Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Standards of the Day

As a history teacher, I try to remind my students that one of the dangers of studying the past is assuming an undeserved superiority over our predecessors.  In my experience, the Vietnam war is particularly ripe for this treatment: “how could they be so wrong?”

But that reflexive response is due to the simple fact that we know something that policymakers did not know: how the story ends.  Whenever we view the past through that lens, it is easy—too easy—for people in the past to seem unimaginably dumb.  We need to put ourselves in their shoes, and see things as they saw them, if we truly seek to understand history.

So I am sympathetic to the idea that we need to approach the past with a certain humility.  That, however, is not what Randy Burbage, vice president of the Confederate Heritage Trust, was doing yesterday when he defended the gala held in Charleston on the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession:

It’s hard for us to judge the situation that existed then by today’s standards.  I think slavery is an abomination.  But it’s part of history, legal at the time.  I don’t agree with it, but it was.

Indeed, it was.  But as Burbage and the rest of the Confederacy’s defenders refuse to admit, the secession movement was dedicated to insuring that it always would be.

But by referring to “today’s standards,” Burbage cleverly uses the truth I note above.  Today’s standards are not yesterday’s standards.  But what were the standards of 1860?

The unstated implication of Burbage’s statement is that slavery was not considered an “abomination” back then.  And that is simply not true.

People did not discover slavery’s evil in the 20th century.  Patrick Henry in 1773 called it a “lamentable evil” and looked forward to abolition.  Thomas Jefferson called it a “necessary evil.”  Yes, he said “necessary,” but he did not pretend it was anything but evil.  Thus when John C. Calhoun in the 1830s called it a “positive good,” it represented a regression, a forceful denial of what slavery’s earlier defenders readily admitted.

Even before the Declaration of Independence, in 1775, American Quakers formed an antislavery society in the colonies.  In 1783, they petitioned Congress to end the slave trade, which they said was “in opposition to the solemn declaration often repeated in favor of universal liberty.” 

Pennsylvania, in part due to Quaker influence, passed a gradual abolition law in 1780, and six other northern states followed in the next 24 years.

In 1794, the French Republic voted to abolish slavery in its colonies.  In 1833, the British abolished the slavery, and devoted significant naval resources to policing against the international slave trade (thus gaining great enmity among American southerners).

By 1860, most European states—and most other central and South American states—had abolished slavery.

In short, by the standards of western civilization, slavery was already considered an "abomination" in 1860.  Yes, it was legal in the American South.  But it had been outlawed in the rest of the United States, and throughout most of the western world.  The American South was the outlier then.  And the kind of historical denialism represented by the Confederate Heritage Trust and the Sons of Confederate Veterans  is among the reasons that it still remains something of an outlier today.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Today’s GOP: It’s Calhoun’s Party Now

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.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Nothing to Celebrate, Ctd.

Much to my surprise, the Spartanburg Herald-Journal ran an editorial last Sunday which echoed my post about the secession celebration.  As I expected, the local head of the Sons of Confederate Veterans replied with the same tired claim that "slavery was not the primary cause" of the Civil War.  The Herald-Journal published my reply yesterday:

Mark Simpson’s letter Thursday objecting to the Herald-Journal’s unassailable case that South Carolina seceded to protect slavery is an example of distraction and diversion masquerading as argument.
Mr. Simpson never actually addresses the subject of the motive behind secession. Instead, he makes the point that Northerners were complicit in slavery. That’s true, but it is irrelevant. It tells us nothing about why Southerners seceded. He tells us there was no “nationally funded program” to end slavery before the Civil War. Again, true but irrelevant.
Lastly, he notes that Southerners generally (but not universally) opposed the tariff. True again. But no serious student of the secession crisis can argue that this was a meaningful motive for secession. At the South Carolina secession convention, delegate Lawrence Keitt stated this fact as plainly as is possible: “The tariff is not the question which brought the people up to their present attitude. ... Our people come upon this on the question of slavery. ... It is the central point from which we are now proceeding.” Not a single delegate contradicted him.
Real respect for history means listening to the past. Mr. Simpson asserts that “slavery wasn’t the primary cause.” The people who made the decision said it was “the central point.” When the South Carolina secessionists say repeatedly that they seceded to protect slavery, I believe them. Mr. Simpson would have us believe that they either didn’t know why they did what they did or that they lied about it. I take them at their word.
Mr. Simpson’s dilemma is this: He condemns slavery, but the people he venerates not only supported it but considered it a “positive good.” Unable to resolve that dilemma, he throws up a smoke screen to distract from it. No matter how much be objects, he cannot change the facts.

Mr. Simpson's position is truly puzzling to me.  He is not stupid.  His response to the editorial shows that he knows quite a bit about the facts.  For example, when I teach the Civil War, I always make the point that slavery was an American problem, as Simpson does in his letter.  But as I note in my reply, he employs facts to distort rather than illuminate.

In a previous exchange we had four years ago, it was the same.  It is hard to see this as mere misunderstanding, or an inability to comprehend causation.  This is denialism: a state of being so invested in a specific position that no amount of evidence, no degree of logical argumentation can put so much as a dent in the near-religious certainty.

Where that comes from I don't pretend to know.  But the existence of such imperviousness to reason has real consequences for our politics.  If 150 years later we cannot find agreement on something which the perspective of history should leave us with no doubt about, the chances of true consensus on contemporary controversial issues begin to seem rather slim.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Properties of the Founders

In a guest post on my old friend Bill Carleton’s blog in August, I speculated that what some Tea Party leaders are really concerned about is property rights:

Ultimately, I think the tea party claim to the legacy of the Founders would require them to admit that what really bothers them is that their property is not adequately represented, that the "interests" … can violate their property rights.

Logically, such an admission would also mean advocating property qualifications for voting.

Now one, Tea Party Nation President Judson Phillips, has finally said it:

The Founding Fathers originally said, they put certain restrictions on who gets the right to vote. It wasn’t you were just a citizen and you got to vote. Some of the restrictions, you know, you obviously would not think about today. But one of those was you had to be a property owner. And that makes a lot of sense, because if you’re a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community. If you’re not a property owner, you know, I’m sorry but property owners have a little bit more of a vested interest in the community than non-property owners.

He is right that there were usually property qualifications for voting in the early republic.  What he fails to appreciate, however, is that it was the generation of the founders that also began to eliminate those restrictions on the franchise.  As Gordon Wood tells us in Empire of Liberty, in "the first decade of the nineteenth century … states that had not already done so began to expand the franchise by eliminating property qualifications or transforming the requirement into the mere paying of taxes."

In short, during the lives and political careers of many of the founders, universal suffrage for adult white males became the norm.  No state admitted to the Union after 1815 had a property qualification.  By the time of the Civil War, only one state still had one: South Carolina.

While Phillips and other Tea Partiers present themselves merely as proponents of returning to the wisdom of the founders, they are actually repudiating the history of those years, and arguably the legacy of the revolution itself.  Daniel Walker Howe, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of What Hath God Wrought, has argued that the elimination of property qualifications "reflected in part the success of the American Revolution and general acceptance of its natural-rights ideology."

The idolatry that is Tea Party ideology prevents him from seeing that basic truth.  They want to fix "the time of the founders" as a golden age, frozen in time, never to be changed.  Every deviation from the wisdom of the founders is dangerous declension from perfection.

But as this example demonstrates so well, the United States changed significantly even during their time.  Unlike today's Tea Partiers, the founders were not averse to change.  The willingness to embrace change is part of that wisdom.  And they knew change took time. 

Tea Partiers love to quote Thomas Jefferson on revolution: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants."  

They would do well to listen also to an older, wiser Jefferson writing to John Adams in 1823: "The generation which commences a revolution can rarely compleat it."  His vision was one of ever-increasing freedom over time—not of one moment of perfection captured for all time.

The very Constitution that the Tea Partiers pretend to venerate takes for granted the need for change.  It was itself a product of dissatisfaction with the government created during the Revolution, the Articles of Confederation (the main failure of which, by the way, was too much power in the hands of the states and a correspondingly weak national government).  

The Constitution was a change, and, most tellingly of all, it contains within it a mechanism to change it: the amendment process.  The Constitution that emerged from the convention was changed twelve times within the first sixteen years of its existence.  It has been changed a mere fifteen additional times in the last 206 years.

The reflexive Tea Party deference to the founders always seems to ignore that key characteristic: the founders understood the necessity of change, and they were never under the illusion that they had all of the answers for all time. 

The English reformer, Thomas Macualay, said during the debate over the 1832 Reform Bill: “We talk of the wisdom of our ancestors; and in one respect at least they were wiser than we. They legislated for their own times.”  By contrast, the Tea Partiers would have us governed today by what Jefferson called “the dead hand of the past.”  I prefer the living.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Nothing to Celebrate

As a historian, my usual instinct is to welcome an event that draws attention to the past.  Then I read this article in the New York Times about the South Carolina Secession Gala to be held in Charleston on the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union, complete with “a 45 minute theatrical play re-enacting the signing of the original Ordinance of Secession.”  In the re-enactment, Republican state senator Glenn F. McConnell, President Pro-Tempore of the South Carolina senate, will take the role of Convention chair.  The event is sponsored by the South Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

I’ve encountered the SCV before. Back in 2006, a one of its members, in a letter in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, stated flatly: "Slavery was not a major issue" in the Civil War.  As I noted in reply, any reasonable reading of the secession documents clearly reveals that the protection of slavery was the motive behind secession.  How do we know that?  They said so.

While the Confederacy’s modern apologists shy away from the subject of slavery, the Confederates themselves did not.  The South Carolina secession declaration plainly states the centrality of slavery. The statement of the causes of secession includes the complaint that

the non-slaveholding States … have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

Those things had been going on for years, so why secession in December 1860?  They were clear about that, too.  It was the election of Abraham Lincoln,

a man … whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

Lincoln’s Republican Party, they said, was committed to the idea that “a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.”  As a result, they said, “The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.” (It is worth noting that the adjective they used to describe themselves was “slaveholding.”  It was that characteristic, and no other, that they believed distinguished them.)

This is not a close call.  South Carolina seceded to protect slavery.  The people who made that decision said so.

But SCV members, in their desperation to separate the Confederate cause from the infamy of slavery, insist that some other reason, like high tariffs rates, was the real reason for secession. (I have it on good authority that this nonsense is even peddled by some economics professors, but I know of no respectable historian today who holds that view.)  One SCV member wrote back in 2006: "It was economics and tariffs that prompted Lincoln to force the South to remain in the Union."

As I noted in my reply, even if that were true (and it is not), it tells us nothing about why Southerners seceded.  At the South Carolina secession convention, delegate Lawrence Keitt stated it as plainly as is possible: "The tariff is not the question which brought the people up to their present attitude…. Our people come upon this on the question of slavery…. It is the central point from which we are now proceeding."  Not a single delegate contradicted him.

When all else fails, the SCV fall back on their ultimate trump card: the "valor" and "courage" of individual soldiers.  I have no trouble with descendants of Confederate veterans honoring the memory of their ancestors.  It is possible for an individual to fight with bravery and honor in a flawed cause.

What I find most interesting about this gala celebration, however, is that it gives the lie to the argument that the SCV is all about honoring the valor of Confederate veterans.  This event commemorates not a military engagement, not personal martial bravery, but a political decision (and an utterly disastrous one at that, regardless of what one thinks of the cause).  And that decision, as the historical record clearly shows, was to separate from the Union for the purpose of defending the institution of slavery.

There can be no pretense, no hiding behind military courage in this instance.  This event proudly supports and celebrates the decision that precipitated the worst bloodshed in all of American history.  It supports the act of people who forthrightly declared that they hoped to create a "Confederacy of Slaveholding States."  One hundred and fifty years later, it is appalling that any American could fail to see how wrong that is.  The secession of South Carolina is no cause for celebration.

Monday, November 29, 2010

All in the Family

My last post noted the Tea Party tendency to use any allegedly historical argument to make a political point.  David Frum on his blog recently criticized this comment from Sarah Palin's forthcoming book:

But from what I’ve read, family life at the time of the founding was a lot like family life for Americans today: full of challenges, sure, but also full of simple pleasures.

Frum's point is that Palin basically defines African-American slaves out of the picture. That's true enough, but I think the problem with Palin's statement goes far deeper.

Unless she means it in the most general sense possible (i.e., there were moms and dads and sons and daughters then, too!), this assertion is simply ridiculous.  It represents an utter failure to imagine any experience significantly different from one's own. That, by the way, is one of the most compelling reasons to study history—the past, as the saying goes, is another country.  Good historians teach their students that history is both continuity and change over time.  Certainly some things remain constant.  But we should never let those similarities blind us to how different the past was.

I have rather deep doubts that Palin has actually read any scholarly work on what everyday family life was like in the era of the revolution, but fortunately, such work does exist for those who take the trouble to consult it.  So what was life like?

At the time of the revolution, the entire white population of the colonies was about 2.5 million.  Today, more people than that live in Chicago, and more than 3 times that number live in New York City.  Much of the area of the original 13 states was unsettled:  most of Maine, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Georgia had few if any white inhabitants.  Spartanburg, South Carolina, where I live, was the western-most frontier of the state.  The largest city, Philadelphia, had only 40,000 people; today, there are 50 American cities with over 350,000 people.

Population density matters in how we live our lives.  (The Spatial History Project has a map here showing how it has changed from 1790-2000.)  Raising a child in an urban environment is different from doing it on a farm. During the revolutionary era, about 90% of the American population lived in small villages of no more than 8,000 people, and most people lived on farms and in small hamlets, effectively isolated from significant numbers of other people.  This inevitably gave parents far greater control over the influences that reached their children, to cite just one obvious consequence.

There was, of course, no public school system, so whatever education children received would have been at home or in small, informal village schools.  Today, the average American high school has 750 students in it, meaning that the typical American student today might see more people her own age in a single day than a revolutionary era child might have seen in her entire childhood.

Most people then spent their days growing food—more than 90% of the people were involved in agriculture to make their living, as compared to fewer than 5% today.  A typical workday was sun-up to sun-down working on the land; for them, the workplace was the homestead.  A typical childhood likely meant doing chores and farm labor rather than going to school.

Not only were families more isolated, they were also larger.  In the early 1800s, a typical white American woman would give birth to 7 children; today the number is barely more than 2.  Due to the extremely high infant mortality rate, however, average life expectancy would have been anywhere between the mid-20s and the low-40s, depending on race and region.  As late as 1850, more than 1 in 5 white infants died, and it was 1 in 3 for black children.  Today, the number is less than 6 per thousand for whites, and 14 per thousand for blacks. 

Think about that for a moment.  Medical issues that today are often resolved with over-the-counter medicine or a quick trip to the doctor would then end in death.  The terrible trauma of a child's death was not an atypical experience for women in that era.  Neither was the death of a spouse or parent at a young age.  Both of those things must have had enormous effects on family dynamics.

Can any reasonable person know all of that and conclude, as Palin so blithely does, that it was all basically the same as today?  The answer is obvious.  So why do it?

Politics, of course.  The Tea Party has this obsession with returning to the ways of the founding generation, to the "original" Constitution.  The obvious response to this ignorant nostalgia is that we do not live in the late 18th century.  Times change, conditions change, society changes, and so government must change along with them.  Since the Tea Partiers reject that conclusion, it makes sense to also reject the premises.  So we end up with someone with aspirations to presidential power making the ridiculous claim that family life has not changed much in the last 230 years.

This is the epitome of indifference to historical reality.  We do not honor Americans of the founding generation when we reduce the travails and tragedies of their lives to characters playing dress-up on a modern-day movie set for the benefit of our amusement—and political agenda.  Palin may enjoy playing frontierswoman in the controlled environment of her "reality" show.  Somehow I suspect she wouldn't last long in the real America of 1780.  But I'd love to see her have to try.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Pilgrim's Regress

The Thanksgiving feast is in the past for another year, but the misuse of the holiday for political purposes marches on.

Last Sunday, the New York Times published an illuminating piece about the way Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and various Tea Party figures have tried to make the Thanksgiving story into a parable about the evils of socialism and the merits of capitalism.

The story is worth reading in full, but in short the case is this: the first settlers at Plymouth engaged in a kind of socialistic sharing of property and only succeeded when they abandoned it and embraced capitalism.  The substance of the Times piece demolishes this absurdity.  What I'd like to address is the way the story is framed.

My first objection is to the author's reference to the Tea Partiers as people "who revere early American history."  If there is one thing the subsequent article shows, it is that the people who believe this myth have no respect at all for history.  The same sentence notes, correctly, that Tea Partiers "hunger for any argument against what they believe is the big-government takeover of the United States."

Precisely—they want any argument, true or not.  That is not reverence.  It is blind dedication to ideology, the facts be damned.  For these people, history has no independent reality.  It is merely a tool to be used, it is a means to an ideological end.

The article refers to "competing versions of the story," as if they are both equally valid.  That is simply not the case.  The actual historians quoted in the story show that the Tea Party "version" is not merely a different interpretation, it is simply wrong.  The settlers were not practicing "secular communism," they were engaged in a business enterprise.  This is not a matter of interpretation, but fact.  There was no famine due to "socialist" practices.

The article says: “Historians quibble with this interpretation.”  No, they don’t “quibble” with it.  They refute it.  There’s a difference.  The word “quibble” suggests petty differences over unimportant matters.  What historians note in this instance is the distortion of fact for ideological purposes, and there is nothing petty or unimportant about that.

What strikes me as incredibly corrosive about this article is that real historians are placed on a par with people, who, to put it bluntly, have no idea what they are talking about.  The article refers to “Tea Party historians” but none of the people espousing this view are actual historians.  The three people cited by name are Rush Limbaugh (no elaboration required), Dick Armey (former congressman and economics professor) and W. Cleon Skousen (who was a lawyer).  The article also refers to a web site with a 25-year-old article written by a high school economics teacher.  Not a historian in the bunch.

And, on the other side, a real historian, Karen Ordahl Kupperman: a woman with a PhD in history from Cambridge, currently a professor at NYU, and the author of seven books on American colonial history (two of which won prestigious professional prizes).  And the reader is supposed to see these “two sides” as equal?

As a historian, I could read this article and easily see that there is no "debate" here in any meaningful sense of the word.  But I can imagine a casual reader picking up the paper on a Sunday morning, sipping some coffee, and thinking that there are two equally valid points of view on this subject.  There are not.  There is the view of professional historians who have studied the subject, and there is the lie told by ignorant people who will make things up to suit their political agenda.

Now I know how the evolutionary biologist and the climate change scientist feel.

Monday, November 22, 2010

What Water’s Edge?

Recently, I made a non-attributed appearance on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish.  Sullivan had noted that Rep. Eric Cantor, soon to become the Republican House Majority leader in the new Congress, had told Israeli Prime Minister that Congressional Republicans intended to “serve as a check on the Administration” and that “the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and that the security of each nation is reliant upon the other.”

Cantor’s clear implication is that President Obama does not understand that relationship and that Congressional Republicans would stand with the Israeli prime minister rather than the American president.  Sullivan incredulously said: “There are no parallels with this kind of direct undermining of the president on foreign policy that I can think of. Am I wrong?”  (You can read my response here.)

Sullivan’s reaction to Cantor’s statement exposes how widespread is the notion that it is unusual, even unheard of, for foreign policy to become so openly partisan.  This, however, is one of the great American myths: that politics stops at the water’s edge.

As a student of diplomatic history and American politics, I can tell you that nothing could be further from the truth.  Foreign policy played a large part in forming the first political parties.  As my reply to Sullivan states, Alexander Hamilton was so committed to the idea that good relations with Great Britain were essential to American national security that he undermined other members of the Washington administration who he feared were not nearly pro-British enough for his liking.

American history is filled with examples of Congressional opposition to foreign policy—even wartime is no guarantee of national unity: witness the lack of support for the War of 1812 on the part of Federalist New Englanders, or the Whig opposition to the Mexican war.

So where does this myth come from?  It is, I suspect, rooted in two things.  One is simply ignorance of American diplomatic history in general.  When I teach my diplomatic history survey, I usually find that the knowledge base on American foreign is particularly thin.  That, I think, is a cultural/educational manifestation of the reflexive American disinterest in (and sometimes disdain for) the rest of the world that goes back to colonial days.

The second is a more recent phenomenon.  In the modern American imagination, World War II was the “good war.”  It was when Americans put aside their differences for the common good.  What was an aberration historically has, for many people, become the expected norm.  So powerful is that illusion that it tends to purge our collective memory of many of the partisan disputes that have often accompanied foreign policy.

Vietnam, of course, is the exception.  Everyone knows that the country divided over the war.  But Vietnam is also considered the “bad war” (exactly why it was “bad” differs depending on one’s interpretation of the war).  The political divisiveness of that war, however, is undeniably part of what made it “bad,” making it the object lesson in why politics should stop at the water’s edge.

But the reality is that Vietnam was far closer to the norm than most people realize, and that World War II itself was preceded by incredibly deep, acrimonious and often partisan divisions over foreign policy.  It took the shock of the attack on Pearl Harbor to create the unusual degree of national unity that people look back on so fondly.

Recent days have brought yet another example of the political opposition trying to undermine the sitting president: the decision by Senate Republicans to block ratification of the START arms control treaty with Russia.  Despite the fact that exhaustive hearings were held last spring, and that votes on the treaty have been delayed repeatedly to alleviate all Republican concerns, “Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who voted for the treaty in committee, said Tuesday he now questions whether it’s ‘even practical for the administration to rush passage of the Start treaty during this lame-duck session.’” 

Sen. Richard Lugar, the most respected Republican on foreign policy and arms control issues, thought that a vote should have been held in August.  Three months later, other Republicans now say it would be a “rush” to vote.  As this fact-checking by Salon makes clear, the objections to this treaty are about politics, not national security.

The transparent partisanship behind this ploy is truly breathtaking.  Take for example this article.  The author, who has no argument other than his blind hatred of President Obama, opposes ratification:

This is all about Obama's effort to take America down to size and to show the rest of the world that we are no longer the big bad evil aggressor we were before he took office.

He says this AFTER noting that Defense Secretary Robert Gates (who was appointed by George W. Bush) as well as former Republican Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker, and Republican Senator Lugar all support ratification.  Does this deranged argument mean that these prominent Republicans are also determined to “take America down to size,” or that they are too stupid to see how Obama is using them?

Yes, American like to think that politics ends at the water's edge.  but as today's Republicans in Congress seem determined to prove, it just isn't the case.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Let Obama be Reagan

I think the first midterm elections I paid close attention to were in 1982.  I was in college, and no fan of Ronald Reagan or his policies.  Two short years after the desolation of 1980, there was a sense of jubilation among liberals that Reagan's presidency was effectively at an end.

Tom Wicker in the New York Times wrote a premature obituary of the administration:

There is no Reagan Revolution. American voters made that clear on Nov. 2, by substantially strengthening the Democrats' control of the House of Representatives and of state governments, and narrowing Republican control of the Senate.  Thus just two years after the Reagan landslide of 1980, the electorate reaffirmed the essential centrism of American politics.

This memory is prompted of course by the hubris of Republicans after Tuesday's election results.  Perhaps they will be right where Wicker was wrong.  But before declaring the end of the Obama administration and its policies, it is perhaps worth taking a deep breath and thinking about that first Reagan midterm election.

In its aftermath, moderate Republicans panicked.  ''You can't govern this country when it's polarized,'' said Senator William Cohen, a Republican moderate from Maine. ''I think the President has got to compromise on most issues until the unemployment rate comes down.''  The election results meant that Reagan was damaged political goods, a New York Times new analysis concluded: "In sum, the President's political impact has diminished. He is not the feared figure of 18 months ago."

The parallel of 2010 with 1982 is flawed, of course.  Republican losses in 1982 were not as great as those suffered by Democrats this week (Republicans in 1982 lost 26 House seats or 13.6% of their pre-election total, while Democrats this year seem to have lost at least 60, perhaps 25%).  The result, however, was worse for Reagan: a 269-166 Democratic majority.  At the moment, the projected Republican majority is 242-193.

Nonetheless, Republican leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, clearly reading from the same script, have argued that the elections mean that President Obama must "change course."  The irony is that their hero, Ronald Reagan, did precisely the opposite.  His theme was "Stay the course."  In his State of the Union address in January 1983, Reagan did not change course at all (despite the fact that his approval rating was at 35%).  In fact, he blamed Jimmy Carter for the economic situation that hurt Republicans the previous November:

The problems we inherited were far worse than most inside and out of government had expected; the recession was deeper than most inside and out of government had predicted. Curing those problems has taken more time and a higher toll than any of us wanted. Unemployment is far too high.
Imagine the howls of indignation on the right if Obama were to say the same thing today, and use that as justification for staying the course!

Instead, the president has struck a conciliatory tone, and has spoken of compromise.  While this has earned him the wrath of the commentators on MSNBC, I suspect Obama has the Reagan model in mind.  In the same address quoted above, Reagan also talked the bipartisan talk:

So, let us, in these next 2 years – men and women of both parties, every political shade – concentrate on the long-range, bipartisan responsibilities of government, not the short-range or short-term temptations of partisan politics.
This, of course, is not what we remember about Reagan, because it did not mean he did not also "stay the course."  Yes, Reagan worked out a bipartisan deal on Social Security, but he also defended his signature issues: tax cuts and increased defense spending.  And he won re-election in 1984, with a higher percentage of the vote than he got in 1980.

No one knows today if Barack Obama will be able to replicate that record.  (Much depends on the economy: if it improves, he will likely be in good shape in two years; if not, he will be vulnerable to any potential Republican nominee.)  But my hunch is that he will try.

Most commentary in the last few days has taken for granted that Obama will have to emulate Bill Clinton after the 1994 midterms and move to the center.  I'm not so sure.

Remember that during the 2008 campaign, Obama said that he wanted to be a transformative president like Reagan, a comment that was taken as an implicit shot at Clinton.  He also said earlier this year that he would rather accomplish great things than be re-elected.  If he meant both of those things, he will be like Reagan and stay the course.  But whether it will work is anyone's guess.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Archie Bunker "Wisdom" is Running High

You might think that the fact that one of my first year students two weeks ago said the exact same thing that the dean of Washington pundits wrote Sunday in his column would cause me to swell with pride.  Problem is, they're both wrong.

In my class, we were discussing Milo Minderbinder, Joseph Heller's satirical stand-in for the unrestrained business ethos in his brilliant novel, Catch-22.  We were talking about why Heller included this character, and my student said: "World War II ended the depression."  David Broder on Sunday wrote the same thing.  In a bizarre article, Broder suggests that President Obama’s political fortunes in 2012 could be enhanced by a war with Iran: “Look back at FDR and the Great Depression. What finally resolved that economic crisis? World War II.”

While it is stunning to hear Broder (someone who should know better) do so, I was not surprised that my student echoed this mistaken conventional wisdom.  I've been fighting this fundamental misunderstanding for as long as I've been teaching.  I think the first time I heard it was from the lips of Archie Bunker in Norman Lear's classic sitcom, "All in the Family."  In every class in which I've dealt with the Great Depression, I've heard this refrain repeated.

It's a classic case of mistaking historical causation.  It is indeed true that the U.S. fully emerged from the depression after the war began.  Despite Broder's implication, there's nothing magical about wars that ends depressions.  What ended the Great Depression was that the war removed all restraint on federal government spending.

A quick look at the numbers makes this clear.  While the same ill-informed conventional wisdom has it that the New Deal led to massive government spending, that is not true. In 1933, total federal spending was about $4.6 billion. It reached a New Deal height of $8.3 billion in 1936, much of that due to spending on the WPA, a jobs program that employed millions of Americans and built infrastructure (the stimulus bill of its day).  The economy improved, but spending was cut in 1937 to $7.6 billion and in 1938 to $6.9 billion, leading to what was called the “Roosevelt recession,” which wiped out many of the economic gains of the previous four years.

The huge increase in government spending came NOT from jobs programs like the WPA, or other New Deal social welfare programs, but from military spending.  In 1939, the federal budget jumped to $9.1 billion, in 1941 it was up to 13.6 billion, with almost all of that increase due to defense preparedness spending.  Once the U.S. entered the war, spending exploded.  By 1944 it was $91.3 billion—more than ten times the New Deal height.  The deficit that year was $47.5 billion, more than ten times the $4.3 billion deficit of 1936.  That is what ended the depression.

How?  The U.S. had tremendous underused industrial capacity during the depression.  What was lacking was demand.  Orders for military goods created demand.  When events in Europe and Asia made the prospect of American involvement in war more likely, FDR announced what were ridiculed as unreachable military production goals.  Not only did American industry meet his goals, it generally exceeded them.  In 1942, for example, the U.S. produced more planes than the three Axis powers combined.

The reason for this production success was fairly simple.  The federal government met its defense needs by granting cost-plus contracts: all of industry's costs (including labor) were met by the federal government, and a profit was guaranteed to contractors (talk about a bailout).  Millions of blue-collar workers were suddenly not only employed, but making good wages (often including overtime pay).  Business had profits to reinvest.  That meant that workers found themselves flush with disposable income.  They both spent and saved.  The increased consumer spending led to wartime prosperity and unprecedented economic growth, and after the war consumers spent their savings on goods (like cars) not available during the war due to wartime rationing, continuing the economic boom into the postwar years.

In short, war did not produce prosperity, massive government spending did.  The relevance of this truth about World War II prosperity is not Broder's mistaken belief that war ends depression, but that it helps explain why the American economy today is still struggling to revive.

As much most American voters seem convinced that we are today spending too much, that the stimulus bill was an abject failure, the reality is that, like the WPA spending in 1935-36, the stimulus was helpful but was not enough.  And the likely cost of this historical and economic ignorance is that Americans are poised to elect tomorrow a Congress that will make the same mistake that FDR made in 1937 and cut spending, and may send the fragile American economy into a new recession.

When Archie and Edith Bunker sang “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again” in the 1970s, it was funny.  When today Americans from David Broder to a typical college student think the same, and worse yet vote accordingly, it is potentially tragic.

Monday, October 25, 2010

14th Nervous Breakdown

My last post noted that the coverage of the Delaware senate debates had unfairly characterized Christine O'Donnell's comments on the First Amendment.  Perhaps even more egregious, however, was the lack of attention given to another of O'Donnell's answers to a constitutional question.

O'Donnell was asked in the same debate if she agrees with calls by other Tea Party candidates to repeal all or part of the 14th, 16th, and 17th Amendments to the Constitution.  O'Donnell was quick to deny any interest in repealing the 17th amendment—which is not a bad idea for someone running for senate, since it is the amendment that gave the voters, rather than state legislators, the right to choose senators. (For an earlier discussion of this issue, see here.)

What is noteworthy is the rest of O'Donnell's response.  She did not know what either the 14th or 16th Amendments were.  Laughing nervously, she said: “I’m sorry, I didn’t bring my Constitution with me.”  Doing her best impression of Sarah Palin, she tried to laugh off her ignorance and quipped: “Fortunately, senators don’t have to memorize the Constitution. Can you remind me of what the other ones are?"

That's true enough, memorizing the Constitution isn't a requirement for office.  But when you premise your candidacy in large part on your superior fidelity to the Constitution, is it too much to ask that you know what is actually in it?

After all, these are hardly the most obscure amendments.  I'll admit that I don't have all the amendments committed to memory either.  I could not tell you off the top of my head what, say, the 8th Amendment says (it bans excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment).  But these two I know, as should someone like O'Donnell who self-identifies with the Tea Party.

The 16th empowered Congress to levy the income tax, the relevance of which to Tea Partiers is self-evident.  And the 14th Amendment has been much in the news, ever since Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) proposed repealing its provision for birth citizenship.

But the 14th Amendment does far more than that.  It arguably represents the most important single change in the Constitution in American history.  It made clear that the states did not have the power to deny citizens any of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.  It guarantees all of us due process rights and equal protection of the laws.

It was, in many ways, an answer to the states rights doctrine of the Confederacy, and it created one nation.  As Eric Foner writes in his authoritative account Reconstruction, 1863-1877, some amendments

are broad statements of principle, giving constitutional form to the resolution of national crises, and permanently altering American nationality.  The Fourteenth Amendment was a measure of this kind.  In language that transcended race and region, it challenged legal discrimination throughout the nation and changed and broadened the meaning of freedom for all Americans.

The reason that this amendment is so important, and the reason some radical conservatives might not be entirely comfortable with it, is that in the words of a contemporary observer, "the powers of the States have been limited and the powers of Congress extended."  It meant that the states "could no longer infringe upon the liberties the Bill of Rights has secured against federal violation."

Although it took nearly another one hundred years, the foundation established by the 14th Amendment is what made possible the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (whose constitutionality has been challenged by another Tea Party candidate, Rand Paul).

It is bad enough that a senatorial candidate today could be ignorant of what the 14th Amendment is.  It is even worse that a sitting senator from one of the states whose wholesale disregard of civil rights prompted it in the first place is proposing that we tamper with this essential amendment.  But worst of all is the fact that, in this bizarre election year, neither of these things seems to merit any notice at all (much less outrage) from the electorate.

Friday, October 22, 2010

O'Donnell, the First Amendment, and Constitutional Literalism

I think Christine O'Donnell is getting a bad rap.

I can't believe I'm starting a post with those words, but it's true.  Based on her comments in a recent debate with Chris Coons, her opponent in the general election for U.S. senator from Delaware, many reports and commentators suggested that O'Donnell was unaware that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution deals with religion.  When Coons referred to separation of church and state, O'Donnell asked “Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?”

From listening to the exchange, it was immediately clear to me that O'Donnell was referring specifically to that phrase, not doubting that the First Amendment refers to religion.  This is a familiar refrain among conservatives who are opposed to that concept.  And, of course, O'Donnell is correct that that phrase does not appear in the Constitution.  Nor did Coons suggest that it does--he appropriately cited the establishment clause as it is written.

So what's going on here?  I think it is a matter of constitutional literalism. Since the precise words "separation of church and state" do not appear in the Constitution, constitutional literalists argue that there isn't really any such thing.

This mindset has a long pedigree, almost as old as the Constitution itself.  Its first coherent statement is Thomas Jefferson's "Opinion on the Constitutionality of a National Bank" in 1791.  (Ironically, Jefferson is on the opposite side of the church and state argument.)  Relying, as do today's Tea Partiers, on the Tenth Amendment, Jefferson maintained that unless a power were specifically delegated to the Federal government, it remained with the states.  He feared that anything but a strict interpretation of the Constitution would mean "Congress should be authorised to break down the most ancient and fundamental laws of the several States."

(This is the same basic view informing Republican attorneys general in their challenge to the new health insurance law: that the individual mandate is an unconstitutional usurpation of rights by the Federal government.)

The problem with such constitutional literalism is that Jefferson lost that argument with Alexander Hamilton back in 1791.  George Washington sided with Hamilton, Congress approved the national bank, and thereby established the practice of loose rather than strict construction of the Constitution.  When he later served as president, Jefferson himself sometimes invoked loose construction, most famously to justify the Louisiana Purchase.

It is that point that O'Donnell fails to understand: that the actual practice of governance has shaped what the Constitution means.  Coons, to his credit, did understand this and tried to explain it.  He knew that the phrase "separation of church and state" is not in the First Amendment, and noted that the concept has become part of our understanding of the application of the First Amendment via "decisional law by the Supreme Court over many, many decades."  He was correct that her focus on that single phrase showed a "fundamental misunderstanding of what our Constitution is ... and how it evolves."

In a 1947 case, Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court's majority decision embraced the concept: "The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach."

If O'Donnell had any real understanding of the issue, anything beyond her smug, self-satisfied recitation of a talking point, she could have challenged the Court's reasoning in that decision.  But she has no such understanding. When asked in another debate what recent Court decisions she disagrees with, she could not mention a single one.  She promised to look some up and put them on her web site.

That is the real problem with O'Donnell's debate performance--not a specific case of ignorance of a well-known fact, but rather a incredibly simplistic understanding of the document that she says she will defend in office and have guide her every decision.  Like Sarah Palin before her (who was stumped by the same question about Court decisions in the Katie Couric interview), she is a profoundly unserious person.  And that, even in this strange election year, is a legitimate reason to deem her unqualified to hold public office.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Are We "Capable of Feeling the Force of Reason"?

When doing research, you always have to beware the danger of distraction.  While researching for my dissertation, I waded through years of the New York Times, looking for articles relevant to my topic.  Inevitably I'd stumble on something that looked fascinating, but I had to force myself to move on or I'd never find what I was looking for.

On the other hand, you have to be open to serendipity.  Sometimes the best thing you find is not what you were looking for.

I had one of those serendipitous moments while working on my last piece.  I had the news on in the background, and I heard the story of how Bill O'Reilly prompted a walkout on "The View."  O'Reilly was trying to defend his position that the Islamic community center in downtown Manhattan should not be built, and (not surprisingly) fell back on the idea of collective guilt.  It was insensitive for Muslims to build the center, he said, because "Muslims killed us on 9/11."

While that story played, I was looking through Ben Franklin's writings for material on religion.  What I found was Franklin's answer to O'Reilly.

In 1763, at the end of what Americans call the French and Indian War, Franklin penned an outraged diatribe condemning Pennsylvania whites who had massacred a village of peaceful, friendly native American Indians.  He denounced the perpetrators as "CHRISTIAN WHITE SAVAGES."

Almost as bad, in his mind, were other colonists who defended the massacre by citing "the Command given Joshua to destroy the Heathen."  This, Franklin thought, was appalling: "Horrid perversion of Scripture and of Religion! to father the worst of Crimes on the God of Peace and Love!"

"We pretend to be Christians," Franklin fumed, and went on to compare the Pennsylvania Christians unfavorably to "Heathens" and (even worse in today's Islamophobic America) Muslims.  He specifically praised Mahomet (Muhammad) and Saladin for humane treatment of prisoners.  The Indians, he said,

would have been safer among the ancient Heathens, with whom the Rites of Hospitality were sacred.  They would have been considered as Guests of the Publick, and the Religion of the Country would have operated in their favor.  But our Frontier People call themselves Christians!—They would have been safer, if they had submitted to the Turks; for ever since Mahomet's Reproof to Khaled, even the cruel Turks, never kill Prisoners in cold Blood.

One of the things that most outraged Franklin was the failure to distinguish between Indian enemies (with whom the colonists were at war) and these victims, who were "Friends." Pennsylvanians had justified the killings by engaging in collective guilt.  Franklin was appalled that some "would extenuate the enormous Wickedness of these Actions, by saying, 'The Inhabitants of the Frontiers are exasperated with the Murder of their Relations, by the Enemy Indians.'"

Franklin had no patience for such nonsense: "If an Indian injures me, does it follow that I may revenge that injury on all Indians?"  He observed that the Indians were not monolithic, and were comprised of "different Tribes, Nations and Languages."  He pointed out the utter absurdity of treating all people who share one characteristic as if they were all the same:

In Europe, if the French, who are White People, should injure the Dutch, are they to revenge it on the English, because they too are White People?  The only Crime of these poor Wretches seems to have been, that they had a reddish brown skin, and black Hair; and some people of that sort, it seems, had murdered some of our Relations.

"Indians killed us!"  "Muslims killed us!"  Not much difference, is there?

The proper response to such foolishness, Franklin thought, was a recommitment to government and law:

Let all good Men join heartily and unanimously in Support of the Laws, and in strengthening the Hands of Government; that JUSTICE may be done, the Wicked punished, and the Innocent protected. … it belongs to brave men to spare, and to protect; for, as the Poet says,
---Mercy still sways the Brave.

Amen, Brother Franklin, Amen.

Franklin's piece is a rousing call for the triumph of reason in the face of unreason.  Franklin believed that "even the most brutal" of people "are capable of feeling the force of Reason."  But listening to O'Reilly and Fox's Brian Kilmeade, who in defending O'Reilly stupidly asserted that "all terrorists are Muslims," it is hard to have much faith in reason's power these days.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Ben Franklin and the "Virtue" of the Founders

One of the stranger aspects of the contemporary attempt to argue that the Founders created a "Christian nation" is its use of Benjamin Franklin.  For example, as I noted in a recent post, Glenn Beck has appropriated Franklin's image for his own purposes.

I was reminded of this tendency by a letter to the editor in yesterday's Spartanburg Herald-Journal.  The writer insists that "our nation was founded by Christians, on Christian principles."  She then quotes Franklin as evidence for the "Christian nation" case: "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom."

Franklin was a great man, but he was a hardly a Christian in any sense this letter writer would understand.  Late in life, in 1790, Franklin was asked about his religion, and he stated forthrightly his views: "I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe.  That … the most acceptable Service we render him is doing good to his other Children."  Asked specifically about "Jesus of Nazareth," he said that while he valued Christ's "System of Morals" as the "best the World ever saw," he also had "some Doubts about his Divinity."  I doubt that most modern-day Christians would consider that the view of a good Christian.

He also thought Christ's divinity was an unimportant matter—the important thing, he thought, was that people follow the moral teachings, and if people believing in a divine Jesus aided that end, Franklin saw no harm and much good in that.  When it came to religion, Franklin felt it was best to "let others enjoy their religious sentiments, without reflecting on them for those that appeared to me unsupportable and even absurd."

The key to understanding Franklin, and I would argue most of the Founders, is the word "virtue."  Today's "Christian nation" advocates assume that since most Americans in the late 18th century were in fact Christians, that they therefore must have equated Christianity with virtue.  Thus every use of the word "virtue" in connection with the government they set up means that American government is based on "Christian principles."  But the Founders meant something quite different by that word. 

In his classic work Creation of the American Republic, the renowned historian of the American Revolution and Constitution Gordon Wood explains it well.  The Founders did indeed believe that self-government "cannot be supported without Virtue."  But what did they mean by "Virtue"?

This willingness of the individual to sacrifice his private interests for the good of the community—such patriotism or love of country—the eighteenth century termed "public virtue."

In short, it was not an explicitly religious, much less Christian, notion.  Their "virtue" referred to "social behavior," not a particular religious faith.  It was related to one's "sense of connection with the general system—his benevolence—his desire and freedom of doing good."

No one better exemplifies that attitude than Franklin.  In 1735, Franklin wrote "Dialogue Between Two Presbyterians," in which he argued that it was not necessary to be a Christian to be moral or virtuous: "Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means."  Just in case that wasn't clear enough, Franklin added: "A virtuous Heretick shall be saved before a wicked Christian."

This was Franklin's "virtue"—it was, above all else, a matter of how one treated other members of the community.  It was not a matter of religious faith, Christian or otherwise.  Franklin did not care what people believed—he cared how they acted, their charity, their social behavior.

In 1738, Franklin wrote a letter to his parents, who were concerned that their son had "imbib'd some erroneous Opinions" and strayed from their strongly held religious beliefs: "I think vital Religion has always suffer'd, when Orthodoxy is more regarded than Virtue. … at the last day, we shall not be examin'd what we thought, but what we did; and our Recommendation will not be that we said Lord, Lord, but that we did GOOD to our Fellow Creatures."

That is the "virtue" of the Founders.  If today's "Christian nation" zealots truly wanted to honor the Founders, they would stop trying to impose a dogmatic political version of their own religion on others, and would devote that energy instead to doing GOOD to their Fellow Creatures.

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.