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.
So: If you think the federal government is too large, you are an ideological descendant of John Calhoun. Favor the repeal of legislation? So did Calhoun! Tanenhaus keeps hearing more echoes until he goes figuratively deaf to anything but the Calhoun thesis. When conservatives suggest that our fidelity to the Constitution is declining, Calhoun is again lurking in the background. It is when Tanenhaus actually addresses the issue of race that the logic of the cancer cell finally takes over. “The rising faction of neoconservatives, who denounced ‘affirmative discrimination,’” were, he tells us, tacit allies of Calhounists who asserted “black inferiority.” Really? New Republic contributing editor Nathan Glazer popularized the phrase “affirmative discrimination” in his book of the same name. Someone better get him off the magazine’s masthead, quick.
Tanenhaus predictably recycles a slander of Ronald Reagan that has a long history on the left, writing that “in 1980, he flew directly from the nominating convention to Philadelphia, Mississippi — where three civil rights workers had been slain in 1964.” It is true that Reagan traveled to a county fair outside Philadelphia as he sought to win what was then a swing state. It is also true that the next day he addressed the Urban League in New York. The idea that Reagan was trying to signal his solidarity with lynchers is simply an ugly partisan invention.
Tanenhaus’s analysis continues to metastasize when he gets to the contemporary scene. When Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan talk about the toll of familial instability, especially among black Americans, they are echoing Calhoun. (No word on whether Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are neo-Confederates of some stripe for making similar points.)
Readers may recall the controversy that flared when President Obama remarked last year that businessmen too often attribute their success solely to their own efforts. Republicans attacked him for scanting the role of entrepreneurs and glorifying government — or, at least, that’s how most people interpreted the ruckus. Here’s what Tanenhaus has to say about it, right after he reads something racially sinister into Paul Ryan’s comment that good character can help people get ahead in life.
Character, he presumably meant, like that exhibited by Republican delegates in Tampa, who thrilled to the refrain “We built it” — with the identity of the “we” all too visible to TV audiences — just as the inimical “they” were being targeted by a spurious campaign to pass voter-identification laws, a throwback to Jim Crow.
It would complicate the narrative to note that polls find that most blacks support voter-ID laws and that there was no disparate impact on black registration when Georgia implemented one. Tanenhaus goes merrily along with his story of the Republicans’ “overtly [!] nullifying politics.”
In his essay and in interviews, Tanenhaus insists that such phrases as “Take back America” are proof of the burning sense of white entitlement on the right. It seems not to have dawned on Tanenhaus that this phrase was something of a liberal motto during the Bush years (and has a rich history in American politics generally). Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel co-wrote a book titled “Take Back America.” In 1992 Jerry Brown’s campaign slogan was “Take back America.” Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, and countless other Democrats routinely promised to “take back America,” perhaps most conspicuously at annual left-wing “Take Back America” conferences.