HISTORY FEBRUARY 10, 2013
With Barack Obama sworn in for a second term—the first president in either party since Ronald Reagan to be elected twice with popular majorities—the GOP is in jeopardy, the gravest since 1964, of ceasing to be a national party. The civil rights pageantry of the inauguration—Abraham Lincoln's Bible and Martin Luther King's, Justice Sonia Sotomayor's swearing in of Joe Biden, Beyoncé's slinky glamor, the verses read by the gay Cuban poet Richard Blanco—seemed not just an assertion of Democratic solidarity, but also a reminder of the GOP's ever-narrowing identity and of how long it has been in the making.
"Who needs Manhattan when we can get the electoral votes of eleven Southern states?" Kevin Phillips, the prophet of "the emerging Republican majority," asked in 1968, when he was piecing together Richard Nixon's electoral map. The eleven states, he meant, of the Old Confederacy. "Put those together with the Farm Belt and the Rocky Mountains, and we don't need the big cities. We don't even want them. Sure, Hubert [Humphrey] will carry Riverside Drive in November. La-de-dah. What will he do in Oklahoma?"
Forty-five years later, the GOP safely has Oklahoma, and Dixie, too. But Phillips's Sunbelt strategy was built for a different time, and a different America. Many have noted Mitt Romney's failure to collect a single vote in 91 precincts in New York City and 59 precincts in Philadelphia. More telling is his defeat in eleven more of the nation's 15 largest cities. Not just Chicago and Columbus, but also Indianapolis, San Diego, Houston, even Dallas—this last a reason the GOP fears that, within a generation Texas will become a swing state. Remove Texas from the vast, lightly populated Republican expanse west of the Mississippi, and the remaining 13 states yield fewer electoral votes than the West Coast triad of California, Oregon, and Washington. If those trends continue, the GOP could find itself unable to count on a single state that has as many as 20 electoral votes.
It won't do to blame it all on Romney. No doubt he was a weak candidate, but he was the best the party could muster, as the GOP's leaders insisted till the end, many of them convinced he would win, possibly in a landslide. Neither can Romney be blamed for the party's whiter-shade-of-pale legislative Rotary Club: the four Republicans among the record 20 women in the Senate, the absence of Republicans among the 42 African Americans in the House (and the GOP's absence as well among the six new members who are openly gay or lesbian). These are remarkable totals in a two-party system, and they reflect not only a failure of strategy or "outreach," but also a history of long-standing indifference, at times outright hostility, to the nation's diverse constituencies—blacks, women, Latinos, Asians, gays.
But that history, with its repeated instances of racialist political strategy dating back many decades, only partially accounts for the party's electoral woes. 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.
In the 1950s, when the civil rights movement began, Republicans helped lead it. The president during this period, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was skeptical about intervening on behalf of black equality and, in his first campaign, courted segregationist officials like James F. Byrnes and Harry F. Byrd. But Eisenhower also "advocated the end of segregation in the armed forces and the District of Columbia and urged the lifting of black voter restrictions," Robert Fredrick Burk writes in The Eisenhower Administration and Black Civil Rights. It was Eisenhower, too, who appointed another Republican, his vanquished rival Earl Warren, to the Supreme Court, resulting in the Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed legalized segregation—a bolder step than many in either party were ready for when it came in 1954.
Yet the Eisenhower campaign also saw potential advantages in Brown—and a possible route, through the nation's cities, to recapturing the House, which they had lost in 1954. "GOP strategists regard this election as a period of maximum opportunity in their dream of shattering the Roosevelt coalition and regaining the allegiance of the Negroes," James Reston wrote in The New York Times. In 1956, the GOP improved its totals in black precincts by double digits in New York and Chicago, and made gains below the Mason-Dixon Line. Overall, Eisenhower received between 35 and 40 percent of the black vote, about 5 percentage points more than he did in 1952.
In late 1955, the Eisenhower administration began drafting a civil rights bill, with voting rights at its core. Its passage through Congress took almost two years, with intense debate on a provision authorizing federal judges to enforce voter rights from the bench, instead of leaving each case up to local (often all-white) juries. It was killed by Southern Democrats, who formed an alliance that included Senator John F. Kennedy, an avowed liberal eager to appease the Dixie senators who denied him the vice presidential nomination in 1956 and might thwart his presidential plans for 1960. The weakened bill that passed, in September 1957, established the federal Civil Rights Commission and added a Civil Rights Division to the Justice Department—far short of what many hoped for, yet "incomparably the most significant domestic action of any Congress in this century," according to The New York Timeseditorial page. Not one Republican senator voted against it. All 18 No's came from Democrats. "White southerners viewed the bill as Republican legislation," Joseph Crespino writes in his recent book, Strom Thurmond's America.
The GOP is in jeopardy, the gravest since 1964, of ceasing to be a national party.
Then, within weeks, an authentic crisis arose. Arkansas's governor, Orval Faubus, defied a federal court order to desegregate Little Rock's Central High School, bringing in the National Guard to surround the school and block a group of black pupils from entering, while a shrieking mob threatened violence. Unable to compromise with Faubus, Eisenhower federalized the Guardsmen and also sent in 1,000 paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division. For the first time since Reconstruction, U.S. government troops, armed with bayonets, "occupied" a state in the old Confederacy.
A Republican president and his party now stood at the forefront of civil rights in America. Yet within a few years, this advantage would be lost and the party would be defined thereafter by its resistance to civil rights. Why did this happen? The reason was a historical coincidence: Just as the civil rights movement became a national concern, movement conservatism was being born.
A cherished myth today, at least on the right, is that National Review (NR)arrived at a moment of widespread hostility toward conservatism. In fact, the opposite was true. Two brutally disruptive decades, the 1930s and 1940s, a time of extremist ideology and world war, had given way to the infant nuclear age and with it a universal longing for a politics of consolidation and stability. "In the thirties it was socialism that many American intellectuals adopted as their paper money. ... [I]n the fifties it seems that notes on conservatism are being printed in inflationary quantities," the British political theorist Bernard Crick wrote in July 1955. The "notes" included ambitious books by the "New Conservatives" Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck, and Clinton Rossiter, as well as important work by Leo Strauss (on "natural right") and the French conservative Bertrand de Jouvenel (on "power"). For most of these writers, conservatism was more a matter of disposition—a belief in order, tradition, the revival of humanist values—than of developing or sharpening a political program.
Some of the right's heroes supported civil rights—for instance, William Knowland, the Senate minority leader who had marshaled the GOP votes for the 1957 bill. NR's favorite politician, Knowland wrote the lead article—an attack on the Geneva summits—in its first issue, published in November 1955. And NReditors diligently promoted him for the presidency. For Knowland, beingboth anti-communist and pro–civil rights made sense, part of the "hearts and minds" campaign the United States was waging in the Third World. Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had both warned that Little Rock would feed Soviet propaganda mills.
But the intellectuals at NR interpreted all this differently. William F. Buckley Jr. had strong libertarian leanings, as did many of his colleagues. Some had come to NRby way of its predecessor The Freeman, "a fortnightly for individualists." This seemed fertile ground for making the case that Southern blacks were being denied the rudimentary means for self-advancement owing to a state-contrived caste system. Buckley, in fact, supported the first important modern civil rights protest—the Montgomery bus boycott—on the principle that blacks were "exercising, in legitimate fashion, their right to protest whatever laws or customs they deem offensive." Buckley and NRwould make the same argument in defense of the student-led boycotts and sit-ins of 1960, "a wholly defensible—we go so far as to say wholly commendable—form of protest [and] a form of social assertiveness which we must understand, and can sympathize with."
This alone was a breakthrough of sorts. Both Buckley's parents came from the South, and he and his nine siblings were raised with "culturally Southern" attitudes. The family and its servants, some of them black, wintered in Camden, South Carolina, on an estate that had once belonged to Mary Chesnut, the great Civil War diarist. Buckley's father, in particular, was an ardent segregationist and was convinced blacks were inferior. Conscious of these attitudes, and of their prevalence on the right, Buckley avoided contact with racist organizations and counseled others to do the same. He also closely guarded NR's reputation. He was incensed when a Q&A with Richard Russell, the Georgia senator leading the fight against civil rights, which read like "a fanatical and highly subjective polemic against miscegenation," made it into print. And when Strom Thurmond, a friend of Buckley's father, jointly praised NRand The American Mercury—a right-wing monthly that included articles like "Quotations from the American Jewish Yearbook" and "Rothschilds and Rockefellers: Dedicated Monopolists"—Buckley beseeched him not to lump the two publications together, since the Mercuryhad"degenerated into an irresponsible anti-Semitic sheet and has considerably embarrassed conservatives who were once associated with it."
And yet when it came to discussing the concrete realities of race in America, NR had almost nothing to say, and the little NR said did not differ much from what was appearing in the Mercury. Other small-circulation journals, including The New Republic and The Nation, sent reporters to the South, commissioned articles from Southern journalists, and combed the local press, black and white, for up-to-date information on school desegregation campaigns, sit-in strikes, and protests. But none of these were covered or even seriously discussed in the country's most ambitious and high-minded conservative journal.
Its editors were instead clarifying and reiterating two objectives, rolling back both communism abroad and the New Deal at home. Every federal action that hinted of "statism"—Brown, Little Rock, even civil rights legislation—freshly imperiled liberty, even if undertaken on behalf of those who were plainly being denied it in the South. It was a new civil war, a struggle not "between the states" or even between the states and the federal government, but rather between autonomous individuals and a homogenizing liberalism. While many saw the government moving cautiously on civil rights—with the Supreme Court, Congress, and the executive each addressing issues as they emerged—NR's editors saw an interlocking pattern of state-enforced dogma.
"'Integration' and 'Communization' are, after all, pretty closely synonymous," one of the magazine's most eminent contributors, Richard Weaver, a Southern agrarian perched at the University of Chicago, wrote in July 1957, when the civil rights bill was being debated. From this perspective, the Little Rock Nine, far from personifying the hopes of a community, were instead the "pawns and guinea pigs" of liberal social experimenters. The actual conflicts were almost irrelevant. "Segregated schooling, in terms of the larger issues involved, is about as important as Jenkin's Ear," Buckley wrote in 1956. And the judicial enforcement provision in the original 1957 Civil Rights Act, which some saw as a practical necessity, was for NR's editors a potential "extension of unchecked federal power ... without precedent in our history or in that of any Anglo-Saxon nation since the decline of the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings."
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.
Today, Calhoun is often described as a kind of crank—and with some reason. He called slavery "a positive good" and ridiculed the Declaration's "all men are created equal." ("Taking the proposition literally ... there is not a word of truth in it.") But in the early cold war years, when so many intellectuals, left and right, rebelled against the numbing dictates of consensus and conformism, there was a Calhoun revival. He became "the philosophic darling of students of American political thought," Louis Hartz wrote in The Liberal Tradition in America, published in 1955. A liberal like the historian Richard Hofstadter was stimulated by his bold theories on class and labor ("the Marx of the master class"), and conservatives were drawn to his protest against encroaching big government. Calhoun, Russell Kirk wrote in The Conservative Mind(1953), was "the most resolute enemy of national consolidation and of omnicompetent democratic majorities" and had valiantly uncovered "the forbidding problem of the rights of individuals and groups menaced by the will of overbearing majorities." The Calhoun apostle James J. Kilpatrick, the editor of The Richmond News Leader, wrote a defense of segregation, The Sovereign States (1957), that had an epigraph from the Fort Hill Address and exhaustively catalogued examples of "interposition" dating back to the origins of the Republic. Kilpatrick repeated the exercise in an attack on the Little Rock intervention, published in NR.
For NR, Calhoun was the Ur-theorist of a burgeoning but outnumbered conservative movement, "the principal philosopher of the losing side," whose championing of the Tenth Amendment "may have the effect of shaking inchoate states-righters out of their opportunistic stupor" and give rise to a new politics.
In his most notorious editorial, "Why the South Must Prevail," Buckley drew on Calhoun's championing of the "concurrent voice" to defend voting restrictions since "the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically," even if it meant violating the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Buckley repeated the argument in his book Up From Liberalism(1959), suggesting that African Americans needed to be properly educated and trained before they were brought up to the level of the enfranchised whites who were holding them down. And just as Calhoun had defended the "positive good" of slavery, so Buckley defended Jim Crow as being born of "custom and tradition ... a whole set of deeply-rooted folkways and mores." As long as the South did "not exploit the fact of Negro backwardness to preserve the Negro as a servile class," segregation was acceptable.
These early writings would be forgotten had they not formed the ideology that shaped a generation of conservative politicians, including Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Goldwater, the movement's first national leader, "was by no means the obvious man for the job," Rick Perlstein notes in his book Before the Storm. "He had gone to the 1952 convention as an Eisenhower delegate, had voted for a higher minimum wage and to extend Social Security, and had voted for the 1957 and 1960 civil rights bills." But then, partly under the influence of NR, Goldwater had become more ideological, a champion of states' rights, which he defended in terms that echoed the nullifying passions of the antebellum period. In 1959, he electrified an audience in Greenville, South Carolina, when he said the Brown decision, because it was "not based on law," ought "not be enforced by arms"—an overt reference to Little Rock. Goldwater's manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative (1960), written by Buckley's brother-in-law (and NRcolumnist) L. Brent Bozell, had chapters on both states' rights and civil rights, elevating the first above the second whenever they came into conflict: "I therefore support all efforts by the States, excluding violence of course, to preserve their rightful powers over education."
In July 1963, Goldwater joined with Dixie senators in attacking the Pentagon's newly announced policy of shunning segregated businesses located near military bases in the South. A year later, he joined the Dixie contingent again when he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed with a large bipartisan majority, including 27 out of 33 Senate Republicans. "It is at least conceivable that Goldwater would have welcomed an opportunity to vote with the majority," Richard Rovere wrote, in puzzlement, after the bill was passed. "But for Goldwater the opportunity had been all but foreclosed by Brent Bozell—or some other hand guided by the 'guiding hand'—in The Conscience of a Conservative. In that book, Goldwater allowed himself to be committed to a states'-rights position that Jefferson Davis could hardly have found acceptable."
By this time, Goldwater stood on the verge of the Republican presidential nomination, thanks to the work of campaign strategist F. Clifton White and NR's publisher, William A. Rusher. Together, they plotted a new Southern route to electoral victory—not by explicit race-baiting (which could be left to hard-core racist Democrats), but by high-minded appeals to affluent whites "in the southern cities and suburbs, where the tides of social change are tending to run fastest," as Rusher wrote in NR. The politics of defiance, tinged with nullification, might hold the seeds of an eventual majority.
But Goldwater was only one herald of a new racially driven politics in 1964. Another was the Democrat George Wallace, the Alabama governor who had become the voice of a white-supremacist populism. With his cry of "segregation now; segregation tomorrow; segregation forever" and his promise of "rebel" protest against "communistic amalgamation," Wallace entered Democratic primaries in Indiana, Maryland, and Wisconsin, and did shockingly well, especially in cities where there were inter-ethnic conflicts over schools and "fair housing," and where Wallace's promise to stand tall against what even liberals were calling "the Negro revolution" spoke directly to the anxieties of Northerners. When he ran again in 1968, this time on a third-party ticket (shades of Thurmond's Dixiecrats), he burnished his appeal with the "constitutional" language so favored by nullifiers and adopted by later GOP insurgencies.
Wallace captured five Southern states in 1968, and 13.5 percent of the popular vote, meaning Kevin Phillips's majority was an election away. Yet he presciently saw where it would come from: defecting Democrats. Whites "will desert their party in droves the minute it becomes a black party," he predicted. "Wallace is helping, too—in the long run." The axis of the realignment, based on the politics of nullification, was settling into place. "[W]atch us in [nineteen] seventy-two. Our tabulations and techniques will be perfected by then; we'll have four years to work on them, and all the resources of the federal government. I'd hate to be the opponent in that race." It was George McGovern, who absorbed one of the worst drubbings in history.
With this, Calhounism went into remission. Nixon, like Eisenhower before him, was neither nullifier nor rearguardist. True, he had appeased the right—energetically campaigning for Goldwater in 1964 when liberal Republicans had renounced him. But Nixon was an ambidextrous courter of all sections and factions. He nominated Southern judges to the Supreme Court and at the same time urged Northern unions to recruit black workers. Yet nullification didn't die. It found its new target in Nixon's policy innovations, which seemed to be advancing liberal heresy. Nixon's urban adviser, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, went so far as to say Nixon's intention was not to undo but outdothe Great Society. To an ideologue like Rusher, the GOP itself was now the enemy. Nixon had betrayed conservatives, operating from inside an establishment eager "to 'pay off' their minority-group allies with all sorts of cultural and economic goodies," including "posts in a burgeoning bureaucracy, admissions quotas in elite universities, welfare benefits of assorted kinds, quotas in the job market, etc." Rusher proposed a third party, suggesting as its tribune Ronald Reagan, who had a history of sympathy for Southern nullifiers. Early in his career, he had shared the stage with Faubus and other segregationists, and in 1980, he flew directly from the nominating convention to Philadelphia, Mississippi—where three civil rights workers had been slain in 1964. Reagan dismissed the sitting chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights,Arthur Flemming, who warned that the Reagan administration's handling of school desegregation cases reflected the doctrine of "separate but equal." There was a protest as well from state agencies. The chairmen of 33 of them signed a letter warning that Reagan had created a "dangerous deterioration in the Federal enforcement of civil rights."
It is not a coincidence that the resurgence of nullification is happening while our first African American president is in office.
The largest targets in these years were affirmative action programs. They had begun under Nixon with the support of some conservatives, including Buckley, who favored "preferential hiring" by businesses. So did Garry Wills. When he was at NR in the '60s, he had urged Goldwater to advocate such programs even if "some conservatives have cynically borrowed the very egalitarian professions they normally condemn in order to support a faceless 'equality' among those seeking jobs." The attack came from others on the right, the rising faction of neoconservatives, who denounced "affirmative discrimination." Liberal policymakers formed a "new class" of social engineers who had devised a "spoils system" that rigged "outcomes" and stigmatized and perhaps even harmed those who advanced through the system. This argument coincided with a new literature that revived the doctrine of black inferiority, genetic or cultural, and dominated the race debate in the 1980s and 1990s. But efforts by the Reagan administration to roll back affirmative action failed. And later attempts did, too. In 1995, Bob Dole, the GOP Senate leader, introduced legislation to end all federal affirmative action programs, only to drop the issue from his presidential campaign once polls showed that, while voters disliked "quotas" and "preferences," they supported the broader principle of inclusion and diversity, especially when they realized its beneficiaries included not only blacks but also women. Latinos, another growing population, were enjoying the advantages, too.
This was a conservative strategy built for an earlier moment, when a party could prosper by exploiting the anxieties of white America. But many now were adjusting to the reality of a diverse society, multicultural and multiracial. Modernity could not be nullified. Some Republicans recognized this. George W. Bush, for one. Conservatives who were dismayed by Romney's dismal showing with Latinos (27 percent) remember the 40 percent share of the Latino vote Bush won in 2004 and suggest that a more humane immigration policy might close the gap. But Bush's success with Hispanic voters grew out of an established record of sympathy dating back to his Texas governorship, when he proposed an innovative tax plan, including a levy on "professional partnerships" (doctors, lawyers, accountants, and more) that would have increased financing for the state's poorest (in most cases Latino) school districts. The plan was squelched by his own party, just as Bush's attempt at an amnesty program was squelched by it in 2007.
Bush, of course, was unable to build the "permanent Republican majority" envisioned by Karl Rove. Yet, it is startling how little he managed to move the rhetoric and worldview of his party, which remains largely stuck where it was a generation ago or longer. Romney seldom addressed black audiences during the campaign. When he did venture into the inner city, meeting with teachers and administrators at a charter school in Philadelphia, he suggested they instruct students in the virtues of "getting married and having families where there's a mom and a dad together. ... That's critical down the road for those that are already in a setting where they don't have two parents." Paul Ryan said much the same thing: "The best thing to help prevent violent crime in the inner cities is to bring opportunity ... to help teach people good discipline, good character."
Character, he presumably meant, like that exhibited by Republican delegates in Tampa, who thrilled to the refrain "We built it"—with the identity of the "we" all too visible to TV audiences—just as the inimical "they" were being targeted by a spurious campaign to pass voter-identification laws, a throwback to Jim Crow. Romney's disparagements of the "47 percent" and his postmortem assessment that Obama won because of the "gifts" he had lavished on blacks, young people, and women also repeat the dogma of an earlier time.
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.
"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 recent National Review Institute conference in Washington, Cruz even urged 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."
Race will always be a complex issue in America. There is no total cleansing of an original sin. But the old polarizing politics is a spent force. The image of the "angry black man" still purveyed by sensationalists such as Ann Coulter and Dinesh D'Souza is anachronistic today, when blacks and even Muslims, the most conspicuous of "outsider" groups, profess optimism about America and their place in it. A politics of frustration and rage remains, but it is most evident within the GOP's dwindling base—its insurgents and anti-government crusaders, its "middle-aged white guys." They now form the party's one solid bloc, its agitated concurrent voice, struggling not only against the facts of demography, but also with the country's developing ideas of democracy and governance. We are left with the profound historical irony that the party of Lincoln—of the Gettysburg Address, with its reiteration of the Declaration's assertion of equality and its vision of a "new birth of freedom"—has found sustenance in Lincoln's principal intellectual and moral antagonist. It has become the party of Calhoun.
Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, is working on a biography about William F. Buckley Jr.