Monday, October 11, 2010

Senator John C. DeMint

My first exposure to South Carolina politics came from academic study rather than personal experience. While a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, I became fascinated with the southern states rights movement before the Civil War, and in particular its foremost proponent, South Carolina's John C. Calhoun.

Calhoun was a fascinating figure.  He was an active politician for his entire adult life: he served as Secretary of War, Secretary of State, Vice-President (for two different presidents—the only person to have ever done that) and Senator from South Carolina.  But he was also a serious political philosopher, perhaps the most original political thinker of the Jacksonian era.  He dedicated his formidable intellect to the problem of securing the rights of the slaveholding minority in the South, and is responsible of the doctrine of nullification: the idea that a state can veto a federal law it finds unconstitutional.

I've found myself thinking a lot about Calhoun recently, due to the antics of current South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint.

You have to hand it to DeMint.  He knows how to call attention to himself.  Last week, it was his reiteration of his belief, first stated six years ago when he was first running for senate, that gays and sexually active unmarried women should not be allowed to teach in public schools (he was silent on the subject of sexually active unmarried straight men, so it would seem they are not subject to the same standard).

That wasn't the only strange statement DeMint made here in Spartanburg that day.  There was also this bizarre mixture of deficit reduction and religion:

People are beginning to see that there's no way we can pay the interest on our debt and every week, we're borrowing money to pay the debt we have and are creating new programs that are costing more money.  Hopefully in 2012, we'll make headway to repeal some of the things we've done, because politics only works when we're realigned with our Savior.

I understand the concern about the deficit.  I understand the desire to get right with God.  I cannot understand how DeMint comes to the conclusion that the two are in any way connected.

Then there was this largely unnoticed story from a couple of weeks ago.  DeMint announced that he would bring the Senate to a standstill.  He would personally block any of the normal, unanimous consent business that had not been cleared with his office, he said.  He was basically asserting his right to personally veto bills.

DeMint does not seem to have followed through on his threat, but he does seem intent on using the expected Republican gains in Congress in the coming elections to shut down the federal government.  DeMint simply does not believe in government action.  In an interview with the despicable Bryan Fischer, he said this:

So this idea that government has to do something is not a good idea. So I think the less we do, the better except maybe to dismantle some of the federal programs that are making it harder for America to be competitive.

So what does this have to do with Calhoun?  Consider this description of Calhoun by his biographer, John Niven:

Calhoun had been driven by what he believed was the growing weakness of his state and his section in an industrializing society.  Uncertain about a future in which the slave-plantation system seemed to be increasingly on the defensive, Calhoun, with his speculative mind and his latent insecurity, tended toward rationalizing a potential minority position as the only proper logic that was blessed by Jeffersonian precedent and confirmed by historical fact.

Although his simple-mindedness bears no resemblance to Calhoun's intellectual complexity, I think DeMint is in some sense Calhoun's heir in insecurity.  Like Calhoun, DeMint considers himself the defender of an imperiled way of life.  Every change seems to be hastening the end of his group's political dominance, and so in our national politics he becomes the living embodiment of "no."

DeMint represents a demographic that is increasingly an endangered species nationally, even while it remains dominant locally in South Carolina.  The narrow-minded bigotry of his statement about school teachers (and in particular the absurd double-standard that applies no moral standard to straight men) is a throwback to an intolerant America that is rapidly disappearing.  His obsequious devotion to business interests and knee-jerk laissez-faire economic policy is straight out of Herbert Hoover's long-discredited playbook.  His mindless political nihilism that rejects any compromise offers no real solutions to the problems that face us as a nation.

In his final address to the Senate, too weak to actually read the speech himself, Calhoun abjured the very idea of political compromise.  Instead he overtly threatened secession if his political enemies failed to surrender to the South's every demand.  Having led the nation to the brink of disaster by insistently defending a doomed institution, Calhoun granted himself absolution: "I shall have the consolation, let what will come, that I am free from all responsibility."

But we cannot absolve ourselves, and history has not absolved Calhoun.  Political leaders are responsible for the choices they make and the consequences of those choices.

Like Calhoun before him, DeMint will be returned to the Senate this year, and in all likelihood again in 2016.  Like Calhoun, DeMint will rail against the forces of progress and champion the forces of reaction, all the while pretending that he is championing the Constitution.  And lastly, like Calhoun, DeMint will end his career knowing that the world he defended is ending too, and he will not escape responsibility for standing in the way of progress.

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