pro–civil rights histories and directly courted black voters. 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. All this, moreover, seemed to reflect, or at least parallel, extremism in the wider culture often saturated in racism: Let's not forget Minutemen and Aryan Nation militias, nor the "anti-government" terrorist Timothy McVeigh, whom the FBI linked to white supremacists. The war on government—and against agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives—had become a metaphor for the broader "culture wars," one reason that the GOP's dwindling base is now at odds with the "absolute majority" on issues like gun control and same-sex marriage.

Reformers in the GOP insist that this course can be reversed with more intensive outreach efforts, better recruitment of minority candidates, and an immigration compromise. And a new cast of GOP leaders—Ted Cruz, Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio—have become national favorites. But each remains tethered to movement ideology. At the recentNational ReviewInstitute conference in Washington, Cruz evenurged a "partial government shutdown," recalling the glory years of the '90s, but downplaying its destructive outcome.

Denial has always been the basis of a nullifying politics. Calhoun, too, knew he was on the losing side. The arithmetic he studied most closely was the growing tally of new free territories. Eventually, they would become states, and there would be sufficient "absolute" numbers in Congress to abolish slavery. A century later, history pushed forward again. Nonetheless, conservatives, giving birth to their movement, chose to ignore these realities and to side with "the South."

Read the whole thing here.

Image via Shuttrstock.