Weekly Briefing

Nullification? Secession?

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The far right wants to do a lot more than just repeal the Affordable Care Act

In his book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” Prof. Jonathan Haidt of New York University levels a lot of criticisms – some legitimate, some not so legitimate – at modern American progressives. (You can click here to watch a 2012 interview with Bill Moyers in which he summarizes his thesis.)

One point on which Haidt clearly hits his mark, however is this: progressives really don’t understand conservatives – especially the modern far right – very well. Whether it’s because they simply ignore them or dismiss them as ignorant and/or dupes of corporate oligarchs, progressives generally do a poor job of keeping up with and understanding their ideological adversaries and, as a result, frequently underestimate them.

Put simply, if you just didn’t and still don’t “get” George W. Bush (or Sarah Palin or Ted Cruz), Haidt (much like George Lakoff) thinks there is a morality system out there that you would do well to try to understand. And while Haidt takes it a step further than Lakoff and many other smart and observant people by arguing that there is actually a great deal of validity and worth in the far right’s morality system, he’s clearly correct that most progressives are utterly perplexed by it.

Indeed, it’s in part because of this failure to pay attention and understand the right that many progressives are so frequently blindsided and amazed by what seem to them to be utterly illogical and self-destructive positions and arguments.

Nullifiers and secessionists

This brings us to an event that took place in Raleigh this past weekend with the somewhat startling title of “Nullify Now!” Its purpose: to discuss and promote the idea previously championed by confederate leaders during the 1860’s and the segregationists of the 1960’s that individual states retain the right within their borders to nullify (i.e. disregard and/or declare invalid) most laws and acts of the federal government with which they disagree. Indeed, according to at least one of the event’s sponsors and several speakers and attendees, not only do states have the right to nullify federal laws, they also retain the right to secede from the union itself.

This is from the website of one of the event sponsors – a group called the North Carolina League of the South:

In the era in which we find ourselves, it has become apparent that an intentional attack is underway against the South and all of our institutions. Historically, the South has always been the most conservative and Christian region of America. Yet, since 1861, there has been a deliberate attempt to rob the individual States of their sovereignty and to centralise (sic) all power in the hands of an almighty federal government.

This has resulted in a tremendous loss of liberty, at the expense of both the individual and the several States. It is the cause of prayer and the Ten Commandments being removed from the public arena; it is the cause of a loss of freedom of association, of private property, of freedom of speech and civil liberties… in short, it is a loss of all of the essential liberties that our Founding Fathers held so dear.

The League of the South believes that the answer to these problems is a free and independent Southern republic.”

And lest you reflexively dismiss such talk as merely the disturbed rants of survivalists and backwoods bumpkins, it’s worth noting that one of the event sponsors and featured speakers was a fellow named Greg Brannon. Brannon is a Cary physician and the unofficial Tea Party candidate in the race for the Republican nomination to take on Senator Kay Hagan next fall. He has been endorsed in that campaign by one of the nation’s most visible and popular Republican leaders, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

What’s going on here?

I did not attend the event and, save for a brief AP story saying it was happening there does not appear to have been any real news media coverage. Some of the speeches from the event have however been posted on YouTube during the last couple of days by a fellow named David DeGerolamo who runs a website called NC Renegade. And, truth be told, all of the individuals highlighted appear to be more or less housebroken. Despite giving voice to remarkably outlandish ideas that some might even describe in certain circumstances as, well, treasonous, speakers used complete sentences and, in some instances, even displayed hints of media polish.

One of the few women in evidence at the event, a featured speaker who for some not- immediately-obvious reason goes by the pseudonym Publius Huldah, appears to have been a practicing attorney at one point. Another fellow by the name of Thomas Woods apparently holds a doctorate from Columbia and is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute – a favorite resource for the John Locke Foundation and the Pope Civitas Institute. Woods himself has been cited by Locke employees in their reports and essays on many occasions.

So, what’s going on here? Who are these people? How did it come to pass that powerful Republicans – the party of Lincoln, for heaven’s sake – and groups regularly looked to as the voices of modern conservatism in our state (groups like Locke and Civitas) could be so closely linked to modern secessionists?

One important answer is that folks in the middle and on what passes for the “left” in modern America have simply been asleep at the wheel. Not only have we lazily dismissed and failed to pay attention to the right as it lurches ever further off the far end of the political spectrum, we’ve also failed to nurture any alternative, truly progressive, ideological vision that might help drag the national debate back toward the center.

Think about it: Notwithstanding the absurd conspiracy theorist claims about “socialism” in the U.S. government, the modern American “left” has never been more centrist and accommodationist in its orientation. Forty years ago, mainstream U.S. Democrats were calling loudly and proudly for full employment policies, nuclear disarmament, genuinely free higher education and nationalization of the oil industry. Today almost laughably, Barack Obama is demonized as a “leftist” for a health care plan inspired by the Heritage Foundation and modeled on one first implemented by Gov. Mitt Romney!

Can you imagine if genuine Eugene Debs socialists ever held a public event like Saturday’s nullification fest in 2013 Raleigh? The debate has been yanked so far to the right that it strains the imagination to even conceive of what the polar opposite to a conservative secession-friendly group would look like – much less what it would be like for one of the nation’s most prominent politicians to endorse it or its sponsors.

Going forward

So, how did things get this bad? How did our national debate deteriorate to the point at which powerful leaders and respected organizations are so closely linked to people who would revive the theories and spirit of a disastrous insurrection that nearly destroyed the United States?

Whatever the reason, it should be increasingly clear going forward that we ignore these people and their organizations (and fail to articulate a strong alternative vision) at our own peril and that of our nation.