Republicans all over the country find themselves backed into an ideological and political corner: Their dogma has brought both the country and their party to ruin. The candidate they called an evil, terrorist-loving, foreign-born socialist is now a wildly popular president, while they're reduced to irrelevancy.
If you thought they'd take the occasion to re-assess their platform, you'd be wrong. As Rush Limbaugh has dictated, their path lies in seeking the failure of President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress — in other words, in hoping for massive and catastrophic collapse of America. The stakes, to their minds, couldn't be higher: the American experiment is running off its constitutional rails.
"We are at a pivotal point in our nation's history," says Paul McKinley, a Republican state senator from Iowa.
McKinley is one of hundreds of Republican lawmakers, from all corners of the United States, who are backing resolutions of "state sovereignty" — essentially empty gestures declaring the illegitimacy of the federal government. In the first two months of the Obama administration, these resolutions have already been introduced in more than two-dozen state legislatures. Some might actually pass; others have prompted raucous demonstrations and public hearings.
Based on a creative reading of the 10th Amendment — which states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people" — the resolutions claim the federal government, in usurping powers and issuing mandates to the states, is violating the U.S. Constitution. They call for Congress and the president to cease and desist in those (mostly unspecified) transgressions.
The resolutions generally don't say how states would assert their claimed sovereignty, although a few threaten to refuse to implement laws they dislike. Some go further, claiming that the violations may constitute a "nullification of the Constitution." The most aggressive, which was recently defeated in New Hampshire, explicitly threatened to dissolve the Union.
As much as so-called Tenth Amendment Movement participants believe they are responding to a unique circumstance, they are actually treading old and predictable ground. The exact same movement arose when the last Democratic president took office, in 1993. In fact, most of the resolutions circulating today are word-for-word copies of the ones introduced 16 years ago. By late 1994, at least eight states had passed versions, and legislators in more than 20 states planned to introduce them in their 1995 sessions, according to a review at the time by the Heritage Foundation. That state-sovereignty movement was part of an anti-government sentiment that included a rise in militias — and the resolutions abruptly ceased in 1995, after Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people.
Today's version is moving even faster, thanks to the conservative-libertarian network that was formed around Ron Paul's presidential candidacy and the large online communities of liberal-hating conservatives. Some national conservative figures, including Fox News host Glenn Beck and commentator Michelle Malkin, have applauded the idea. And a few prominent Republicans, including South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, have cited the same state-sovereignty talking points in opposing the federal stimulus bill.
Sanford, who is courting anti-government conservatives for his potential 2012 presidential bid, professes that he "loves the concept" of the resolutions in a recent interview in the far-right John Birch Society's The New American. He wants Tenth Amendment Movement supporters to march on Washington, D.C., and "insist that the Constitution be obeyed."
Sovereignty in practice
These resolutions are indefensible on constitutional grounds, several experts say in interviews. "They rest on completely untenable interpretations of the Constitution's text, structure and history, and they proceed as though the Civil War had been won by the Confederacy," e-mails Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School. "These resolutions — not to put too fine a point on it — are off the wall."
Questioning federal overreach is not unreasonable. However, the intent of these resolutions is not just to disagree with the federal government, but to provide a justification for resisting it and for denying its authority and legitimacy. The resolutions' proponents are claiming that states can, on their own, declare federal laws unconstitutional — even if the Supreme Court disagrees — and refuse to recognize them within their borders.
They are simply wrong, says Robert Bloom, a constitutional-law professor at Boston College Law School. "The Constitution allocates responsibilities between the federal and state governments, and the Supreme Court is the ultimate authority in interpreting that."
But the anti-federalists don't like the courts' answers, so they make up their own. Dan Itse, the state representative sponsoring the resolution in New Hampshire, explains how he imagines this would work in practice — using as his example, unsurprisingly, the possibility of Congress enacting a national firearm-licensing system. (This obscure proposal, which is the idea of a single congressman and has no possibility of becoming law, ranks among the movement's most often-cited sovereignty threat.)
If the law was passed, Itse says, the New Hampshire Legislature could declare it unconstitutional and its enforcement illegal within the state's borders. The Department of Justice would "start sending people into New Hampshire to enforce it," which the state would challenge, perhaps even by arresting federal agents. A federal judge would then likely "issue arrest warrants on the state legislature," says Itse.
"Would that constitute a nullification `of the Constitution`?" asks Itse. "I would say so."
The spirit of 1861?
Itse's resolution is one of the most aggressive of its kind — it "walks right up to the door of secession," as one admiring South Carolina state senator put it in a televised interview. It declares that any act of the U.S. Congress, president, or federal courts "which assumes a power not delegated" to the federal government "shall constitute a nullification of the Constitution." In such an event, it goes on, all powers revert to the individual states, until and unless a brand-new federal government is formed and the states choose to join it.
Itse and his co-sponsors even included several particular examples of acts that would cause nullification. It's an odd and seemingly random list — until one reads, in a press release issued by him and three other state legislators, some of their specific fears. For example, "involuntary servitude or governmental service of persons under the age of 18," other than a military draft or criminal punishment, refers to Obama's campaign endorsement of mandatory community service for high-school students — "slavery," according to the press release. "Further limitations on freedom of political speech" refers to the supposed re-institution of the Fairness Doctrine.
Remarkably, nearly 90 percent of New Hampshire House Republicans voted in favor of this resolution, calling for dissolution of the United States government in the event that it imposes a community-service requirement on teens.
Democrats, who gained the majority in 2006, were able to defeat the resolution. But Itse intends to try again, with some of the more controversial language removed. He has learned, as Tenth Amendment Movement supporters did back in the early '90s, that they must use vague language to couch their intent. And yet that benign language barely covers an often paranoid anti-government fervor.
This Tenth Amendment Movement is being coordinated by libertarian organizations, such as the Republican Liberty Caucus, Campaign for Liberty and the Populist Party of America. Also instrumental is the aforementioned John Birch Society, a long controversial conservative group that is now a leading promulgator of one-world-government fear mongering.
These organizations spout all manner of anti-federal-government rhetoric; the Ohio Freedom Alliance, for example, advocates for that state to introduce its own gold and silver currency as an alternative to federal money. Some of the groups have close ties with militia groups, as well.
Jerome R. Corsi, author of the wild-eyed smear tract The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality, and one of the movement's main spokespeople, has frequently appeared on the nationally syndicated Alex Jones Show to discuss sovereignty resolutions. So have several of the state lawmakers. The eponymous host of that radio program is a big fan of the state-sovereignty efforts — and a full-throated conspiracy hawker. Jones's latest documentary purports to show how "the Obama phenomenon is a hoax carefully crafted by the captains of the New World Order … in an attempt to con the American people into accepting global slavery."
Obama-hatred and anti-government anger are also readily apparent among many of the resolutions' sponsors. South Carolina state Rep. Michael Pitts, in a recent interview about his resolution, said that "the trend toward federalism" is leading the country "headlong" into "socialism and maybe even communism." Pitts added that he would "prefer" to reverse this trend without the course of action "tried in 1861" — i.e., secession.
The resolution's lead sponsor in Michigan has called it "the first shot across the bow" for a movement to challenge the federal government. In Oklahoma, lead sponsor Charles Key is best known for chasing conspiracy theories regarding the federal government's role in the Murrah building bombing. The sponsor in another state also has filed a bill to prevent the federal government from building the "NAFTA Superhighway" supposedly being planned by the mythical North American Union — a new, European Union—style alignment with Mexico and Canada, to which the U.S. secretly intends to abrogate its sovereignty.
The North American Union, a favorite conspiracy of Corsi and the Ron Paul crew (though denounced by Paul himself), comes up a lot in this crowd. Itse, in fact, says that his "overriding concern" when he began drafting his resolution last year was "the U.S. ceding our sovereignty to a North American Union."
Regardless of how many "state sovereignty" resolutions are introduced, or even passed, they will have no actual effect on anything — and secession is less realistic than even the North American Union. But there's such talk nonetheless — and no matter how often its proponents insist that the Tenth Amendment Movement is nonpartisan, or has nothing to do with the Democrats' taking control of Washington, that is exactly what's driving it.
That the federal-state balance has indeed moved far to the federal side is old news. It is certainly no truer today than when George W. Bush and a Republican Congress were in power — and there were no such resolutions introduced then. In fact, since the last round of state-sovereignty resolutions, the Supreme Court has begun to set some limits on federal reach, says Boston College's Bloom, with three decisions issued between 1995 and 2000.
Those rulings are apparently unknown to the authors and supporters of the sovereignty resolutions. Because most of their new resolutions are simply copied from the 1994 versions, none of them cite any of these rulings (although many cite a 1992 decision), nor are they discussed on supporting websites or other materials. The people claiming to suddenly be so concerned about the federal-state balance do not even seem to know where that balance currently stands.
Then again, facts seldom get in the way of old-fashioned paranoia.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix.firstname.lastname@example.org