08/03/2010 04:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

19th Century Conservatives

As I wrote a few weeks back, when I sat down to write my book The Progressive Revolution on the history of the American political debate, I knew that the themes that animated our current political debate would be the same as in the past.

What I underestimated was that we would start to re-fight some of the exact same issues that have been fairly settled for the last 50 years or even longer. It is a sign of how radical conservatives in the last couple of years have become that they are raising issues that have seemed settled for so many decades. Republican nominees and elected officials for major offices have, over the last few months, made open arguments for:

-the privatization or outright phasing out of Social Security and Medicare

-the repeal of the 1964 Civil Rights Act

-the secession of states from the union

-the nullification of laws passed by the Congress and signed by the President

-the repeal of the 17th amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1914, allowing people to vote directly for their Senator rather than have them appointed by the state legislature

Now comes the most radically extreme proposal yet: Senate Majority Leader McConnell and other Republicans are now calling for amending or even outright repeal of the 14th amendment to the Constitution. To understand how profoundly reactionary this proposal is, let me refer to my book:

The 14th Amendment was passed at the height of the Radical Republican frustration at Johnson’s alliance with Southern conservatives on Reconstruction. Section 1 asserted that the federal government, not the states, decided who US citizens were and gave that citizenship to all those born in the United States or naturalized by the federal government. The states were prohibited from denying those citizens their civil rights and “the equal protection of the law.” It was the first time the Constitution created a definition of national citizenship as opposed to just leaving it to the states. Section 2 stated that any state denying the right to vote to any of its (male) citizens was to proportionally lose seats in Congress and the Electoral College. Sections 3 and 4 denied Southerners who had held federal office before the war and then served the rebel cause the right to run for federal office again, and ensured that the debts that the Confederacy had incurred would never be paid by either federal or state governments. The 14th Amendment was designed by progressives to be a long term stake in the heart of states’ rights and slave power by asserting that the federal government, not the states, had the right to guarantee American citizens their civil and political rights under the law. It literally extended the Bill of Rights to all American citizens, no matter what state they lived in, and gave the federal government the power to enforce those rights.

A little background: contrary to right wing hagiography, our founding fathers were not gods or perfect men. There were some brilliant and courageous people among them, but they were politicians not that dissimilar to the current crop. Some, like Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine, Ben Franklin, and George Mason were more progressive minded thinkers, while some were more conservative, and all were products of the time and the white, male, privileged constituencies that elected them. The constitution that was written, like every other set of laws written by politicians, thus had flaws in it. Not only was slavery embedded into the document, but the authors of the constitution agreed to a series of compromises with the strongly pro-slavery politicians from the deep South that were designed to make slavery a permanent part of our nation rather then phasing it out as even some slaveholders (like Jefferson) proposed. These provisions – chief among them the notorious 3/5 of a man rule for counting slaves in the census for Congressional apportionment – combined with the constitutional conventioneers just punting on the issues around who gets to vote/have basic civil rights/be a citizen and leaving those crucial issues to the states left the country heading inexorably to a civil war. The compromises of 1820 and 1850 just delayed the inevitable. Lincoln was right, the country could not survive as half slave and half free.

From the wreckage of the civil war, the provisions related to slavery had to be repealed, and something new and more enduring had to be put in its place. The progressives who ran Congress in the 1860s, ironically known as the Radical Republicans (a quite different sort than we have today), put into place three new amendments to rebuild those parts of the first constitution that had been so flawed:

-the 13th amendment abolished slavery and allowed the federal government to enforce those provisions

-the 15th amendment established that voting rights would not be limited based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” and again had a provision allowing for the Feds to enforce the law.

As huge as those two amendments were, in many ways the 14th was the centerpiece amendment, the one that was the foundational cornerstone for most of the progress we have made on civil rights, civil liberties, and equality over the last 150 years. Brandeis used the 14th amendment to firmly establish freedom of speech and the press in every state; Warren used it to rule on Brown V. Board of Education. It has been the basis for most of the major civil rights/liberties advances in the last century of this country.

This generation of Republicans are proving themselves more extreme, more fundamentally reactionary than any group of Republicans in the past. Barry Goldwater didn’t want to go this far back; Ronald Reagan didn’t; not even George W Bush was so profoundly reactionary as to want to turn back the clock to the 1860s.

I did not think I would be hearing talk of seceding from the union, repealing civil rights, state nullifying of laws when I was writing about all those past battles a couple of years ago in my book. And I most especially didn’t think Republicans would be taking on the 14th amendment, the amendment that re-structured the constitution to allow our federal government to enforce the Bill of Rights after the civil war. But this group of Republicans wants to go back not just 50 years, not even a 100 years, but 150 years.

The only question now is whether we will begin to hear them talking about how abolishing slavery wasn’t such a great idea, or whether that Bill of Rights thing was the wrong way to go.