Excerpt from piece by Sam Tanenhaus for The New Republic
“American politics,” Wills wrote in 1975, “is the South’s revenge for the Civil War.” He was referring to the rise of Southern and Sunbelt figures—the later ones would include Jimmy Carter, Reagan, Bill Clinton, and the two Bushes—whose dominance of presidential politics ended only with Obama’s election in 2008. However, the two parties dealt with race differently. Carter and Clinton had pro–civil rights histories and directly courted black voters. But as the GOP continued remolding itself into a Southern party—led in the ’90s by the Georgian Newt Gingrich and by the Texans Dick Armey and Tom DeLay—it resorted to an overtly nullifying politics: The rise of the Senate veto as a routine obstructionist tool, Jesse Helms’s warning that Clinton “better have a bodyguard” if he ever traveled to North Carolina, the first protracted clashes over the debt ceiling, Gingrich’s threat to withhold disaster relief, the government shutdown, Clinton’s impeachment despite public disapproval of the trial. All this, moreover, seemed to reflect, or at least parallel, extremism in the wider culture often saturated in racism: Let’s not forget Minutemen and Aryan Nation militias, nor the “anti-government” terrorist Timothy McVeigh, whom the FBI linked to white supremacists. The war on government—and against agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives—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.
Reformers in the GOP insist that this course can be reversed with more intensive outreach efforts, better recruitment of minority candidates, and an immigration compromise. And a new cast of GOP leaders—Ted Cruz, Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio—have become national favorites. But each remains tethered to movement ideology. At the recent National Review Institute conference in Washington, Cruz even urged a “partial government shutdown,” recalling the glory years of the ’90s, but downplaying its destructive outcome.
Denial has always been the basis of a nullifying politics. Calhoun, too, knew he was on the losing side. The arithmetic he studied most closely was the growing tally of new free territories. Eventually, they would become states, and there would be sufficient “absolute” numbers in Congress to abolish slavery. A century later, history pushed forward again. Nonetheless, conservatives, giving birth to their movement, chose to ignore these realities and to side with “the South.”
Race will always be a complex issue in America. There is no total cleansing of an original sin. But the old polarizing politics is a spent force. The image of the “angry black man” still purveyed by sensationalists such as Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza is anachronistic today, when blacks and even Muslims, the most conspicuous of “outsider” groups, profess optimism about America and their place in it. A politics of frustration and rage remains, but it is most evident within the GOP’s dwindling base—its insurgents and anti-government crusaders, its “middle-aged white guys.” They now form the party’s one solid bloc, its agitated concurrent voice, struggling not only against the facts of demography, but also with the country’s developing ideas of democracy and governance. We are left with the profound historical irony that the party of Lincoln—of the Gettysburg Address, with its reiteration of the Declaration’s assertion of equality and its vision of a “new birth of freedom”—has found sustenance in Lincoln’s principal intellectual and moral antagonist. It has become the party of Calhoun. [READ full article]
Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, is working on a biography about William F. Buckley Jr.
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