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Let's Stop Whistling Dixie: Missouri's Toxic Political Culture Must Change

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Quite properly, journalistic reaction to events in Ferguson, Missouri, has focused on the militarization of the police, on the role of racism in the killing of unarmed African-American men, and on the political disenfranchisement that allows communities like Ferguson to operate in obvious defiance of public sentiment.

But there is another element peculiar to Missouri politics that must have light shed upon it. That is the sharp right-ward turn conservative politics in that State has taken. In its best moments, conservatism stands for caution, for prudence, for a government that is efficient yet serves the needs of all.

There was a time when conservatives in Missouri stood for these things, but that is no longer the case. Rather, what is visible to the outside observer is a dangerous movement towards the outermost fringes. For it is fair to say that a toxic neo-confederatism has emerged as a force to be reckoned with at the very heart of Missouri's government -- its state legislature.

Let's consider Brian Nieves, a State Senator from West St. Louis. Nieves is not some obscure back-bencher. He's been a member of the State Legislature since 2002, rising to the position of House Majority Whip before moving on to the Senate, where he now chairs the Committee on General Laws.

And what has Senator Nieves been doing in this position of trust? He has injected neo-confederatism into the law-making function. Consider Senate Joint Resolution 45, a state constitutional amendment Nieves proposed in January, 2012, which sought to revive the discredited Confederate principle of state nullification. The amendment would have declared that Missouri enjoyed the "sovereign" right to treat as null and void all federal law on gun control; abortion; climate change; federally-subsidized health care; same-sex marriage; hate crimes; and a range of other topics. In other words, had this amendment been adopted, Missouri would have been free to reject as non-binding a large body of federal statutes and judicial decisions.

Nullification, of which this is a modern manifestation, is an idea that has its origins in the efforts of the Southern planter class of the 1820's and 1830's to defend slavery against an encroaching federal government. In 1832, the federal government tried to enforce a tariff in South Carolina that posed a threat to the profitability of the slave-based cotton trade that formed the cornerstone of that State's economy.

Purporting to defend the Constitution from an allegedly unconstitutional tariff, the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification declared that laws which "violated the true meaning and intent [of the Constitution] are null, void, and no law." When President Andrew Jackson threatened a military response, South Carolina backed down, although three decades later it chose secession rather than recognize Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States.

Nieves' joint resolution did not carry the day. But that did not deter the nullificationists in the State Legislature from a second, more successful attempt to assert Missouri's self-proclaimed right to nullify federal law.

"The Second Amendment Preservation Act," it was called, and it was introduced in January, 2014. It took direct aim at federal gun control legislation. Listing numerous federal laws on the subject, it declared the named provisions "shall be invalid in this state, shall not be recognized by this state, are specifically rejected by this state, and shall be considered null and void and of no effect in this state." Just like the South Carolina slave owners of the 1830s, the bill's sponsor declared that the proposed law was needed to defend the Constitution against an aggressive and out-of-control federal government.

This time, the nullificationists enjoyed greater success. In February, 2014, the Missouri Senate approved the bill by a vote of 23-10, with near-unanimous Republican support. The Missouri Tea Party rejoiced. In April, 2014, the State House of Representatives also passed the bill.

It is past time, way past time, 150 years past time, to be playing around with Confederate ideology. That Republicans in the Missouri legislature gave overwhelming support to a piece of legislation whose origins can be traced to the ugliest moments in America's slave-owning past stands as a badge of infamy. The Missouri Republican Party would do well to repudiate this legislation and promise to stop playing with the dynamite of nullification.

I've got news for Missouri's political class. They need to stop reviving the odious, discredited ideology of the Southern slaveocracy. They must instead return to reality and address the social crisis Ferguson represents. For in truth, African-Americans face substantial obstacles in Missouri. The four-year high-school graduation rate for African-Americans is 76 percent (as of 2009/2010). (The white graduation rate is 89 percent). The poverty rate for African-Americans is 27.7 percent (as of 2007/2011). The white poverty rate for the same period is 12.1 percent. The unemployment rate of African-Americans (2008/2012) is 18.0 percent. (For white Missourians it is 7.3 percent). The incarceration rate for African-Americans (as of June 30, 2012) is 38.2 percent.

It's time for Missouri's right-wingers to leave the nineteenth century behind. It is time for all Missourians -- indeed, time for all Americans -- to start building a more just and equitable world, one free of institutional racism and yawning racial disparities. Missouri was once the home of far-sighted progressives. Harry Truman desegregated the Armed Forces in 1948. Democratic Senator Stuart Symington voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act at great political risk. Missouri, it is time to get serious. The world is watching.