IF JOHN Caldwell Calhoun had a Twitter account, he’d be on fire right about now. The fierce, vaguely hysteric Vice President and South Carolina congressman whose pro-slavery passions and rhetorical skill helped fan the flames that led to the Civil War has lately enjoyed a re-emergence in national politics, as the media, the Democrats, the White House and everyone else tries to get a handle on conservative thinking. That includes conservatives trying to do the same thing.
Sam Tanenhaus, in The New Republic, observed this week: “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.”
This idea of a tyranny of the minority was maybe best distilled by Calhoun in July 1831, in his celebrated Fort Hill Address. He poses the issue in stark terms: “[T]he naked question is, whether ours is a federal or a consolidated government; a constitutional or absolute one; a government resting ultimately on the solid basis of the sovereignty of the States, or on the unrestrained will of a majority ...”
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Today’s conservatives and Republicans are heir to Calhoun’s passion and his principles. Tanenhaus writes that, for modern conservatives (who may or may not even know who Calhoun was), “[a] politics of frustration and rage remains ... 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.”
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THE FOCUS on the seventh U.S. vice president is well-placed. But if Calhoun was the historical prime mover of conservative thought, it’s also taken other, more recent figures to reanimate Calhoun’s ancient bones in the modern era.
William F. Buckley, patron saint of modern conservatism, had a role to play as well. In his August 1957 editorial, “Why the South Must Prevail,” Buckley defended voting restrictions — the antecedent of today’s voter ID laws — with an absurd states-rights argument written with a presumably straight face. “The central question that emerges . . . is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not prevail numerically? The sobering answer is Yes — the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”
The 14th and 15th Amendments? We don’t need no stinkin’ 14th and 15th Amendments!
Others, from Newt Gingrich to Tom DeLay to Paul Ryan, from the conservative media ecosystem to the world-class obstructionists currently in the GOP-led House, have done what they could to keep Calhoun’s nullification idea legislatively alive and well, and to ensure that Buckley’s states-rights hosanna obtains in the body politic.
But as much as anyone else, it was Paul Weyrich who led conservatives forward into the past.
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Before Gingrich was first elected, and before Ryan was four years old, Weyrich was a touchstone of the evangelical flank of the modern conservative movement. One of the key architects of the New Right in the 1970’s, Weyrich was a co-founder of the Heritage Foundation. What was at first a conservative think tank on the periphery of the political conversation has become, 40 years later and largely through his efforts, maybe the most respected and feared conservative public policy organization in the country.
Weyrich seemed to nurture a reputation as an incendiary speaker and interview subject. With good reason. At a Religious Right gathering in Dallas in 1980, a year after co-founding the Moral Majority with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Weyrich said:
“How many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome? Good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.” [Italics mine.]
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AS PHILOSOPHICAL soulmates, Calhoun, Buckley and Weyrich embody thinking that’s more than just trickled into the American political consciousness. The lead currently held by Republicans in the House indicates a retrenchment of GOP stalwarts (and their principles) to the states comprising the heart of the Confederacy. “The GOP enjoys a 57-seat advantage across the 11-state region that stretches from Texas to Virginia,” Paul West reported on Jan. 5 in the Los Angeles Times.
“It is not a coincidence that the resurgence of nullification is happening while our first African American president is in office.” Tanenhaus writes.
Nor were the voter suppression and voter ID laws and measures enacted or attempted in the past election cycle an accidental event; they had their defining antecedent in a single sentence uttered in Dallas more than a generation ago.
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With his passing (and that of Buckley, who checked out in February the same year), the Republican Party and conservatives in general moved into their current period of self-analysis and infighting. Given the noisy split between the mainstream Republican Party and the Tea Party bacterium that’s increasingly resistant to the main GOP’s isolating antibiotics, there’s more than a little self-loathing going on, too.
But it’s all for nothing if conservatives and the GOP don’t come to grips with why they lost in November, and what it is that makes them likely to be losers in the future. An intellectually articulated defense of racial and regional entitlement that makes Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment almost egalitarian by comparison; a perpetual strategy of voter suppression by coincidence or design directed at minority Americans; and a parallel strategy of states-rights-powered nullification that makes a mockery of majority rule in general have all combined to wed conservatism to the past, body and soul.
Conservatism’s survival depends on getting a divorce.
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IT’S TIME for a new business model for the GOP. It’s time for more than just a new label on the old dog-food can. It’s time for conservatives to see how the infernal golden braid of Calhoun, Buckley and Weyrich — and other evangelists for intransigence — have damaged the prospects for the conservative brand for anyone who's not a conservative, and perhaps irrevocably.
Until they recognize this, the Republicans will be walking the wilderness in sackcloth and ashes for a long, long time, pledging change but repenting nothing, nullifying nothing, ultimately announcing no one’s Armageddon but their own.
A movement can “stand athwart history” forever. History’s not going anywhere. Standing against vast social change in the here and now is another matter entirely.
Image credits: John Calhoun by Mathew Brady. Buckley: Bert Goulait, Defense Department (public domain). Weyrich: America's Voice via YouTube.