The Party of Rich Old White Men — Now, Tomorrow & Forever

In light of Lindsay Graham’s latest anti-Hagel (anti-Obama) tantrums, Sam Tanenhaus, “who is working on a biography about William F. Buckley Jr.”, has an interesting piece in TNR on the long shadow of nullification in American history:

… The true problem, as yet unaddressed by any Republican standard-bearer, originates in the ideology of modern conservatism. When the intellectual authors of the modern right created its doctrines in the 1950s, they drew on nineteenth-century political thought, borrowing explicitly from the great apologists for slavery, above all, the intellectually fierce South Carolinian John C. Calhoun. 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. There is a strong sectionalist bias in these efforts. They flourish in just the places Kevin Phillips identified as Republican strongholds—Plains, Mountain, but mainly Southern states, where change invites suspicion, especially when it seems invasive, and government is seen as an intrusive force. Yet those same resisters—most glaringly, Tea Partiers—cherish the entitlements and benefits provided by “Big Government.” Their objections come when outsider groups ask for consideration, too. Even recent immigrants to this country sense the “hidden hand” of Calhoun’s style of dissent, the extended lineage of rearguard politics, with its aggrieved call, heard so often today, “to take back America”—that is, to take America back to the “better” place it used to be. Today’s conservatives have fully embraced this tradition, enshrining it as their own “Lost cause,” redolent with the moral consolations of noble defeat…

Calhoun’s innovation was to develop a radical theory of minority-interest democracy based on his mastery of the Constitution’s quirky arithmetic, which often subordinated the will of the many to the settled prejudices of the few. At the time of the constitutional convention, the total population of the Union, as reported by the most recent census, was just under 3.5 million; yet, Calhoun pointed out, the four smallest states, “with a population of only 241,490, something more than the fourteenth part of the whole, could have defeated the ratification.”…

For [William F. Buckley’s] National Review, Calhoun was the Ur-theorist of a burgeoning but outnumbered conservative movement, “the principal philosopher of the losing side,” whose championing of the Tenth Amendment “may have the effect of shaking inchoate states-righters out of their opportunistic stupor” and give rise to a new politics…

This remains the perspective of the American right, only today the minority of “concurrent voices” speak in the bitter tones of denial, as modernization and egalitarianism go forward. In retreat, the nullifying spirit has been revived as a form of governance—or, more accurately, anti-governance. Its stronghold is the Tea Party–inflected House of Representatives, whose nullifiers would plunge us all over the “fiscal cliff.” We see it too in continuing challenges to “Obamacare,” even after it was validated by the Roberts Court. And we see it as well in Senator Rand Paul’s promise to “nullify anything the president does” to impose new gun controls. Each is presented not as a practical attempt to find a better answer, but as a “Constitutional” demand for restoration of the nation to its hallowed prior self. It is not a coincidence that the resurgence of nullification is happening while our first African American president is in office

68 replies
  1. 1
    Gin & Tonic says:

    Way to stomp on Doug.

  2. 2
    Baud says:

    Awesome. I’m currently reading American Lion. Very topical.

  3. 3
    cathyx says:

    @Gin & Tonic: All Doug’s post is that he’s at a meetup. Not a lot to talk about on that one.

  4. 4
    Upper West says:

    I don’t get the attraction of conservatism to anyone but wealthy people. It’s nothing more than rationalizing accumulation of wealth by the few. All of the fancy, intellectual, “Burkean” theorizing is all geared toward comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted. When race helps achieve that end (see Reagan) they use it. Buckley was no better than any of the others.

  5. 5
    geg6 says:

    I read that yesterday. He all but draws diagrams for the rest of the media as to what is going on in today’s GOP. But they won’t listen, even to Tanenhaus, a pundit not known for being liberal. He’ll be ignored, if not shunned.

  6. 6
    Xecky Gilchrist says:

    Didn’t we have a whole war about this?

  7. 7
    bemused says:


    Powerline and Spectator have already weighed in. PL: Tanenhaus already embarrassed himself after tea party 2010 landslide and Spectator cries Whatever Happened to Sam Tanenhaus?

  8. 8
    Baud says:

    Andrew Jackson:

    I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which It was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.

  9. 9
    PsiFighter37 says:

    Yes, but when you take American History in high school, Calhoun is mentioned in the same reverential tones as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay as the three giants of politics of that time (fuck, they were all pretty detestable people, and look at how they are lionized).

    The moral of the story is you can be a clown and still be looked upon fondly in the history books. I don’t think calling the Teabaggers Calhounists will change a damn thing. Heck, take a look at his old-school picture – pretty much the personification of a humorless, wild-eyed white man from the South.

  10. 10
    Kathleen says:

    I heard Tannehaus interviewed on NPR this evening, and he attributed the GOP’s problems with African Americans to some “principled”, rational conservative state’s rights “philosophy”. He did not mention the Southern Strategy and GOP pandering to racism and fear as a possible reason, so I disregarded any points he made. I did not read the entire article so my assessment could be wrong. But the NPR guy was really impressed (he and Same talked like they were old buddies) so I will stand by my initial impressiont that Tannenhaus is to put it nicely, makes excuses for racists.

  11. 11
    Chris says:

    @Upper West:

    Quoting Roger Moore – conservatism is a belief in hierarchy and a hatred of those who challenge it. Many people, from the richest bankers in New York to the poorest wife beaters in Appalachia, can relate to that.

  12. 12
    Omnes Omnibus says:


    The moral of the story is you can be a clown and still be looked upon fondly in the history books.

    One the guys from that period who gets glossed over is John Quincy Adams who is one of the more accomplished people to have been president. What’s more, he tended to be on the good side of most of the major issues of the time.

  13. 13
    muddy says:

    Tannenhaus was on with Tweety, and Tweety loved him, but I wasn’t paying attention to what was said, so who knows. That Tweets can swing a lot of different ways.

  14. 14
    piratedan says:

    Calhoun was one bitter old fuck, South Carolina native who fucked up the Supreme Court for years iirc. There are so many things that this country could be doing, building light rail, eradicating poverty, reaching for other planets if not the stars, investing in science to solve the problems of today (thereby creating tomorrows problems according to some) letting people, all people exercise the freedom to be who they want to be and love who they care to love and instead, we got Old Testament God Botherers and Rich Old Dudes that engage in full time schadenfrudism telling the MAJORITY of us how things are gonna be. I understand working within and thru the system but it sure gets tiresome watching these fuckers continually putting spanners in the spokes and chortling as the country goes ass over the handle bars

  15. 15
    Redshirt says:

    I snark with the snarkiest of them, but is anyone else genuinely afraid of these Wingnuts and Teabaggers and Libertarians and other Republicans? Not in a physical way, they’re not gonna home invade, but rather for their political influence? They’re mad, and they’ve got undue influence.

    Throw in a charismatic leader and a series of crisis and we could easily tip into a Christian Fascist Wonderland and if that happens, hoo boy! Watch out world.

    Or am I being overly dramatic/concerned?

  16. 16
    PsiFighter37 says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: True, but the perception of how JQA got himself into the White House at the time made it difficult for him to really be all that effective. He acquitted himself well after he lost in 1828, though.

  17. 17
    BGinCHI says:

    In the future they will wonder how we ever got along with these fuckers without either putting them in jail or killing them.

    And no, I’m not kidding.

  18. 18
  19. 19
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Redshirt: I think the danger point for that came about 10 years ago and we made it through, damaged and tarnished but more or less alive.

  20. 20
    Evolving Deep Southerner says:


    Quoting Roger Moore

    That shit’s deep. Which Bond movie was that from?

  21. 21
    Matt says:

    This is not to say conservatives today share Calhoun’s ideas about race.

    Of course not – Calhoun would doubtless be utterly disgusted by modern conservatives, who still hate everybody who isn’t white (and male) but are now generally too chickenshit to actually say it in public.

  22. 22
    J says:

    Ooh! ‘Fiercely intellectual’ and ‘complex’. Sounds positively Burkean, if I may pretend to be DougJ for a moment.

  23. 23
    Evolving Deep Southerner says:

    @efgoldman: Odd Job? The midget from “Fantasy Island?” The Lurch-like guy with the teeth who chewed through the cablecar cable? I’m stumped.

  24. 24
    lamh35 says:

    OT, but I don’t know if this can be labelled as KARMA being a bitch or just sweet schadenfreude.

    Ex-Rep. Joe Walsh: I Can’t Afford Child Support Payments

    It’s sad situation, but all I can think is just “get job moocher”

  25. 25
    DFH no.6 says:

    As JK Galbraith put it so well:

    “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

    Yep, that’s bedrock right there.

    “I got mine Jack, keep your hands off o’ my stack” and “Devil take the hindmost” are older, more direct aphorisms that also get to the foundational conservative principles.

    Everything else in conservatism is built on that.

  26. 26
    Sly says:

    This is not to say conservatives today share Calhoun’s ideas about race.

    I call bullshit.

    Calhoun believed that systematized white supremacy as exemplified by slavery presented a floor under which white citizens could not fall. While they might not have much, at least they weren’t black, and that ameliorated class anxieties and antagonisms that Calhoun saw in what he pejoratively termed “civilized” Europe.

    Buckley and modern conservatism was and is no different, with the possible exception that they’ve bought into Calhoun’s idea lock, stock, and barrel without realizing the underlying con. That was Buckley’s particular strength; you could always count on him to slather a thin veneer of patrician snobbery on the most reprobate ideas of the 18th and 19th centuries.

    When you ask a conservative who shouts “we want our America back!” they don’t mean 1800 or 1850 or 1898 or 1916 or 1926. They mean the 1950s. The same era with sky-high marginal tax rates and large government bureaucracies, both of which existed to help whites move from the cities to the suburbs. They were fine with VA loans and FHA loans and college loans and large state education systems and interstate highway projects. Even food stamps and disability benefits and widespread industrial unionization.

    But as soon as people who didn’t look like them started breaking down the barriers to entry, those same tax systems and bureaucracies became an intrusive nanny state that kept the undeserving and lazy in a perpetual state of dependency. This is not coincidence.

  27. 27
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    @muddy: I was also multi-tasking, but I thought Tweety had a pretty good day, once you got past Brother Matthews Old Time Tonsured Catholic Radio Hour with Father Dionne and Sister Saint Melinda the Perforated of The Washington Post. I grew up Catho and didn’t know what the fuck those people were talking about.

    Tweety’s been good on racist dog-whistles and was about the only TV shouting head to see the Iraq War for what it was. I was more surprised to Howard Feinman say that seeing that clip of Cheney talking about “we know” Saddam has reconstituted his nuclear weapons program made his blood boil, or words to that effect. But it doesn’t bother him to John McCain blathering about “the Surge” or Condi PDB Mushroom Cloud Rice being hired as a commentator by CBS? To his credit, Tweety tried to draw a line from Cheney to clownery of the Hagel hearings.

  28. 28
    Redshirt says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: I agree to a point. But the crazy is much crazier now, with no signs of abating. Surely there are lines that once crossed are hard to uncross? We all speak of the tide of demographics, but rest assured there’s plenty of Wingers to cause deep damage, and there will be for some time.

  29. 29
  30. 30
    NotMax says:

    @ jeffreyw

    Johnny Fever lives!

  31. 31
    Aji says:

    @Sly: THIS.

    It’s all a zero-sum game to them, one based on skin color and other such differences. If one of those people gets something, to them, it by definition takes something away from themselves – even when it doesn’t.

  32. 32
    Citizen_X says:


    Heck, take a look at his old-school picture – pretty much the personification of a humorless, wild-eyed white man from the South.

    Damn straight. Just googled his image–if you saw him on the street, you’d expect him to be yelling at lampposts.

    I think his picture is in the dictionary under “Frightwig,” too.

  33. 33

    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 kind of have a similar thing going on, in reverse, as well. Here in Tennessee, every progressive thing Nashville and Memphis have done is being addressed at the state legislature. For example, last week the Memphis parks commission voted to rename three Confederate parks so they don’t, you know, harken back to the Confederacy and slavery and whatnot. And that sparked a State House Republican to put forth a bill banning such things in the future.

    Similarly, when Nashville’s Metro council passed a non-discrimination ordinance which included the GLBT folks, the state legislature nullified it with a statewide law saying no municipality could pass a discrimination ordinance stricter than state law.

    And today we have a state rep putting forth a bill that bans “all-comers” rules at universities, clearly targeting Vanderbilt University which passed such a thing last year.

    My sense is that it’s not so much “nullification” as it is, “fuck you.” Republicans are the amygdala party; they really just want to react to stuff, to punish, to say FUCK YOU. That’s about it and it doesn’t get much deeper than that.

  34. 34
    dmsilev says:

    @lamh35: Walsh really was one of the worst people elected to office in 2010, and yes I know that’s a high bar to clear. Since he’s set up a PAC that he’s running and I believe has a radio show, I call bullshit on the “oh, I’m so poor that I can’t afford child support” thing. Especially given his past history of being just a tad …sloppy with such payments.

  35. 35
    Mayur says:

    @PsiFighter37: Courtesy of Old Hickory hisself:

    “I have only two regrets: I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.”

  36. 36
    Poopyman says:


    Or am I being overly dramatic/concerned?

    No, history says you are not being overly concerned. Especially if we’re subjected to another economic emergency. But that could never happen these days, now could it?

  37. 37
    Citizen_X says:


    But as soon as people who didn’t look like them started breaking down the barriers to entry, those same tax systems and bureaucracies became an intrusive nanny state that kept the undeserving and lazy in a perpetual state of dependency. This is not coincidence.


    Also, I think the Europeans got to “Soshulizm” faster, precisely because they were ethnic nation-states with fairly homogeneous populations. Now that they’re dealing with the combination of high immigration & low native birth rates, we’re seeing a lot of ugly racism surfacing (see: any Italian soccer game).

  38. 38
    greennotGreen says:

    @Chris: I’d just like to point out that there are in all likelihood wife-beaters among the richest bankers in New York.

  39. 39
    patrick II says:

    Also under “republican venality”, from the Chicago Sun Times:

    Ex-Tea Party Rep. Joe Walsh wants to stop paying child support because he’s out of a job
    After insisting he wasn’t a “deadbeat dad” throughout his failed campaign for re-election, ex-U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh skipped last month’s child support payment and has asked to stop paying altogether. His reason: Since he’s out of Congress, he’s now unemployed.

    A teabagger’s version of “Personal responsibility”

  40. 40
    mir13 says:

    @Redshirt: Yes. Because clearly it is they who are worried about us and our charismatic leader who is getting us through their many GOP created crises, by using his considerable, some say undue, political influence. It is very nice to see them not handling adversity well. The Nazi fucks get no pity from me. Personally, I hope O-Dog goes all Uncle Billy Sherman on ’em. But I’ll settle for the continued self-nullification of the GOP, with just a little push from Metrosexual Black Abe Lincoln.

  41. 41
    muddy says:

    @Jim, Foolish Literalist: I love how he says “Cheeeny”.

  42. 42
    Suffern ACE says:

    @patrick II: so when he was in congress, he tried to get out of it arguing that Congressmen didn’t have to appear in court and have their checks docked.

  43. 43
    Gretchen says:

    @patrick II: Joe Walsh is the same guy who had the money to take his girlfriend to Italy and Mexico, and lend his campaign $35000, while racking up $117000 in back child support. He thought it “classless” of Tammy Duckworth to bring this up as an example of his failure to meet his responsibilities.

  44. 44
    Cacti says:


    Buckley and modern conservatism was and is no different, with the possible exception that they’ve bought into Calhoun’s idea lock, stock, and barrel without realizing the underlying con.

    I believe Buckley bought into Calhoun’s ideas wholesale, as he was quite the outspoken racist in the early days of National Review. He argued that even a numerical minority of whites should be able to enforce segregationist policies against their negro inferiors.

  45. 45
    Chris says:


    No, you’re not being overly concerned. But I think there’s reason for hope that we can overcome them. Personally, the election and its aftermath have left me feeling better about the country than I have in years. The fight isn’t even close to over, but you can feel the country shifting and not in a way that favors them.

  46. 46
    Chris says:


    Where we had black people, Europe had Jews and Gypsies, who were also used as scapegoats to appeal to white backlash, which turned out even more nastily than ours did. More generally, just about any society has groups of “different people” that you can scapegoat with identity politics the way our conservatives do to blacks – if a category like that isn’t readily available, just make one up. I don’t think race is the whole story of why Europe turned out farther to the left than we did.

  47. 47
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Chris: The fact that whole chunks of it got blowed up a couple times in the last century might have come into play.

  48. 48
    Chris says:


    Indeed there are. But the difference is that for the guy in the Appalachian trailer, wife-beating is just about the only way for him to exercise his hierarchical privileges, unless he also has kids.

    The banker can screw over a loooooooooooooot more people in a lot more ways.

  49. 49
    Yutsano says:

    @Chris: Really it’s because the European right was even more extreme than ours was. Most European countries were either monarchies or dictatorships going into WWII, and then basically most of their societies got rebuilt from the ground up with American help afterwards. The end result was a very strong desire to not go back to the “good” old days. There was also not such a strong antipathy to socialism since it was not associated with violence like what happened in the US. The end result is they ended up being significantly more liberal than the US. A lot of the other countries in the world then accepted a lot of their social policies as models. Medicare was originally supposed to be a single payer system for everyone, but Johnson couldn’t get Congress to sign off on all of that, so he fixed the problem he could. We’ve had that answer staring right at us since 1965 and it’s gotten nowhere. We continue to make teh Bismarck cry.

  50. 50
    Short Bus Bully says:

    That comment is super dope. Fuckin’ nailed it.

  51. 51
    Brendanyc says:

    @Upper West: Upper West Says:

    I don’t get the attraction of conservatism to anyone but wealthy people. It’s nothing more than rationalizing accumulation of wealth by the few. All of the fancy, intellectual, “Burkean” theorizing is all geared toward comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted.

    i think the last part of that statement answers your quandary in the first part. Conservatives are *attracted to* the idea of comforting the comfortable and afflicting everybody who is not like them. this is not a bug of conservatism, it is the main feature.
    yes, it also appeals as a more intellectual and less obvious way to express one’s racism, and yes it is a shield against the various ‘others’ who are (correctly) perceived as outnumbering ‘us’ and the rest. but mainly i think it is that conservatives are, or want very much to be, the comfortable and cling to that and protect it from any real or imagined threats. it is indeed selfishness refined to a level that allows saying it out loud, but at base it is not any more complicated than selfishness.

  52. 52
    Short Bus Bully says:


    Sweet Jesus.

    I kinda remembered his crazed visage from forays into historical personages in times past, but fuckin’ A! That is one sinister looking motherfucker.

    Really really want to see him portrayed in a movie with that hair and those eyes. The crazy and the hatred just fucking RADIATE from him.

    Who would play him?

  53. 53
    WereBear says:

    @Short Bus Bully: I think Jon Voight is headed that way.

  54. 54
    Steeplejack says:

    @Short Bus Bully:

    Gary Oldman circa The Professional or True Romance.

  55. 55
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Steeplejack: Cate Blanchett can play anyone.

  56. 56
    jake the snake says:


    I was in a debate on a message board with a conservative
    and posted the quote about “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” The conservative was highly offended by the second part.

  57. 57
    Barbara says:

    Tanenhaus actually goes there. He says point blank that tea party types like government benefits just fine, they just don’t like the fact that “others” would be able to claim those same benefits.

    So in light of that, I actually found the article quite frustrating. He knows this is about race. Maybe Calhoun wrapped race up in some other doctrine about states’ rights, but given how fast and frequently Republican led governments throw states’ rights under the bus when it suits their ideology or wallets or the wallets of their donors, he can’t possibly claim that is what animates Republican efforts at “nullification” in the here and now.

  58. 58
    Splitting Image says:

    @Short Bus Bully:

    I would vote for Jeremy Brett if he were still alive, but since he isn’t I would say Colin Firth is your man. Damn hard to find a picture of him where he’s not smiling though.

  59. 59
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Splitting Image: Jeremy Brett is dead?

  60. 60
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    Unfortunately, yes.
    For quite a while now.

  61. 61
    mch says:

    I think some closeted gay men probably need a cable channel like needy straight women’s LMN. LG is so needy that it’s more than sad, as he constantly tries to prove his own being needed by saying, please, come here, please rape me!

    Instead, how about his having something to offer! This isn’t “offer” as in semen spilling out. It’s offer as in to give and receive as mutual, complementary. Such a sad sad person Mr. Graham is.

  62. 62
    bjacques says:

    Probably a bit late, but this Amanda Palmer song (especially the last bit) is dedicated to Deadbeat Joe:

  63. 63
    Paul in KY says:

    @Short Bus Bully: The guy who played the cool sergeant in Platoon has the bony face for it.

  64. 64
    Woodrowfan says:


    Oh, I dunno. Webster and Clay were not perfect but Calhoun was an evil SOB. At least Clay, had he beaten Polk in 1844, wouldn’t have launched a land-grab war with Mexico. I’d take JQA over any of them though…

  65. 65
    Woodrowfan says:

    @Brendanyc: It’s a worship of power over others. Wealth is one obvious form, but so is a racial or general hierarchy. It’;s no accident that so many schoolyard bullies turn into rightwingers when they grow up.

  66. 66
    sherparick says:

    @Sly: It is to be remembered that before the 1964 Civil Rights Act it was at least “permissible,” or at least no legal remedy existed, if benefits in Federal and State programs were denied based on race and sex.

  67. 67
    MCA1 says:

    @Paul in KY: Willem Defoe, and a good call.

    Slightly related to the article linked in the original post, but it was good to see I’m not the only one feeling like guys like Calhoun, Davis, and Alexander Stephens aren’t held in as universally poor regard as they used to be. The Lost Cause, and the pretense of asserting the rights of the individual states as a defensive weapon against some onrushing federal, more urbane society, to cover the sad fears of the southern middle class, seem to be back.

    So, what I’m trying to say here, is that we need a lot more people sporting t-shirts with a righteously pissed off W.T. Sherman on the front and either “Don’t make me come down there again” or “Oh, I’ll mess with Texas” on the back. They want to start mythologizing succession again, we should start rubbing their feverish noses back in the dirt of reality again.

  68. 68
    The Very Reverend Crimson Fire of Compassion says:

    @Upper West: It’s a corollary of the “Just World” hypothesis, in which the world is just how it ought to be, and whatever security and/or privilege the individual clinging to are the results of their own virtue. The status quo is always “God’s will”, and any attempt to alter it is sacrilege.

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