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The Cyclical History of Interposition and Nullification

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When compared to other civilizations, America is still a fledgling nation. But it is old enough to repeat certain behaviors. We often forget just how cyclical we are as a nation, especially in the realm of politics.

The Tea Party protests in 2009 were not some new concept, but rather anger and frustration spawned by a bad economy -- the origin of most populist movements in America.

Populism, whether on the political right or left has been a staple of American politics up to a certain point. It is difficult to connect the emotions of those who feel marginalized, be swept into office on a wave of populism, and not become constricted by the realities of governing day to day.

It is hard to imagine in the 21st century that 24 percent of Texas Republicans would support a candidate for governor, who openly talks about interposition and nullification.

Texas is hardly alone. Populist movements across the country and some state legislatures not only talk about interposition and nullification, but some even suggest secession.

Interposition refers to the right of the states to protect their interests from federal violation deemed by those states to be dangerous or unconstitutional. Nullification is the theory that states can invalidate federal law it considers unconstitutional.

I thought these concepts if not settled at Appomattox in 1865, was surely put to rest when President Lyndon Johnson signed landmark civil rights legislation 100 years later.

Consistent with its historical application, current proponents of interposition and nullification cite the 10th Amendment as the basis for their position.

But as history so often bears witness, a dispassionate approach to the Constitution tends to trump emotion, assuming the goal is a judicious conclusion. Through the cloudy lens of anger, one can easily justify a revisionist reading of the 10th Amendment.

The 10th Amendment states: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

When the 10th Amendment was originally proposed, the Bill of Rights did not apply to the states; it applied only to federal law. States had their own constitutions and their own bills of rights.

Some states also had slavery, which was protected under the 10th Amendment. After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment extended the Bill of Rights and made it applicable to both state and federal law, diminishing much of he 10th Amendment's power.

Interposition and nullification are doctrines that have its roots in the country's inception, but also in some of the darkest chapters of American history.

It was certainly a core reason that the country went to war against itself. For nearly a century, it proved to be a successful political tool for those running as Dixiecrats in the Jim Crow South.

The first time I distinctly remember those terms used together was when I heard Martin Luther King's "I have Dream" speech.

As King stated: "I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification."

Still uncertain of its exact definition, I knew if former Alabama Governor George Wallace supported it, it couldn't be good.

While I doubt many who tout interposition and nullification today would align themselves with Wallace circa 1963, at least not overtly, their emotion leads to the same result that has besieged to so many who have dared to tread down populism's angry path.

It is a hubris forged out of one's frustration that suggests they are in sole possession of the truth. This brand of hubris blinds one to the fact that in our cyclical political culture they are not the first nor will they be the last to drink from the potentially toxic well of frustration.

Populism has little room for nuance or whether there is any validity to the truth of those in opposition. It is popular to quote James Madison and Thomas Jefferson as if they are exclusive harbingers of our democracy.

But the American experiment is the ultimate ongoing project. Its survival requires each generation be granted temporary responsibility for cultivating its mission.

Thus, populist movements tend to fall short of their stated purpose of bringing added clarity to the process. Democratic politics, whether blinded by anger or seen through the opaque glass of the status quo is more often a source of confusion than a bastion of clarity.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist and blog-talk radio host. He is the author of "Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War." E-mail him byron@byronspeaks.com or visit his Web site: byronspeaks.com