In 1820 Thomas Jefferson described the debate over Missouri’s admission to the Union as a slave-state as a “fire bell in the night,” a fateful warning of trouble to come. It took 40 years, but with the Civil War his foreboding was confirmed.
The current dysfunction in the U.S. House of Representatives potentially is another fire bell. While attention has been focused on House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) – his color, his ties, his tears or the next speaker to be led to the slaughter – too little attention has been paid to the more significant and basic issue: the recalcitrant radical bloc in the Congress bent upon the destruction of democratic government as we know it.
The assault is not on Boehner, or on the speakership, but on the government and the compromise that is essential to its function. It is about states’ rights as distinct from federal rights. It is about so clogging up the machinery essential to doing the public’s business as to make it impossible.
What is to be put in place of their discredited “government”? The radicals have no answer. Their objective is first to discredit then to destroy. They didn’t go to Washington to get something done. Instead they want to keep things from being done. Simply, they do not want government to work.
How did we come to this? It is no surprise that the core of the radical group is from the South. When Republican candidates like Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan adopted the “Southern Strategy” to attract dissident states-rights Democrats to the Republican banner, they were playing with fire. The late GOP consultant Lee Atwater told me, in rather plain language, they were trying to attract “negrophobes” who opposed integration and the move to the left by Democrats like Harry Truman, Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson. But in moving to recruit these people, they unwittingly and possibly unintentionally absorbed the virulent strain of racism that infected the region.
The code word for that racism was states’ rights, but there was more than racism encapsulated within “states’ rights.” The term also meant anti-federalism and specifically the right of the states to nullify federal laws with which they didn’t agree – the issue the carnage of the Civil War was to have settled. Note that these are heretical ideas that, carried to a logical conclusion, lead to anarchy.
All it took to bring these smoldering coals to light was the election of Barack Obama and the advent of the tea party. It had taken some 40 years, but by 2010 the Republicans incorporating the racism and anti-federalism of the former Democrats controlled the South. And, with the addition of Midwestern tea partyers, they controlled Congress. (Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, is one of the most outspoken proponents for nullification.)
With the addition of gerrymandering to the electoral process, the congressional anarchists are immune from electoral challenge. The decapitation of Boehner and before him of Eric Cantor will only embolden them. It is hard to see an end to gridlock, backbiting and threats to the fiscal integrity of the government.
Is this a fight over the very existence of the unified federal government 165 years after Jefferson heard that fateful fire bell in the night?
We are on the brink of a radical transformation of our government. Will it be a peaceful transition worked out by reasonable people, or another cataclysmic event like the Civil War? When for some compromise is a dirty word, it is hard to see how we can reach a reasonable agreement.
James Leutze is former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.