Federalism and Its Discontents

By Kenny Luck
Staff Writer

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a think-tank which tracks and monitors militia groups, has recently released a report citing evidence of an increasing number of anti-government militias in the United Sates. In Addition, the report also suggests that militant, anti-federal grassroots elements (militiamen, tax protesters, secessionists) have begun to “cross-pollinate” with their more racially charged counterparts (nativists, white supremacists, anti-Semites) which has resulted in a new string of racially motivated, anti-government violence. Gun sales and ammunition have also increased in recent months.

Anti-federal groups were much more common in the 1990’s, when stand-off’s with federal agents at Waco and Ruby Ridge, for instance, illustrate how violent – and even deadly – these confrontations could be. The bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 further exemplifies that these groups, once armed and convinced that the federal government is conspiring against them, do not hesitant to take action. But by the end of the decade, however, many of these militia factions disappeared. With the election of the nation’s first African American President, a Democratic majority in Congress, and a progressive agenda, a new generation of paranoid, conspiratorial extremists has emerged after a ten year hiatus.

Anti-federalism is as old as the United States itself. In the 1780/90’s, when the Constitution was ratified, dissenters such as Patrick Henry vocally opposed its enactment. He wasn’t alone. Rebellions broke out. In Massachusetts, after hefty taxes were levied to help pay off the war debt, Daniel Shay’s, a Revolutionary War veteran, organized a group of farmers to violently oppose the measure. The uprising was put down but a few years later in Pennsylvania, “The Whiskey Rebellion” erupted subsequently following a similar tax initiative. Once again government troops were sent to subdue the revolt. Today’s anti-federal factions are the ideological heirs of these historical groups.

In the years before the Civil War, South Carolina Congressmen John C. Calhoun argued that states should “nullify” any federal law that they disagree with. This audacious claim has recently been echoed by Republican Texas Governor Rick Perry who, after hearing about President Obama’s Health Care proposal, advocated that Texas should withdraw from the United States and establish itself as an independent republic. Apart from undermining the idea of a federal government, Calhoun’s treatise on nullification was in part used as the philosophical justification for the Southern Confederacy, and is being used now by the most right-wing elements of the Republican Party.

The main difference between the anti-federalists of the past and the anti-tax “tea parties” of today is twofold. First, we see that the recent cacophonous rhetoric erupting over Obama and Health Care is highly conspiratorial and laden with paranoia.  Baseless accusations regarding “concentration camps” have been fuel for 2nd Amendment devotees and militant anti-government groups mentioned above. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) has warned that Obama is establishing “re-education” camps, and that he tried to indoctrinate the youth when he spoke to the nation’s school children about the importance of getting a good education (Regan and George Bush the elder gave similar speeches). This type of oratory is a poor substitute for rational thought. Second, as illustrated by the SPLC report, mainstream Republican Party leaders are beginning to adopt this extreme rhetoric as it is “spilling over into the mainstream”. There are numerous examples. Fox News host Glenn Beck has made repeated statements comparing Obama to Hitler and Stalin, while claiming that the president is trying to usher in a Marxist dictatorship. CNN’s Lou Dobbs continues to question the validity of Obama’s birth certificate, a position held by the radical “birthers” group, even though CNN, the station by which Dobbs is employed, already debunked those claims. MSNBC’s Pat Buchanan urges that white people are being subject to “exactly what was done to black folks”. Finally, echoing the rhetoric used the late communist witch-hunter Joseph McCarty, Spencer Bachus (R-Ala) claims to have identified “17 socialists” in congress.

To be fair, if one were to attend anti-war peace rallies in 2004, you would probably hear uncomplimentary things said about former President George W. Bush. The inflammatory rhetoric on the left, however, is highly differentiated from what is happening today. During the Bush years mainstream Democratic politicians were not repeating and adopting the rhetoric from the most extreme fringe elements of their party, as is happening with the Republicans. In addition, it is instructive to remember how not a single utterance emerged about the inflating federal bureaucracy in Washington during the Bush years form these same groups who now, during the Obama presidency, see the federal government as an intrusive monolith. That is because, I submit, that for the anti-federal fringe groups and mainstream Republicans who echo their claims, it is not about the size of government at all, but about what the government does and whose interests it represents.

Anti-government suspicion exits on both ends on the political continuum. American liberal anti-government sentiment can be traced back to Henry David Thoreau who, in 1865, was put in jail because he refused to pay a poll tax that supported the Mexican War and slavery – two things he thought immoral. Those who practice right-of-center politics today, however, often exhibit a more paranoid and conspiratorial oratory. It seems especially paradoxical that these groups accuse Obama of being a fascist, as journalist Max Blumenthal suggests, considering conservative-populism “has authoritarian, if not totalitarian tendencies itself”. Traditional conservatism insists on preserving institutions and incremental change. The style of “conservatism” we are seeing today is reactionary and militaristic.

Yet, in the end, the Glenn Beck “tea partiers” do raise a few important questions: What are the limits of state power? Whose interests should the government represent? What are the limits of acceptable dissent? By probing these questions, and others, perhaps we could learn more about ourselves and in the course of the questioning, come to a better understanding of the type of society we want to have. Dissent only becomes problematic when, rather than reason, it is based on fear and hysteria. Unfortunately, for the Republicans, the latter has won the day.