My thoughts on this came together after a short ride on the Washington D.C. Metro, where I was given a copy of The Washington Post. In its ever-curmudgeonly opinion page, there was a column by George Will in which he seemed initially to push the usual barrogant and specious right-wing rhetoric. But a rather interesting pattern emerges rather quickly in the piece. Take, for example, this nugget of wisdom:
“But does not federal law trump state laws? Not necessarily.”More than just answering his own rhetorical questions (which, by the way, he has done incorrectly in the past), Will posits that if a state amended its constitution in a certain way, it could block health care reform at the federal level. In this way, the state could effectively nullify a law it believes to be unconstitutional. Later that night I was reminded of why that argument stuck with me—a PBS program on President Andrew Jackson described the Nullification Crisis of 1832, in which South Carolina attempted to nullify a tariff passed by Congress that it considered unconstitutional. In response, Jackson declared the following:
"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."His appeal, backed with the threat of military force and the possibility of compromise on the issue led to South Carolina backing down. The Nullification Crisis is widely seen today as a prelude to the Civil War, not least of which because the arguments it made (e.g. “the union is voluntary and dissolvable” and “states, not the federal government, are sovereign”) provided ideological justification for secession. The revival of this argument by the so-called “Tenthers”—referring to the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution—has thus been a curious and dangerous recent phenomenon.
But vague references to state sovereignty are not the only new proclamations coming from the right. Last April, Governor (and notorious hair fondler) Rick Perry of Texas not only announced himself as a born-again Tenther, but also that secession would be one of “a lot of different [potential] scenarios” for the Lone Star State. Numerous Tenther-inspired resolutions have been proposed in state legislatures this year, but in May Georgia was the first to pass one signed by its governor. Not only does the bill declare that Georgia has the right to nullify any federal law it considers unconstitutional, but adds that such an act “shall constitute a nullification of the Constitution for the United States of America by the government of the United States of America” and that “all powers previously delegated to the United States of America by the Constitution for the United States shall revert to the several States individually.” Thus, Georgia not only has declared its intent to nullify certain actions taken by the federal government but that these actions actually make the United States of America null and void as an entity.
Right-wing activists who pushed for these pronouncements have also been emboldened by their adoption and promotion by Republican politicians. In July, the far right website FreeRepublic declared that the government shall immediately be dissolved. This was followed in September by an article published on Newsmax.com—one of Sarah Palin’s “top” news sources—which advocated a military coup to resolve “the Obama problem.” As secession becomes a popular discussion topic on the Republican Party’s official website gop.com, it becomes apparent that more and more of the Republican base are treating secession or a coup d’état as a serious option. This would all be comical were it not for the fact that these people are heavily armed and that such rhetoric has inspired domestic terrorism and the militia movement.
That said, much has changed from the era of set-piece battles fought with muskets and cannon. Whereas state militias—distinct from the contemporary wingnuts in the woods version, though they imitate their style—could have hoped in the 18th and 19th centuries to resist federal military power, the tides of war have since changed. Personally, I would love to see Georgia state government and its peach-munching militia—once the federal government does any of the multitude of things to "annul" itself—try to seize Ft. Benning from the 3rd Infantry Division and Rangers stationed there. Ft. Sumter wishes that they had what Ft. Benning has. Or think of how quickly the Sieges of Atlanta and Richmond could have been resolved with B-2 stealth bombers and cruise missiles? So, I say we give words of encouragement to all the Tenthers and secessionists, so that they may destroy themselves in trade embargo and warfare rather than slowly destroy our entire nation with their incessant stupidity and stubbornness to accept reality. Hopefully, just like the last one, this next Civil War will settle those arguments for another century-and-a-half. Fingers crossed!