Crisis of the Calhoun United

Commentators have missed the most significant element of Sam Tanenhaus’s controversial essay “Original Sin: Why the GOP is and will continue to be the party of white people.” Unfortunately both Tanenhaus and his critics have missed the major point about John C. Calhoun—Tanenhaus by overstating his influence on the right and him and his critics by missing Calhoun’s influence on our political understanding generally.

The editor of the New York Times Book Review, Tanenhaus argues that “the intellectually fierce South Carolinian John C. Calhoun” had a decisive, enduring influence on the intellectual formation of the modern right.

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.

Thus the Republican Party is “ceasing to be a national party” and rests on a shrinking base of white men (and married white women).

But as the GOP continued remolding itself into a Southern party … it resorted to an overtly nullifying politics …. The war on government … had become a metaphor for the broader “culture wars,” one reason that the GOP’s dwindling base is now at odds with the “absolute majority” on issues like gun control and same-sex marriage.

To promote closer attention to the core argument, I exclude here Tanenhaus’s more inflammatory claims that Republican policy embraces a mixture of plausible policy differences such as use of the Senate filibuster and wacko “Aryan nation militias.” Throughout the article he engages in innuendo, e.g.—“It is not a coincidence that the resurgence of nullification is happening while our first African American president is in office.”

Tanenhaus implies that the Republicans have seceded from America itself. For him the Tea Party, among other conservatives, is not about the Declaration of Independence and its constitutionalism but rather about what he derides as the “politics of frustration and rage”—as if the disputed election of 2000 did not elicit such passions on both sides.[i]  The right’s problem cannot be resolved by policy debates but rather by psychological analysis. Tanenhaus is as ruthless (and clever) as FDR was in attempting to isolate and demonize Republicans as Tories and fascists.

In a justifiably indignant response, “Sam’s Smear,” (link no longer available) Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru contend that the essay “makes sense only as an attempt to identify racism as the core of conservatism.”

They convincingly show that Tanenhaus has “wildly exaggerated” Calhoun’s influence on the early (and certainly the present) National Review, the journal they write for and then proceed to confute his particular charges.[ii]

In an exasperated search for the origins of the Calhoun calumny the NR account lights on none other than the “brilliant” political theorist Harry V. Jaffa.

We suspect that an intramural disagreement among conservatives has confused Tanenhaus about Calhoun’s influence. For many years a group of conservative scholars led by the brilliant Harry Jaffa have contended that the Constitution must be read in light of the moral principles of the Declaration of Independence. It is a powerful argument even if not all of the implications Jaffa and his students draw from it are convincing. In his more recent and polemical works, unfortunately, Jaffa has often claimed that anyone who disagrees with any aspect of his theory is thereby taking Calhoun’s premises on board. If you didn’t believe in natural law, you were a Calhounist….

While Tanenhaus does not mention Jaffa, he seems to have exaggerated Jaffa’s insults. If that is what happened, one irony is that Jaffa’s views have largely prevailed among mainstream conservative intellectuals, who are far more Lincolnian in their thinking about the Declaration than they were before he began writing…. In short, Jaffa issued an incidental and gratuitous smear against rival conservatives, and Tanenhaus has made the incidental central and the gratuitous fundamental in constructing a political smear against all conservatives.

That Jaffa, always causing mischief, even to the extent of the self-indulgent “gratuitous smear”!  Even supplying the enemy with ammunition to be shot back at allies—as the odious Sidney Blumenthal did with Jaffa in his attack on Irving Kristol.  Of course the notion that “Jaffa’s views have largely prevailed among mainstream conservative intellectuals” wildly exaggerates his influence.  The actual attitude toward him is more accurately reflected in this Hudson Institute panel honoring Harvey Mansfieldnote the stir caused by Ross Douthat’s story involving Jaffa and Mansfield.

But Jaffa is no amoral arms dealer, merely out to make a buck in his own cause. His assaults on leading conservatives (e.g., Justice Scalia) are intended to show how they share the fundamental premises of their liberal opponents. The reductio ad Calhounum applies to left and right alike. For Jaffa, Calhounism is the “original sin” of both contemporary conservatism and liberalism, just as Rousseau informs both.[iii]

Jaffa’s Calhoun is the evil genius who sought to undermine the central teaching of the American founding, the human equality that leads to the social compact. And the social contract leads to limited government. Unlike Jefferson, who thought that states might better protect natural rights than the national government, Calhoun banished natural rights from politics.  He did this under the guise of his “concurrent majority,” which he promoted as a means of guaranteeing consensus in politics and moderating extremes. And with the end of natural rights, there is no right to revolution and therewith no limited government. It is fitting that a political philosophy which tolerates slavery would point to unlimited government. Both Tanenhaus and his thoughtful NR critics were too hasty to jump to race as the most egregious symptom of contemporary Calhounism, when in fact it is unlimited government. [iv] This follows from Calhoun’s notion of unlimited sovereignty, which in turn followed from his assumption of historical development, culminating in a superior race. “In Calhoun’s worldview,” Jaffa succinctly states, “right is founded on might….”

Progressive political science affirmed Calhoun’s view of the Union and of race, with of course no regrets for the loss of natural rights and the limited government it required. Charles Merriam maintained, “The events of the Civil War firmly established the fact that the one and indivisible sovereignty belongs to the nation, or the Union as a whole. Calhoun’s idea of the nature of sovereignty was accepted, but it was applied in a manner wholly different from what he had expected or intended.”[v]  If war is simply chaos requiring naked force to subdue, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural make no sense whatsoever. Moreover, Progressivism affirms racialist nationalism:

It would, of course, be a gross exaggeration to say that all those who maintained the supremacy of the Union [like Lincoln!] repudiated the social-contract theory, but it is necessary to recognize the fact that the nation was something different in the popular mind and in the philosophic mind from ‘the people’ of earlier days. Nation carried with it the idea of an ethnic and geographic unity, constituted without the consent of anyone in particular; ‘people’ was considered to be formed by a contract between certain individuals.

In Calhoun’s view, according to Merriam, “liberty is not the natural right of all men, but only the reward of the races or individuals properly qualified for its possession.” In this, multiculturalism is as much a denial of natural rights liberties as the racial superiority touted by most Progressives.  Both lead to unlimited government.

If we take the natural rights perspective urged by Harry Jaffa, we see that the American “original sin” is not essentially about race but rather about injustice—the tyrannical power of one over another. Slavery, with the British empire, was the most glaring example of that fundamental injustice. And today other instances now flourish, again in the form of Lincoln’s definition of slavery: “You work, I eat.”

[i] Tanenhaus overlooks the most obvious reasons for frustration on the right (which reflect those felt throughout the country)—an inexplicable foreign policy and a lingering financial crisis, plus a President and two nominees of their party who couldn’t convincingly articulate what ought to be done and a President who exacerbated their passions through taunts. I saw Republican frustration first-hand in a mercifully brief career as a speechwriter for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.

[ii] On the Republican “southern strategy,” note the important contribution of Gerard Alexander, “The Myth of the Racist Republicans (link no longer available),” Claremont Review of Books, Spring 2004. “[R]esearch consistently shows that identification with the GOP is stronger among the South’s younger rather than older white voters, and that each cohort has also became more Republican with time.”

[iii] For a variety of natural rights approaches to politics see the book I reviewed for this website.

[iv] Harry V. Jaffa, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), chapter 7, 403-471.

[v] Charles Merriam, A History of American Political Theories (New York: Macmillan, 1903), see especially chapter 7, which focuses on Calhoun, 268-269, 297-299.