Tanenhaus of Blues

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review and the author of The Death of Conservatism, which came out shortly before the Tea Party-fueled 2010 mid-term election landslide embarrassed his thesis, is back at it again, with the cover story in this week’s New Republic on the ostensible “original sin” of the Republican Party—or the conservative movement that dominates the Republican Party.

His argument can be summed up in two words, or one proper name: John C. Calhoun.  (Okay, so that’s two words and an initial.  Quit nitpickling.)  Here’s a portion of Sam’s argument:

The true problem, as yet unaddressed by any Republican standard-bearer, originates in the ideology of modern conservatism. When the intellectual authors of the modern right created its doctrines in the 1950s, they drew on nineteenth-century political thought, borrowing explicitly from the great apologists for slavery, above all, the intellectually fierce South Carolinian John C. Calhoun. This is not to say conservatives today share Calhoun’s ideas about race. It is to say instead that the Calhoun revival, based on his complex theories of constitutional democracy, became the justification for conservative politicians to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.

This is the politics of nullification, the doctrine, nearly as old as the republic itself, which holds that the states, singly or in concert, can defy federal actions by declaring them invalid or simply ignoring them. We hear the echoes of nullification in the venting of anti-government passions and also in campaigns to “starve government,” curtail voter registration, repeal legislation, delegitimize presidents.

Now Sam is up to a good deal of mischief with this entire piece, and he especially misses the irony contained in this passage:

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.

In recent decades it has been liberalism that has embraced Calhoun’s doctrine of the “concurrent majority” most robustly, in such things as the specially-carved majority-minority districts to elect minorities to Congress (mostly black) who, by the very nature of these districts, marginalize themselves.  And the spirit of Calhoun was most evident in the explicit doctrines of the now largely forgotten Lani Guiner, Bill Clinton’s aborted nominee for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department 20 years ago.  Go back and read her writings—the ones that allegedly “shocked” Bill Clinton when he read them (as though he had no idea what he was getting)—and the parallels to Calhoun are precise.

But we shouldn’t be too hasty to reject all of Tanenhaus’s analysis out of hand.  There has been quite a lot of loose and untethered talk about “secession” from some conservatives, including the otherwise good governor of Texas, whose present efforts to get some businesses to secede from California for Texas I applaud.  And there are many misguided conservatives who do admire Calhoun and think his constitutional theory is worth reviving.  In this they bid to commit the same error as the Left.  Understanding the proper nature of majority rule—and its limits—in our democratic republic is indeed hard work, but conservatives shouldn’t imitate Tanenhaus’s slovenly habits of mind.

I was reminded of all this when I stumbled across the following footnote in Harry Jaffa’s New Birth of Freedom (p. 520), which I’m currently re-reading:

In 1981 President Ronald Reagan, in his inaugural address, declared that the states had made the Union, showing that Calhounism, even at the highest levels, was still alive and well.  I am confident that Reagan, a native of Illinois, had no idea that he was contradicting Lincoln.  His entourage, from which the speech emerged, like the conservative movement generally, was, however, filled with disciples of Calhoun.

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