But that history, with its repeated instances of racialist political strategy dating back many decades, only partially accounts for the party’s electoral woes. The true problem, as yet unaddressed by any Republican standard-bearer, originates in the ideology of modern conservatism. When the intellectual authors of the modern right created its doctrines in the 1950s, they drew on nineteenth-century political thought, borrowing explicitly from the great apologists for slavery, above all, the intellectually fierce South Carolinian John C. Calhoun. This is not to say conservatives today share Calhoun’s ideas about race. It is to say instead that the Calhoun revival, based on his complex theories of constitutional democracy, became the justification for conservative politicians to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.
This is the politics of nullification, the doctrine, nearly as old as the republic itself, which holds that the states, singly or in concert, can defy federal actions by declaring them invalid or simply ignoring them. We hear the echoes of nullification in the venting of anti-government passions and also in campaigns to “starve government,” curtail voter registration, repeal legislation, delegitimize presidents. There is a strong sectionalist bias in these efforts. They flourish in just the places Kevin Phillips identified as Republican strongholds — Plains, Mountain, but mainly Southern states, where change invites suspicion, especially when it seems invasive, and government is seen as an intrusive force. Yet those same resisters—most glaringly, Tea Partiers—cherish the entitlements and benefits provided by “Big Government.” Their objections come when outsider groups ask for consideration, too. Even recent immigrants to this country sense the “hidden hand” of Calhoun’s style of dissent, the extended lineage of rearguard politics, with its aggrieved call, heard so often today, “to take back America”—that is, to take America back to the “better” place it used to be. Today’s conservatives have fully embraced this tradition, enshrining it as their own “Lost cause,” redolent with the moral consolations of noble defeat.
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