Crucible of Reaction: The Nullification Crisis and the Antebellum Roots of'the Southern Strategy'

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Conference Paper

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Much has been written about the so-called “Southern strategy” that has been the cornerstone of conservative and (mostly Republican) politics in the wake of the civil rights revolution of the 1960’s (Phillips, 1969; Wilkerson, 1979; Carmines and Stimson, 1989; Edsall and Edsall, 1991; Smith, 1995; Fauntroy, 2006; Lopez, 2014). The Republican party have built their electoral coalitions at the national and state level largely by capitalizing on the racial anxieties of Southern whites (and working class whites generally) toward African Americans. These voters had traditionally formed one of the core constituencies in the Democratic party’s New Deal coalition which had dominated American politics since the Great Depression. Using so-called “second generation” racial appeals, this strategy has been remarkably effective in steering white working class voters into the welcoming arms of the Republican party. The Supreme Court has also played a starring role in this effort; in recent decades, it has rendered a plethora of decisions that have limited the reach and effectiveness of many of the landmark legislative, judicial, and administrative triumphs of the civil rights era. One of the most noteworthy examples of this is the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) striking a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A common theme emerges in the assaults on voting rights, affirmative action, school desegregation, fair housing, and employment discrimination laws: it is the notion that, because of the demonstrable progress the nation has made with respect to the rights of African Americans since the “Jim Crow” years, continued reliance on government intervention, especially at the federal level, in order to secure the rights of black Americans is no longer necessary or even desirable. Consequently, these policies need to be eliminated to prevent blacks from being “the special favorite of the laws” who are entitled to more legal protections than other citizens. This paper argues that the “Southern strategy” and the civil rights counterrevolution represents a vivid illustration of the doctrine of nullification – an ideology that asserts the prerogatives of states to resist the perceived unconstitutional encroachments of federal power. This doctrine traces its origins to the political controversy surrounding the Tariff Bills of 1828 and 1832. This crisis, as John C. Calhoun privately admits, is actually a thinly veiled subterfuge for South Carolina’s anxieties regarding the dangers to the survival of the institution of slavery. It has the effect of allowing constitutional amendments and federal statutes to remain on the books while rendering them “null and void” in terms of any practical benefit to African Americans. During this crisis, the Southern “fire-eaters” developed a hermeneutic which cloaked naked theories of white supremacy and naked economic self-interest behind the sacrosanct curtain of state sovereignty and the inherent virtue of limiting federal power. These arguments had particular salience in Southern states, who defended to the death their rights to hold black people as slaves. But these arguments did not die in the embers of the Civil War. I argue that the doctrine of nullification – far from being an historical artifact of the antebellum period, not only persists, but represents the “norm” when it comes to America’s treatment of black Americans. I argue that the Nullification Crisis represents the crucible for the development of a reactionary political tradition that endures to the present. Indeed, the doctrine of nullification has traditionally been the “tool of choice” for those who have resisted the ideal of full racial equality for black Americans. If my thesis is correct, the implications of this argument apply not just to “race-specific” legislation designed to remedy racial inequality, but extend to the general conservative critique of “big government” that is one of the fundamental features of American politics.


Civil Rights, Politics


Political Science