John C. Calhoun did not live to see the rise of the Republican Party, or the secession of South Carolina, but he anticipated and dreaded both. Ten years before the election of Lincoln, he foresaw the emergence of “two great hostile sectional parties,” and expected that within the next ten or twelve years a presidential election would bring things to a head and lead to secession and the dissolution of the Union.
Calhoun came to mind last week when I was bemoaning the fact that, despite a 57-40 margin in favor of voting on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the minority Senate Republicans were able to use the filibuster to block a measure that the vast majority of Americans support. In a Facebook exchange on that subject, Wofford College archivist Phillip Stone observed: “Maybe Calhoun won after all.”
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that today’s GOP really has become Calhoun’s party. Like Calhoun, they see themselves as defenders of a besieged (and privileged) minority. Like him, they foreswear compromise. Like him, they claim that the original balance of the Constitution has been altered. And like him, they seek to find ways to thwart the will of the majority when it suits their political agenda.
Last Sunday on “60 Minutes,” Speaker-to-be John Boehner refused to even use the word “compromise.” Recent polls have shown Republican voters far less supportive of the idea of compromise than either independents or Democrats.
Here is Calhoun 1847: “I see my way in the constitution; I cannot in a compromise…. Let us be done with compromises! Let us go back and stand upon the constitution!”
Last week on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli defended his proposed “repeal” amendment to the Constitution as “an attempt to bring back the balance of authority between the federal government and what goes on in the states … back toward establishing, re-establishing the balance of the Founders.”
Here is Calhoun: “the original character of the government has been radically changed … the equilibrium between the two sections, in the Government as it stood when the constitution was ratified and the Government put into action, has been destroyed.”
Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota has organized a Tea Party caucus for the new Congress, and is planning a program to teach the Constitution to new members. Her spokesman called it “a response to conservatives’ calls for a return to constitutional principles in governing.”
Calhoun in 1850: “The South … has no compromise to offer but the Constitution, and no concession or surrender to make.”
Republican legal challenges to the health care law have centered on the individual mandate as an unconstitutional expansion of federal power. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said the recent ruling against it "sets the correct limits on federal power in favor of individual liberty, and supports the critical tenets of federalism enshrined in the U.S. Constitution." His attorney general has suggested that any other ruling would mean the government could force anyone to do virtually anything.
Calhoun: “the government claims and practically maintains the right to decide in the last resort, as to the extent of its powers.”
But it is Senate Republicans who over the last two years have really been Calhoun’s acolytes. Calhoun’s main concern was that the slaveholding South was becoming a permanent minority, and for the last 15 years or so of his life he frantically sought ways to thwart majority rule. He wanted, he said, “a change which shall so modify the Constitution as to give to the weaker section, in some form or another, a negative on the action of the government.”
Calhoun came up with the idea of the “concurrent majority,” which implied that nothing should be done by government without the consent of each section. He even toyed with the idea of a dual presidency—one for each section, each one with a veto. What both ideas had in common was minority veto.
It turns out Calhoun had nothing on Mitch McConnell. Through his unprecedented abuse of the filibuster in the Senate, McConnell has achieved what Calhoun only dreamed of: a de facto minority veto. Note who the participants were in the recent tax negotiations: the president and the Senate minority leader.
Republicans in the Senate have used the “minority veto” to get their way on the tax issue. They refused to allow any bill but their own to pass—even though the Democrats had the presidency and a clear majority in both Houses, even though numerous pubic opinion polls demonstrated that the majority of Americans favored the Democratic proposal. The House passed the president’s proposal, and 53 Senators voted for it—but it died by minority veto.
But perhaps most chilling to me is not these surface similarities, but the victim mentality that both Calhoun and today’s Republicans share. Calhoun in his famous final speech said: “the responsibility of saving the Union rests on the North, and not on the South.” He warned that the Union could only be preserved if the majority submitted completely to the demands of the minority. If northerners ignored his warning, he said, the consequences would be their fault: “I shall have the consolation, let what will come, that I am free from all responsibility.”
That last phrase could be the slogan of the Senate Republicans. They have held everything—unemployment benefits, a nuclear arms treaty, the Defense authorization act, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”—hostage to their desire to protect the wealthiest two percent of Americans from paying the same tax rate on income over $250,000 that they did in the 1990s.
The Republicans have taken no responsibility. They have said to Democrats: “if you do not submit to the demands of the minority, if you fail to give us the bill we want, then the failure of all of those other bills, and the resultant increase of everyone’s taxes on Jan. 1, will be your fault. We shall have the consolation, let what will come, that we are free from all responsibility.”
A decade later, Calhoun's irresponsible mindset would lead to the Civil War. Today's Republicans will not, one must hope, produce any calamity on such a dramatic and grand scale. But they embody the same narrow, anti-majoritarian, self-destructive approach to politics that the senator from South Carolina did. And the results of that will not be pretty.