Government Shutdown and the Return of the Fire-Eaters

Virginia's Edmund Ruffin, a fire eater who, early in the Civil War, vowed that he would would go down with the Confederate ship. And the son-of-gun did it, too.

Virginia’s Edmund Ruffin, a Fire-Eater who, early in the Civil War, vowed that he would go down with the Confederate ship rather than submit to Yankee rule. And the son-of-gun did it, too, with a gun.

History is sort of important. We as humans consistently look back on the dunderheaded actions our species took in the past and often vow that we’ll never again jump onto the bad idea train even when it passes by at a slow pace with open side cars. Some folks, however, can’t resist: they don’t just want to ride the bad idea train, they want to run it full speed into the gaping, boulder-strewn gorge of failed historical trends. We describe these people as being on the wrong side of history.

Such is the case with the radically conservative Republican caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, who are gleefully doing all that they can to turn the governmental train into a smouldering heap of wreckage. The current GOP-led House may validate the Greek philosopher Plato’s claim that all democracies must fall prey to the whims of society’s loudest, most dim-witted, authoritarian-minded nematodes, eventually collapsing into anarchic chaos before a tyrannical ruler reasserts control. The U.S. isn’t there yet, but the Tea Party caucus is sticking up the conductor, and it may just be a matter of time.

Over a the New York Times blog, Timothy Egan sees the House Republicans who have shut down the government in a desperate bid to destroy Obamacare as clearly one of those factions who are on the wrong side of history’s arch:

About 30 or so Republicans in the House, bunkered in gerrymandered districts while breathing the oxygen of delusion, are now part of a cast of miscreants who have stood firmly on the wrong side of history. The headline, today and 50 years from now, will be the same: Republicans closed the government to keep millions of their fellow Americans from getting affordable health care.

They are not righteous rebels or principled provocateurs. They are not constitutionalists, using the ruling framework built by the founders. Just the opposite: they are a militant fringe of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government trying to nullify an established law by extortion. This is not the design of the Constitution.

Egan goes on to compare the House GOP to the staunchly anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party of the 1850s, and to the right-wing nut bars that opposed Social Security and Medicare in the mid-20th century. These comparisons are apt, but Egan misses a comparison to another group to which the current House GOP bears an uncanny resemblance: the Fire-Eaters.

The Fire-Eaters were a rather unorganized group of extreme, unyielding, southern, pro-slavery politicians in the 1850s and 1860s who advocated for the protection of slavery from northern threats at any cost. During the build-up to the Civil War, the Fire-Eaters embraced immediate secession from the Union and the formation of a Southern Confederacy as the best means to protect and extend slavery in perpetuity. Northerners dubbed these guys “Fire-Eaters” due to the pompously over-heated rhetoric they brought to the slavery debate.

The House Republican caucus: the inmates have the keys.

The House Republican caucus: the inmates have the keys.

As historian Eric Walther explains in his definitive study of these pro-slavery southern radicals, some of the most famous Fire-Eaters such as — Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina, Edmund Ruffin of Virginia, and William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama — helped mould southern public opinion in 1860-61 towards accepting the necessity of disunion in the name of slavery’s defence. The Confederate States of America — the bloody, failed experiment in southern independence — is their great legacy.

Although the current House GOP isn’t advocating slavery (at least I’m pretty sure they aren’t), they are, like the Fire-Eaters before them, a “militant fringe” hell-bent on subverting the traditional rules of government as defined by the Constitution in order to assert the demands of a minority faction over the power of an elected majority. In another echo of the Fire-Eaters, the GOP House caucus, a group that no-less a right-wing luminary than Charles Krauthammer called the “Suicide Caucus,” is largely a southern-flavored bunch: half of their districts are in the South, while the rest represent rural districts in the West and Midwest.

The term “Suicide Caucus” is rather apt for this group; like the Fire-Eaters, they are incapable of rationally examining the effects that their demands might have on the country as a whole. Just as the Fire-Eaters’ constant badgering for secession and Confederate independence blinded them to the possible bloodbath of war that such demands entailed, the GOP caucus has been willing to shut down most of the federal government — and may default on the national debt — to achieve the goals of their minority faction.

Consider this section from an August 21, 2013 letter that congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC), speaking for the radical Tea Party caucus, sent to Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), urging the Orange One to risk a shutdown over Obamacare:

James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 58 that the ‘power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon … for obtaining a redress of every grievance…’ We look forward to collaborating to defund one of the largest grievances in our time and to restore patient-centered healthcare in America.

See what’s going on there? Meadows is claiming that the basic separation of governmental powers, as outlined in the Federalist Papers and the Constitution, justifies the right of one branch of government — in this case a branch in the clear minority — to essentially hold the entire government hostage by clinging to the congressional bag of money that keeps the government running. This is not a separation of powers; it’s a rejection of government itself, an extortion attempt by a minority to subvert the will of the majority.

This is precisely the kind of blatant shenanigans the Fire-Eaters pulled when justifying the need for the South to secede from the Union after Abraham Lincoln’s election. Consider these lines delivered in 1860 by arch-Fire-Eater William Lowndes Yancey to the Democratic Party Convention in Charleston, South Carolina, it which he urged the South to hold firm on its pro-slavery-or-else stance in the face of northern political power:

The South is in a minority, we have been tauntingly told to-day…We are, therefore, in a numerical minority. But we do not murmur at this; we cheerfully accept the result; but we as firmly claim the right of the minority—and what is that? We claim the benefit of the Constitution that was made for the protection of minorities…Bear with us then, while we stand sternly upon what is yet a dormant volcano, and say that we can yield no position until we are convinced that we are wrong.

Yancey and other Fire-Eaters, a political minority in 1860, claimed to be standing on a “dormant volcano,” unwilling to budge unless their demands were granted — or the volcano blew into the Civil War. Now, in 2013, the GOP congressional caucus finds itself in a similar position, in which they’ve already let the volcano of a government shutdown blow, and are willing to risk another explosion in the form of national default unless Obamacare is defunded — a concession that President Obama and the Democratic Party refuses to grant.

Willaim Loundess Ynacy: another southern Fire-Eater who plunged the nation into Civil WAr.

William Lowndes Yancey: another southern Fire-Eater who plunged the nation into Civil WAr.

This radicalized GOP caucus has already caused a good deal of collateral damage by shuttering multiple federal government functions, and even the Republicans’ traditional allies on Wall Street are fearful of the dangerous consequences of a national default. While the shutdown won’t reach the catastrophic bloodbath of the Fire-Eaters’ Civil War, the principle remains the same: radicalized minority factions are a danger to the functioning of democracy via the mechanisms of governmental operations.

If the GOP doesn’t want to prove Plato right by plunging the U.S. into turmoil followed by tyranny, they’d better bash some sense into their collective noggins. And soon. Let’s hope they don’t follow the example of Virginia Fire-Eater Edmund Ruffin, who, on June 18, 1865, faced with the reality of Confederate defeat in the Civil War, declared his “unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule…& to the Yankee race” before placing his rifle in his mouth and blowing his own brains out. Ruffin, true to convictions, gave himself fully to the principles to which he was devoted, but he took 600,000-plus Americans with him to the grave.

Let’s hope the Tea Party GOP caucus doesn’t do the same by taking the country down in flames in the name of “conservative principles.” 

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