Southern Conservatives Revive Calhounism—Tyranny of the Minority

A bill in South Carolina that would effectively nullify the Affordable Care Act is the latest sign of the modern Republican Party’s drift from the ideas that animated its creation, writes Jamelle Bouie.

South Carolina has, again, caught the nullification bug. As reported by The State, Republican lawmakers have proposed a bill that would allow the state attorney general to take a business to court if he has “reasonable cause to believe” that implementing the law would harm people.

One of the co-sponsors, state Sen. Larry Martin, insists that there’s nothing in the bill that would prevent a business from participating in a federal health-care exchange (Gov. Nikki Haley has already refused to build an exchange for her state). But that’s only technically true; under the proposal, there is nothing to stop the state attorney general from deciding that a participating business is harming her employees, and thus can no longer continue implementation.

Obviously, there will be no war if this bill passes—no one plans to fire on Fort Sumter, again. The most likely outcomes involve a lawsuit against the state of South Carolina—filed by businesses, like hospitals and health insurers, who want implementation—or nothing, as the state moves forward and its citizens are kept from access to decent, affordable health insurance. Congrats, South Carolina Republicans! You’ve scored an ideological win at the cost of immiseration of your fellow residents.

This push to essentially nullify the Affordable Care Act within the state’s borders is another indication of how far the modern Republican Party has fallen from the ideas that animated its creation. The GOP of Abraham Lincoln wasn’t just an anti-slavery party—or at least, one opposed to the expansion of slavery—it was a unionist party, one dedicated to the idea that there was a single United States, whose government could not be shattered by individual states.

This idea is in wide currency now, but it wasn’t in the middle of the 19th century. Then, an influential wing of Southern conservatives—led by the fiery John C. Calhoun of South Carolina—pushed the view that the federal government was subordinate to the states, who could nullify the Union at any time. This was an ideology borne of history—the exact nature of the constitutional pact signed in 1783 was unclear—and of economics. Calhoun and his allies, intellectual and political, were overwhelmingly slave owners, deeply invested in the system of bondage and white supremacy that supported their society.

Calhoun died in 1850—10 years before Lincoln won the presidency and sparked a rebellion among Southern states—but his ideas motivated and inspired the secessionists.

Of course, the Civil War settled the broad question of national authority. But Calhoun’s core idea—that political minorities owed no allegiance to the decisions of majorities—lived on. It found refugee in the Southern wing of the Democratic Party—through segregationists who opposed every effort to pass civil rights laws and end state-sponsored violence against African-Americans—and eventually fused with conservative ideology in the 1960s and ’70s as the center of gravity in the GOP moved from the West to the South.

In the last four years, Calhounism—the tyranny of the minority—has moved to the forefront of conservative ideology. You can see it in the parade of Republicans’ bills (37, at last count) to repeal the Affordable Care Act, as if it were forced on the country and not passed by majorities in the House and Senate. You can see it in the moves—some aborted, some not—to rig presidential elections by changing the distribution of electoral votes to favor land and rural areas over cities and people. And you can see it in the Mitch McConnell–led effort to block implementation of duly elected laws through obstruction of Senate business. Republicans have blocked nominations to vacant judgeships and federal agencies for no other reason than opposition to the president’s agenda—in the case of his judicial nominees—or opposition to the law, in the case of Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

These moves, as many observers have noted over the last four years, are unprecedented. The Senate was never meant to be a super-majoritarian institution, and lawmakers have never been able to block implementation of laws because they disagree with the contents. But in the Calhoun-infused GOP, this is the new normal.

If there’s anything positive you can say about the Republican Party’s Calhounism, it’s that they haven’t embraced the full spectrum of Calhoun’s ideas on race. In a speech on the Senate floor in 1837, Calhoun defended slavery as a “positive good” and not a “necessary evil.” It was, he argued, a universal truth that “there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.”

With that said, it’s not as if the Republican Party has shied away from using ugly racial rhetoric for political advantage. Mitt Romney’s Ohio campaign was centered on the (false) claim that President Obama had ended the work requirement in welfare, and was simply sending checks to recipients. Given the established rhetorical association between “welfare” and African-Americans, the dog whistle wasn’t hard to hear. More recently, a Tea Party activist in Texas told a crowd of Republicans that “the Republican Party doesn’t want black people to vote if they’re going to vote 9 to 1 for Democrats.” And on top of this, Phyllis Schlafly —a luminary of conservative activism—argued that the GOP should abandon immigration reform and further commit itself to being the party of white people. Losing 82 percent of nonwhites, it seems, just isn’t enough.

None of this is to say that the GOP can’t change direction and move away from the legacy of John C. Calhoun. For now at least, it’s barreling ahead to the past, eager to avoid any change.