The midterm elections of 1994 were in retrospect the tipping point driving American politics today—not because of the shutdowns that ensued in the next two years, however, or the fact that Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years. Rather, it’s that 1994 marked the culmination of the migration of the old Confederacy from the Democratic Party to the GOP. That shift had started in 1964, when Barry Goldwater pried away states from the old solid Democratic South with his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and it accelerated with the advent of Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” of pandering to racists at the end of that decade. But for an interim quarter-century after that, the old Dixiecrats were dispersed in both major parties, rather than coalescing in one. The 1994 election was the first since Reconstruction in which the majority of the old South’s congressional representation went into the Republican column.
This shift wasn’t fully appreciated at the time. When the Gingrich gang staged its sequel to the shutdowns of ’95 and ’96—the self-immolating overreach of the Clinton impeachment in ’98—Dan Carter, a preeminent historian of the civil-rights era, told the Times that he was “surprised that there’s been so little discussion” of how “the southernization of the Republican Party” had shaped events. “Maybe it’s like the purloined letter,” he said. “It’s sitting there on the shelf right in front of you, so you don’t see it.”
What southernization brought with it was the credo of Calhoun, the “Great Nullifier,” whose championing of states’ rights and belief in a minority’s power to reject laws imposed by a congressional majority (whether over taxes or slavery) presaged the secessionism of the Civil War (which Calhoun didn’t live to see) and the old southern Democrats’ resistance to desegregation a century later. It’s Calhoun’s legacy that informs the current House rebels’ rejection of Obamacare and their notion that they can pick and choose which federal agencies they would reopen on a case-by-case basis.
When Calhoun’s precepts found a permanent home in the GOP in the nineties—under the aegis of a new generation of southern Republican leaders typified by Gingrich and Trent Lott (a typical Democratic convert)—the animus was directed at Bill Clinton, a president who happened to be both white and southern. It was inevitable that when a black president took office, the racial fevers of secessionist history would resurface and exacerbate some of the radicals’ rage. One of the House’s current nullifiers, Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, called the Obamas “uppity” during the 2008 campaign, smeared Huma Abedin as a Muslim Brotherhood mole, and voted against a new Justice Department initiative to investigate unsolved crimes of the civil-rights era. Another, Jeff Duncan, a former Strom Thurmond intern who represents the patch of South Carolina that was Calhoun’s ancestral home, has likened what he sees as slack border control to “allowing any kind of vagrant, or animal, or just somebody that’s hungry, or somebody that wants to do your dishes for you, to come in.” This kind of thinking is all too representative of that small but effective racialist-nativist subset within the GOP rebel bloc that will doom immigration reform and is working furiously to erect new barriers to minority voting in a swath of states.
But to brand this entire cohort as racist is both incorrect and reductive. It underestimates their broader ideological sway within their party. The unifying bogeyman for this camp is the federal government, not blacks or Hispanics, and that animus will remain undiminished after Obama’s departure from the White House. Though Andrew Jackson—under whom Calhoun served as vice-president—dismissed the ideology of nullification as “subversive” of the Constitution, it has always been wrapped in patriotic rationalizations, as it is now. In Ecstatic Nation, a new book about the decades bracketing the Civil War, Brenda Wineapple writes that even the South’s secessionists “saw themselves as protecting the Constitution, not tearing it apart.” Or as Jefferson Davis, speaking like a born tea-partyer, claimed: “We are upholding the true doctrines of the Federal Constitution.” Whatever the bottom line of Washington’s current battle, the nullification of federal laws is growing as a cause at the grass roots. Of the 26 states that are refusing the federal Medicaid expansion—at the price of denying their poorest citizens health care—23 of them have GOP governors. That’s a bigger slice of America than can be found in the map of the 80 districts of the defund-Obamacare brigade.
How and where will this rebellion end? After a week of shutdown, Gallup found that the GOP’s approval rating had dropped to the lowest level (28 percent) for either party since the question was first asked in 1992. But there is no political incentive for the incumbent rebels in safe districts to retreat. “They may think of us as extremists here,” said Mark Souder when serving as a foot soldier in the Gingrich rebellion of 1995, “but none of us are extremists at home.” Playing Russian roulette with the debt ceiling of the despised federal Leviathan is even more of a plus in such overwhelmingly Republican enclaves today. A current House freshman, Ted Yoho of Florida, thinks nothing of publicly cheering on the “tsunami” of a default as a follow-up to the mere “tremor” of the shutdown. Now, as over the past century and a half, these revolutionaries aren’t going to disappear no matter what short-term punishment may be visited on their national party in 2014 or 2016 or both. Nor is their money going to run out. A donor like Kilberg may not write them checks, but the Koch brothers will.