Gail Collins has a NY TIMES column today -- delightful, as always -- triggered by the call by Tea Partiers for nullification at the State level of Federal legislation to which they are opposed, and, if that fails, for secession. As Collins points out, this takes us right back to 1854.
Now, leave to one side the supposed constitutional basis of the calls for nullification, and set aside as well consideration of the likelihood that anything remotely like nullification or secession will result from these calls. What puzzles and interests me is simply what on earth the Tea Partiers are so terminally bent out of shape about.
Let us recall that the last serious call for nullification and secession was occasioned by a threat to the institution of slavery. Now, there were large numbers of slaves in the Northern states -- at one time, New York was the largest slave city in America. But the North was not a slave society. It was a society with slaves. The South was a slave society, which is to say the entire economy of the South rested on slave labor. Whatever you may think of slavery as an institution [I do hope we are not about to refight that war], it is not difficult to see why Whites in the South, faced with a threat to the foundation of their wealth and power, would respond by calling for secession from the Union. You would think that only something this big, this important, this fundamentally life changing, would drive people to talk of nullification and secession.
What is it that has brought so many people out into the streets and has driven them so wild that nothing short of leaving the union will do? The Tea Party movement started last summer as a reaction to the prospect of health care reform. Now, health care reform is huge, messy, complicated, and in almost every part of it, controversial. But it is not a hot button issue like same sex marriage or gun control or abortion. Indeed, it is so complicated that the only frenzied, fanatical positions possible with regard to it are either Pass it now no matter what! or Stop it dead in its tracks whatever it takes! A week before health care reform legislation was proposed in the several committees of the Congress, it simply was not a matter of controversy or passion, save among a very small circle of experts and politicians. It played a big role in the presidential campaign, but mostly in the Democratic primary as a point of difference between Obama and Clinton.
The Tea Partiers are enraged at the very existence of the Federal Government, quite irrespective of the fact that many of them have government jobs, receive Social Security pensions, and get their health care through Medicare. They seem not have been enraged thirteen months ago when the same Federal Government was in Republican hands. And yet they are very chary of identifying with the Republican Party. Indeed, many of them are hell bent on creating a third party. So just what on earth is eating at them?
Here are three answers, all of them quite familiar. For all I know, one or more of them is correct, but I have to say honestly that I do not know whether any of them is right, and all three of them seem somehow incommensurate with the phenomenon they are intended to explain.
First Answer: It's the economy, stupid. Unemployment is soaring, people are losing their jobs, their homes, their pensions, and their health care. They are frightened and furious and lashing out at hose who seem to have the power to do something about it all, but are failing to do so. Maybe so, but then why focus your anger on Obama, the one man in the government who seems most eager to take an activist stance?
Second Answer: It's a Black man in the White House. The overwhelmingly White cast of the Tes Party movement, its roots in the South, and its invocation of faux Confederate shibboleths -- nullification, secession -- lend some credence to this answer. But reporters who have attended Tea Party meetings and have talked at length with the participants are virtually unanimous in saying that this theory, which was initially quite popular, just does not match what they hear from the Tea Partiers. At the very least, I am convinced that Obama strikes many of these demonstrators as utterly alien to them and their world -- hence the viral popularity of the Birther nonsense about whether he is a natural born citizen.
Third Answer: It is the bubbling to the surface of a longer standing and more deeply entrenched conviction on their part that the world is leaving them behind, unfolding in ways that alienate them and mystify them and anger them. This conviction has its roots two generations ago in the fundamental changes to American society that took place in the 60's and early 70's. The economic crisis and the advent of a Black man in the White House are simply the final blows to their self-understanding, and they are lashing out at the established, the powerful, the people whose manner bespeaks a belief that they are superior.
Are any of these answers true? I don't know. Are they all true? Maybe. Of one thing, I am absolutely convinced. This is not a sinister Republican plot, hatched in a K street or J Street or A or B or C street room somewhere. The Republicans have been as surprised by the movement as the Democrats, and they are massively suspicious of it, because they are unable to control it and know it may end up costing them as many seats as it costs the Democrats.