11/15/2013 04:49 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Suppose the Tea Party Walked Out of Congress?

In the wake of the scandalous filibuster which blocked Senate confirmation of Cornelia Pillard as a DC Circuit Court Judge, my question may seem frivolous. After all, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz do not appear poised to abandon their current stranglehold on America's public business.

But I was reminded this week that much of what we take for granted about today's United States is the direct result of just such a walk out, which planted what Dayton Duncan, in a new book on Yosemite, calls "The Seeds of the Future."

In 1861, the original Tea Party -- the Congressional Cotton Democrats from the south -- left Congress in 1861 to support the secession of the 11 Confederate states. In doing so they abandoned their decade log stranglehold over public policy, and unleashed a pent-up wave of nation building reform that we (and it happens the Tea Party's base) cherish today. While America was struggling with the Civil War, this unencumbered Congress passed a series of previously road-blocked measures that planted the seeds of the modern United States.

Reading from his new book Duncan, Ken Burn's partner in films like "The National Parks - America's Best Idea", pointed out that Yosemite was protected only because the Cotton Democrats had voluntary departed.

As long as the southern slave-holding block remained in the pre-Civil War Congress, things looked much as they do today in Washington. Proposals favored by a growing majority of the public were blocked by a recalcitrant minority. Resisting the idea of an effective national government and resentful of the Constitution, this minority asserted their right to block the will of the majority and even nullify federal laws once adopted if they chose.

Today Congress can't pass a highway bill or fund infrastructure; in the 1850s proposals for a Transcontinental Railroad were blocked because Cotton Democrats feared such a railroad would steer pioneers and settlers to free, not slave territories. Only Lincoln's Congress finally authorized its construction.

The Tea Party anathematizes any increases in federal investments in education; in 1859, James Buchanan, the final Cotton Democratic president, vetoed the first Land Grant College bill . Lincoln's Civil War Congress passed it again; imagine America with no Texas A&M!

Opposed, like Cruz, to the federal government helping every American get health care? Imagine giving away hundreds of millions of acres of public land to landless Americans -- how unfair can you get to those who already paid for their land? Yet after the Cotton Democrats had repeatedly refused to set up a homestead system to enable small farmers to settle public lands, the Homestead Act was eventually passed on May 20, 1862, and signed by Lincoln just as McClellan began his failed Peninsular Campaign to capture Richmond. Mitt Romney's nightmare of a nation dependent on federal largesse was thus borne under Abraham Lincoln -- and the rural Tea Party voters all over the West who have rallied to House members like Idaho's Raul Labrador owe the private property they cherish so dearly to a Civil War Congress dominated by Radical Republicans.

Protecting Yosemite as a State Park was a Civil War idea -- the Cotton Democrats never got to vote on it. But reading Buchanan's veto message of the Homestead Act makes it clear they would have blocked it -- it undermined the principal that the function of the public lands was to be sold, to avoid the need to have taxes to pay for government. (Selling off the public lands, ala the Sage Brush Rebellion, too, has a Cotton Democrat pedigree.)

So our National Parks, our public university system, our continental railroad, highway, port and airline networks, even the homes, farms and ranches of rural Americans west of the Mississippi are all rooted in a brief moment when the reactionary, anti-national forces in American politics walked out of Congress and tried to secede.

The Cotton Democrats and the Tea Party have remarkably similar DNA. Opposition arose to the Homestead Act not because those who settled the land would fail to prosper -- the fear expressed in Buchanan's veto message was that they would succeed too well, and disadvantage those who already owned land. Poor farmers from the South and East would be lured to new lands in the West -- depriving big landowners of cheap labor. Today the Tea Party, as Paul Krugman and others have repeatedly pointed out, does not fear the Affordable Health Care Act will fail -- they fear that its success will re-legitimate the federal safety net.

Karl Marx famously commented that when history repeats itself, the second time is as farce . Certainly the theatrical references to nullification and secession by various Tea Party stalwarts look like farce set up against to the Civil War's tragedy. One reason for the flippancy of Governor Perry's calls for Texas to secede, is that today's political divide in America is not sectional, but demographic. Rural Texas might flirt with secession, but Austin, Houston, San Antonio and even Dallas all voted to reelect Barack Obama. Nationally, only four significant cities -- Phoenix, Fort Worth, Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City -- voted for Mitt Romney. While the Tea Party is overrepresented in the states of the Cotton South, its base is fundamentally older, traditional and rural, not exclusively Southern.

(This explains the irony that the single function of the federal government which Tea Party advocates found it most necessary to defend were the national parks -- because the parks, and the livelihoods they represent -- are located in, and of greatest emotional significance to, rural communities that are part of the Tea Party's base. Senator Quentin Burdick once explained to me -- at 90 -- that the passage of the Homestead Act made North Dakota solidly Republican, but liberal Republican, for a century and a quarter. It turns out that the National Parks, that great idea borne in California during the Lincoln Administration, are now a major barrier to the rural demonization of all things federal that the Koch Brothers would like to erect into the mainstay of our politics.)

Progressives won't be handed a solution today's political deadlock by having the Tea Party walk out. The Tea Party won't try to secede because they are neither numerous nor geographically unified enough. Indeed, Tea Party leaders and their financial backers in oil and gas and other sectors of yesterday's commodity economy can foresee the moment when they are no longer a majority even in today's red states like Texas and Georgia. So it is not accidental, (as this week's filibuster of a judicial nominee they had no objection to reminded us), that Tea Party leaders are increasingly obsessed with anti-democratic tactics like gerrymandering and voter suppression in the states, the filibuster and hold in the Senate, the autocratic Hastert Rule in the House, and supermajorities for taxes and budgets everywhere.

They are a minority, defending a fading past -- just as the Cotton Democrats were in 1860. In such circumstances, democracy and majority rule lose their appeal.

But too many Progressives do not yet understand the threat posed by the anti-majoritarian compromises agreed to in the Constitution -- or added, like the filibuster, over the decades. It is easy to find reasons to support traditional compromises that undermine majoritarian governance. Filibusters for example can be -- and have been -- used for progressive purposes, including the protection of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. Gerrymandering can protect Democratic incumbents. That does not change the reality that the fundamental character of super-majorities is anti-progressive, because they are both anti-democratic and anti-communitarian.

Cotton Democrats understood this. From 1844 on they exercised a veto over Democratic presidential nominees through the party's "Two Thirds" rule. The Civil War came because National Democrats -- who wanted to save the Union -- failed to challenge this supermajority until 1860 when it was too late. The Democratic party split in two over that challenge, and as Lincoln famously said, "War came."

It is vital for progressives to understand that the only remaining ground on which the Tea Party and other reactionary forces can stand is the ground of minority obstruction -- just as Cotton Democrats did, until they were forced to default to states rights because the election of Lincoln showed that in an undivided Union, majority rule would finally prevail. But as the history of pre-Civil War period shows, minority obstruction under our form of government can prevail long enough to produce catastrophe.

Senator Richard Durbin warned this week that the Senate was being moved by Tea Party and Republican obstruction towards a change in its rules -- a change that would restore the constitutional respect for majority rule. Let's hope it happens.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber --of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."