Picture the single most barbaric, inhumane, and morally reprehensible act imaginable. It could be anything. You could choose genocide, the most depraved form of torture, or slavery, whatever really. History is replete with examples, the twentieth century in particular, but the nineteenth century had its share of them as well.
There doesn’t have to be a geographic limitation, either. But for the sake of argument, try to keep it local, as in here in the United States. Whatever you chose, On the official Maddow Blog, MSNBC’s Steve Benen believes that “[n]ullification must never be on the table” as a means to protect innocent lives and property.
Apparently he can’t think of a single reason that nullification should be used by states or local governing bodies. The logical implication is that opponents of slavery – that is advocates of freedom – in the antebellum period were wrong to have used nullification as a means to protect the lives and freedom of former slaves. No doubt, Harriet Tubman would be described by Benen as a radical, and her willful defiance of federal slave laws would be denounced, had the two been contemporaries.
Another case where nullification could arguably have been employed is in preventing or at least deterring the murderous and detestable “Trail of Tears” death march across the southern United States. Imagine if the forcible relocation of more than a hundred thousand members of various native tribes weren’t marched through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, or Kentucky because those states refused to participate. The lives of thousands could have been saved by such resistance. Opponents of nullification however, are self-righteously indignant at such a thought.
In the same way, the disgusting treatment of individuals in certain ethnic groups under Franklin Roosevelt would be tolerable as well. Had the state legislatures refused to cooperate with federal troops who rounded up Americans and placed them in concentration camps, Benen surely would have condemned them, as well.
Rosa Parks, too, falls into this camp of saying “no.” Her act of nullification cannot be reconciled with Benen’s view of government power, and thus it must be concluded that Benen is squarely in favor of Jim Crow laws.
Am I putting words in his mouth? No. I’m merely taking his statement to the logical extreme, demonstrating through reductio ad absurdum that his thesis – and that of anyone firmly opposed to nullification – is morally bankrupt. There can be no other conclusion.
Had he (and others who hold such allegiance to absolute central power) merely argued that nullifying gun legislation, or the Affordable Care Act, or certain environmental protection laws are wrong on partisan grounds, it would be different. Such an argument would reveal an intellectual bankruptcy, and expose what a hack he is, but that’s nothing surprising. But suggesting there is absolutely no reason to ever put nullification on the table is altogether different.
Benen expresses his “sincere hope that this is just a bizarre fad among radicalized Republicans” which “will soon fade without incident.” Unfortunately for him, it’s not a bizarre fad, nor is it exclusive to Republicans, and it’s not even radical.
By definition, a fad is short-lived. Another element common to fads is they’re often limited in scope. Nullification doesn’t fit either of these cases. It’s practically everywhere, actually. As a tool against federal usurpation it has been ongoing since 1996, when California voters approved Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act. As of now, one third of the states have nullified the Controlled Substance Act and allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes. I challenge anyone to prove that nullification of the drug laws at the individual level isn’t pervasive in the remaining states.
Suggesting that nullification is really just a means for embittered Republicans to exact revenge on Democrats is absurd, when looking at the whole picture.
Just examine California’s Proposition 215 again. It came from California, that’s strike one for Republicans, the only exception to this rule is Ronald Reagan. Its roots are in a resolution that was first passed in San Francisco. That’s two strikes. It was then introduced in the state legislature by two Democrats, and then vetoed by a Republican, before eventually ending up on the ballot for voters to determine, which they did by a ten point margin. Do you see where this is going?
There’s also been broad opposition to George W. Bush’s REAL ID Act. In the two dozen states that have refused to adhere to REAL ID, a number are so-called blue states. The fact that Ron Paul is an advocate of decriminalizing pot and rejects REAL ID, and while in politics was routinely mocked by the GOP establishment for doing so, speaks volumes about where Republicans sit on these issues.
It’s clearly not a Republican Party gimmick. That doesn’t mean some die-hard Republicans aren’t going to use it for such purposes. It’s entirely likely that at least some of the support for nullification – from both major parties – has been motivated by partisanship. The same is true for opposition to nullification; it’s no doubt often the result of party loyalty more than anything else. Nor does such a use of nullification render it illegitimate as a political tool.
And finally, it’s not radical at all. It’s just the opposite, in fact.
Standing up and saying “no!” when a group of sociopaths tries to commit a crime is not radical at all. Standing by and saying “yes!” is the truly radical act. Just so we’re clear about terms, synonyms for radical are extreme, wild, or violent. Those just as easily describe the act of corralling human beings into stables like livestock and interring them indefinitely in prison camps. There’s nothing moderate, tame, or passive about declaring certain people to be sub-human and without rights, placing them in chains, and forcing them to return to labor as beasts of burden. And what other way is there to describe the act of marching men, women and children 2,200 miles at gun point into foreign land?
Suggesting these are something else is anti-social, anti-progress, and antithetical to human freedom.
Benen’s prediction in the conclusion of his piece is that nullification advocates will be “left to become a punch-line among future historians marveling at the far-right hysteria of the Obama era.” This type of thinking is as myopic as it is forgetful of the past. Just as advocates of slavery and persecuting certain Americans have proven to be on the “wrong side” of history, so too will opponents of nullification. There seems to be a common thread throughout human events, which is the side in favor of personal freedom being viewed most favorably in hindsight.
Despite the modern’s state’s best efforts to overturn some of its provisions, the Magna Carta is still hailed as a great achievement that helped liberate oppressed peoples. While its motives and ultimate effectiveness are dubious at best, the Emancipation Proclamation is one of the most celebrated documents in America. The same is true for the Declaration of Independence. Note that the theme of each of these is the opposite of what opponents of nullification are suggesting – that freedom and decentralization are without value, and should be crushed.
When history is written of this era we’ll see which side ends up in the punch-line and which is telling the joke. I don’t have the ability to predict the future, but if the past is any indication, freedom will be the winner, and it will have won via nullification.