The GOP, the Debt Ceiling, and the History of Killing Political Legitimacy

Poster advertising a "Save the Union" meeting, Frederick, Maryland, September, 1860.

Poster advertising a “Save the Union” meeting, Frederick, Maryland, September, 1860.

The situation was unprecedented in scope. The conservative party in America, its hardcore base mostly relegated to the South, had just suffered a devastating electoral defeat in which a lawyer and political progressive from Illinois won the U.S. presidency along mostly sectional lines, carrying primarily northern and west coast states. In response to the stinging rebuke of their policies by the majority of the American people, the conservative party decided that rather than accept the outcome of the presidential election, they would instead try to prevent the victorious party from governing by denying their very political legitimacy. In so doing, the conservative party in America waged war against democracy itself.

Does this sound familiar? If you pay any attention to history, it should. But I’m not talking about the current showdown in Washington over the debt ceiling, in which the congressional Republican caucus, its base largely confined to the South, is demanding that President Barack Obama agree to defund his signature health care reform law or else they will shut down the government. Rather, in the above paragraph, I was referring to the fallout from the election of 1860, in which the conservative southern Democratic Party decided that rather than accept the election of Illinois Republican Abraham Lincoln as president, the southern states would reject his election entirely and secede from the Union.

The two situations are not identical, but they share uncanny similarities, particularly the attempt by a conservative political party to deny the very political legitimacy of its opponent. Mark Twain once said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” That should be clear to anyone observing the current debt ceiling fiasco.

As the summer of 2013 winds down, the idea that a president who just won reelection would cave to the insane demands of a small, right-wing minority in the House, is, of course, ludicrous, but the Republican Party isn’t interested in shaping policy here. They’re doing something far more symbolic and destructive: like the southern Democratic Party secessionists of 1860-61, the conservative Republican radicals in the House are testing just how far they can get away with denying the current Democratic Party’s right to govern.

As Jonathan Chait observes in a recent piece for New York Magazine, the debt ceiling showdown is:

[A] Constitutional struggle, a kind of quasi-impeachment, that will test Obama’s mettle and, next to his reelection campaign, poses the most singular threat to his presidency.

The progression of events begins with a dynamic I described in a print piece at the beginning of 2012 – conservatives had come to regard the 2012 race as their last chance to win an election as authentic conservatives against a rising Democratic majority. Since their crushing defeat, they have ignored the task of refurbishing the party’s national appeal for its next national electoral bid, and instead have recommitted themselves to waging increasingly millenarian confrontations from their existing red state power base in Congress.

Most of us expected, at some level, that the election would cool the right’s apocalyptic fervor. Instead, the opposite has occurred. Paul Ryan candidly explained the calculation: “The reason this debt limit fight is different is, we don’t have an election around the corner where we feel we are going to win and fix it ourselves. We are stuck with this government another three years.” This is a remarkable confession. Republicans need to compel Obama to accept their agenda, not in spite of the fact that the voters rejected it at the polls but precisely for that reason.

Paul Ryan’s confession that for conservatives, a legitimate national election in which voters rejected their policies should be no impediment to Republicans trying to enact those very policies at any cost is indeed remarkable. Yet, it makes perfect sense when you consider that, as political scientist Corey Robin notes, radicalism is the very essence of conservatism. Recent political commentators’ revelations about the nature of the American right, Robin writes, are completely on target. Conservatism, he reminds us:

[L]ives in a fact-free universe, where ideological purity is more important than pragmatic solutions… it’s revolutionary and radical rather than realistic and moderate…it’s activist rather than accommodating…it’s, well,…not…really…conservative.

This preference for purity of ideology and rejection of compromise defines modern conservatism (and by “modern” in this context, I mean the conservatism that goes back to the reaction against the French Revolution) and helps explain the striking parallels between the debt ceiling showdown of 2013 and the secession crisis of 1860-61. In both instances, a reactionary conservative party, divided amongst itself  but nonetheless fearful that’s its grip on national power was slipping away, sought to use radical measures to prevent its political opponents from governing, despite their opponents having been victorious in democratic elections.

Take the issue of party division: contemporary political commentators have noted that the debt ceiling fight over Obamacare has spurred a Republican Party inner civil war in which House conservatives find themselves at odds with their Senate colleagues and even their former presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

Speaker of the House John Boener (R-OH) leads a Republican caucus that is threatening to shut down the Federal government.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) leads a Republican caucus that is the equivalent of political arsonists.

Similar party divisions over how best to preserve slavery against the northern based Republican Party split the Democratic Party into three factions during the 1860 presidential election. As a result of this split, Abraham Lincoln faced three Democratic challengers: the pro-slavery, states’ rights candidate John C. Breckinridge, whose support was strongest in the slave-heavy Deep South, the “Constitutional Union Party” candidate, John Bell, a moderate whose platform of compromise to keep the Union intact made him popular in the Border South, and Stephen Douglas of “popular sovereignty” fame, who represented the last hope of the pro-Union Democratic Party in the North. All factions wanted to preserve slavery, but were divided over how to do so.

Southern support for the pro-slavery, states’ rights Breckinridge faction eventually spilled over into support for secession. By seceding from the Union and forming the Confederate States of America, southern Democratic leaders flat-out rejected the results of a fair national election and denied the political legitimacy of Republican Abraham Lincoln to govern. Consider, for example, these lines from Georgia’s “Declaration of the Causes of Secession:”

The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party, under its present name and organization, is of recent origin. It is admitted to be an anti-slavery party. While it attracts to itself by its creed the scattered advocates of exploded political heresies, of condemned theories in political economy, the advocates of commercial restrictions, of protection, of special privileges, of waste and corruption in the administration of Government, anti-slavery is its mission and its purpose. By anti-slavery it is made a power in the state.

Such are the opinions and such are the practices of the Republican party, who have been called by their own votes to administer the Federal Government under the Constitution of the United States. We know their treachery; we know the shallow pretenses under which they daily disregard its plainest obligations. If we submit to them it will be our fault and not theirs.

To avoid these evils we resume the powers which our fathers delegated to the Government of the United States, and henceforth will seek new safeguards for our liberty, equality, security, and tranquillity.

Now, compare Georgia’s desire to “seek new safeguards for our liberty” with a statement from Representative Trent Franks (R-AZ) during the 2012 presidential election following one of multiple House Republican votes to repeal Obamacare:

I’m encouraged today to see the House of Representatives fulfill its intended role as the body closest to, and most ‘representative’ of, the American people.

House Republicans are delivering on their promise to do everything possible to prevent Obamacare, including continuing to work to defund the fatally flawed law.

The American people have been unmistakably clear in rejecting the notion of a socialized health care system, but have been unceremoniously ignored by this Administration. But make no mistake: President Obama has had his say; the Supreme Court has had its say; and the American people will have their say this November.

Just as the Georgia secession declaration claimed that the Lincoln administration had used “treachery” to gain control over the federal government and implement its anti-slavery agenda, Franks claimed that the Obama administration “unceremoniously ignored” the wishes of the American people by implementing Obamacare, and that the people would have their say by voting President Obama out of office in 2012. The American people, of course, HAD their say: but instead, they reelected President Obama, giving him every right to implement the Affordable Health Care Act.

So, when the traditional political routes failed, the House GOP resorted to taking the country hostage by pulling a page from the 1860-61 southern secessionists’ playbook: just as the secessionists threatened to tear the country apart when they lost an election, the House GOP are now threatening to shut the country down in a last-ditch effort to destroy Obamacare. In so doing, they are following the advice of conservative ideologues, like tax policy advocate Grover Norquist, who famously stated that Republicans’ strategy in the face of a Democratic president should be to “make it so that a Democrat cannot govern as a Democrat.”

This is what happened the last time democracy was voided in the U.S.

This is what happened the last time democracy was voided in the U.S.

Thus, while contemporary conservatives are not advocating secession, they are advocating the essence of secession: the idea that when a political party is defeated at the polls, is has the right to damage and destroy the democratic process in an effort to get its agenda recognized. Just as conservative Democrats denied Republican Abraham Lincoln’s right to govern in 1860-61 by seceeding from the Union, conservative Republicans in 2013 are denying Democrat Barack Obama’s right to govern by holding the federal government hostage.

The historical ironies are so deep that we just might drown in them. The events of 1860-61 and 2013 prove that, even in the world’s greatest democracy, the democratic process cannot be taken for granted. These events should also give pause those who still maintain that conservatism, as an allegedly reactionary movement, cannot be radical. In their effort to save the burning house from the flames of change, conservatives have historically been willing to burn the house down. Contemporary conservatives show no signs of bucking this trend as they circle the House of Representatives carrying torches and kerosene.

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