Shutting down the federal government, threatening to cause the nation to default, threatening to secede from the Union – it’s all so cool. As kids we used to call tactics like these “going sui.” One figured he’d lost the game, so he spent his remaining strength – be they armies in Risk or mortgaged houses and deeds in Monopoly – in suicide-bomber mode, taking down his chief opponent with him if he could.
But the threat of going sui can sometimes keep you in the game. Before the Civil War as well as today, the states’ rights crowd knows how to hold onto power as long as possible.
Look at the House of Representatives. Even before things really got rolling, the Constitution gave the South unduly high representation in Congress by spotting it 0.6 of a person in each census for every slave it could import or otherwise generate. Today’s gerrymandered districts similarly help out the conservative cause, so that losing the House by over a million votes last fall translated into a healthy Republican majority.
Look at the Senate. Before the Civil War, Congress was careful to keep a balance of power by granting statehood in batches that would maintain a slave-state – free-state equilibrium despite the free states’ greater population. Today, the expansion of the filibuster by both rule and practice means that almost nothing gets done unless a minority of forty permits it.
And when these expanded versions of gerrymandering and filibustering aren’t enough, some states’ rights leaders threaten to support their states’ secession from the Union, as Texas Governor Rick Perry has done, or vote to decimate the nation’s economy, as Florida Rep. Ted Yoho plans to do later this month.
Lincoln dealt with this kind of extortion, and in his 1860 Cooper Union speech he compared it to a stick-up:
But you will not abide the election of a Republican President! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!”
Similarly (the argument goes), today’s Union defenders will have only their profligate-spending selves to blame if Tea Party people, one-upping the highwayman, succeed this month in burning down the fiscal house.
Majority rule, then, is of little interest to states’ rights adherents. But the reason isn’t simply tactical – isn’t something to ignore when you don’t win presidential elections, be it 1860 or 2012. Majority rule, along with its foundational premise that all men are created equal, is something that state-sovereignty believers have had an uneasy relationship with since their doctrine’s inception.
P.S. – This week’s Time cover is a classic: