We've moved!

Social Icons

twitterfacebooklinkedinrss feed

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Meme of the Week: Calhoun Conservatism

Have you heard of Calhoun conservatism? Google it in quotes, and as of this writing, you get just 980 hits. I didn't hear the phrase until this weekend, from Dr. Peniel Joseph on NPR's All Things Considered. The Tufts history professor sees Rep. Addison Graves "Joe" Wilson's Congressional outburst, the birther movement, the tea parties, and other wingnuttery as part of a pattern in American protest movements that goes back to the pre-Civil War South:

...what we're seeing in a way recalls what people call Calhoun Conservatism for the South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun who really in the 1830s had his own vision of the way in which American democracy was going to look.

And his vision of American democracy was less expansive than Andrew Jackson. It was less expansive than the more progressive elements in the country. It was a vision that didn't include freedom for African-Americans. It didn't include robust and expansive rights. And when we think about the way in which these modern Calhoun conservatives are using the notion of American democracy, it's really a government that has very, very little control and responsibility over most American citizens.

They're using things like they're talking about the 10th Amendment and nullification. And nullification was used during the period of antebellum slavery, the notion that states have the right to prevent the federal government from impinging on their own autonomy and rights to own slaves. So what's interesting here is that their vision of American society, American democracy actually harkens back to the antebellum period in American history [Dr. Peniel Joseph, interviewed by Guy Raz, "In Health Care Debate, Echoes of History," NPR: All Things Considered, 2009.09.12].

Mike Lux identifies threads of this Calhoun conservatism afoot throughout GOP/right-wing politics in their flirtations with secessionist and nullificationist language (Governor Pawlenty? Are you serious? Fortunately for us, "Minnesota Nice" convinced Pawlenty to back off that one... sort of.)

If Calhoun conservatism is resurgent, perhaps we can blame... Wal-Mart? Harold Meyerson recounts Sam Walton's crass effort to evade federal minimum wage laws, even after a federal court ruling and penalty against his company, by cutting the checks as ordered by the courts, but then telling employees, "I'll fire anyone who cashes the check." Meyerson sees Walton's business "ethics" tying old Dixie with the modern psyche:

As the unionized General Motors was big enough to set the pattern for the employment of nonprofessional Americans in the three decades following World War II, Wal-Mart is now so big it is setting the pattern today. Each created a distinct national buying public for its goods that was far larger than its immediate work force: in GM's case, workers who could afford to buy new cars; in Wal-Mart's, workers who could afford to shop nowhere except Wal-Mart. With Wal-Mart's rise, the same traditional values that underpinned Sam Walton's cheating and threatening of his workers -- contempt for Yankee laws and regulations, and a preference for the authoritarian, low-wage labor system of the South -- have become more the norm than the exception in America's economic life [Harold Meyerson, "In Wal-Mart's Image," The American Prospect, 2009.09.11].

Calhoun conservatism: an old Southern worldview, reinforced by a dominant corporation? The possible connection is intriguing.


  1. Steve Sibson9/17/2009 5:52 AM

    Calhoun Conservatives versus Marxist communists? Calhoun Conservatives fighting for the same civil rights be applied to the preborn that the abolutionists fought for the slaves. That doesn't fit so well, now does it Cory?

  2. I'm not saying it's perfect, Steve, but there are some interesting historical parallels. I'm curious what others think of the historical observation....

  3. Geez, Cory, until I read your entire post, I thought you were referring to Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis.

    I suspect that the "secessionists" want to call attention to the level of their frustration with -- and fear of -- a federal government that seems bent on amassing power unto itself.

    As a Libertarian sympathizer (but Independent on paper), I take a dim view of any large, powerful institution. Like clouds of gas and dust in the Cosmos, clouds of human power tend to congeal into masses that grow until they ignite. But unlike stars in the galaxy, which produce radiant energy, human "power-masses" tend to produce and emit a sort of spiritual and moral darkness.

    I refrain with great difficulty at this moment from drawing the most obvious (and tired) historical parallel available.

    Under G.W., we saw what can happen when corporations get "too big to fail," and when government abuses its power worldwide (example: extraordinary rendition). For the first time in my life, I actually began to fear for my own physical security during the reign of that administration. I write books about electronics, physics, mathematics, and other "geeky" stuff. Would I get on somebody's "list" as a "potentially dangerous wonk" (PDW)? I still wonder sometimes, but I am a little less afraid now than, say, five years ago.

    Did I become paranoid? Are the "secessionists" paranoid? Is the House Speaker paranoid too, having made remarks indicating genuine fear of recent "tea-bag venom"? I don't know ...

    Is there any good reason to suppose that Democrats, acquiring power as they now have, will behave with any more benevolence than Republicans did when they had the same power? I think not: Power corrupts, and its inherent evil favors neither left nor right, neither liberal nor conservative.

    "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance ..." Not vigilantism, reactionism (Is that a word? My computer thinks not!) or violence, but rational skepticism.

    This lively debate bodes well, methinks. The spirit of the framers, that spark that makes America unique, is not yet dead!

  4. Stan, I share your fear of big entities amassing too much power. That's why we need a good federal system with checks and balances. We need states with a certain amount of autonomy against the federal government, but we also need a federal government that can prevent individual states from engaging in tyranny (like the slavery Calhoun fought to protect). We need the three branhces to check each other. We need a robust federal government (and maybe even international organizations) to check the power of massive multinational corporations. We need citizen activists to raise hell and vote to check all of the above.

    I'm not convinced that the Calhoun conservatives are motivated purely by a fear of big government. They aren't toeing a consistent Ron Paul line. The tea party crowd may say they are for liberty, but I haven't heard "Repeal the Patriot Act" (a big source of your fear over the past several years) a a dominant theme in their rhetoric. I don't think Calhoun exemplar Sam Walton would have given a dang about the Patriot Act, as long as it didn't cut into his profits or force him to pay his workers one penny more.

    Power does corrupt, but someone's got to have power. There are big problems that require big solutions and big solvers. So we're still stuck with figuring whom we can trust with power. And Ill go back to one of my older arguments: When Republicans abuse their power, we get corporate welfare and the Patriot Act, measures that unduly favor the big guys. When Democrats abuse their power, more often than not we get measures that unduly favor the little guys (poor people getting extra unemployment checks, looser eligibility standards for food stamps, etc.). I'd rather see the latter mistakes than the former.

  5. "Power does corrupt, but someone's got to have power."

    Har? I think what Stan and I consistently advocate is a simpler, more limited government. One that has less scope, fewer privileges, and less power. Your bifurcation suggests that we either have (a) red politicians that abuse power to favor corporate interests or (b) blue politicians that abuse power to buy votes from the poor.

    You're totally ignoring our line of reasoning... that we hate both (a) and (b) and want to dial back the damage done to the US constitution in amendments 14 and 16. I don't want a leftist like Mussolini/LBJ running the country, or a rightist like Abraham Lincoln (the most violent American citizen in history) who thinks it's ok to torch the South to assert the will of the federal government.

    Give us a federal government that just sets a bedrock of fair and stable laws and then leaves us alone. That's all we're asking for... and if no party advocates that position, then shouldn't we start talking about secession?

    Kind regards,

  6. Establish "a bedrock of fair and stable laws and then leave us alone" -- I'm not sure what you're asking for is possible. Laws don't remain stable on their own. We must actively enforce them. We must monitor their impacts. We must amend them to address changing conditions.

    The Lincoln comment is troublesome. His torching of the South prevented a portion of the country from maintaining an immoral (and perhaps economically unsustainable) institution. Do you think America and the world would be better off if we fragmented into 50 autonomous states?

  7. "Do you think America and the world would be better off if we fragmented into 50 autonomous states?"


    What is the good of telling a community that it has every liberty except the liberty to make laws? The liberty to make laws is what constitutes a free people.

    All politics is local.


Comments are closed, as this portion of the Madville Times is in archive mode. You can join the discussion of current issues at MadvilleTimes.com.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.