In opposition to Obama, the spirit of nullification returns

A plethora of contemporary political phenomena that may otherwise seem only bizarre — the various "pledges" not to compromise, the rejection of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme, the denial of evolution and climate change — begin to make sense once one recognizes that the historical analogy used to describe the movement responsible for them is inaccurate. Don't think 1774, 1776 and the Boston Tea Party. Think 1832, 1860 and nullification.

Historically, nullification meant the sheer refusal of a state government to accept and abide by national legislation — specifically, in 1832, a tariff law with which South Carolina was unwilling to comply. That crisis was averted. But in 1860, with Lincoln's election, the determination to nullify reemerged. This time, it resulted in secession. Today, literal nullification and secession may no longer be options. But on the day after President Barack Obama's election, the spirit of nullification surfaced again and has gradually been gathering momentum since then. It now seems on the verge of becoming the governing principle and strategic objective of the Republican Party.


Initially, the spirit of nullification expressed itself in a variety of ways: the "birther" movement; the description of Mr. Obama as a "liar" while he delivered the State of the Union address; the charge that he is a socialist intent on subverting the Constitution. Underlying all of them was the desire to nullify Mr. Obama's presidential legitimacy. In the view of the nullifiers, his illegitimacy was confirmed when, like Lincoln, he set in motion what was considered a treasonous usurpation of power by the federal government.

Now, as in its original incarnation, there are a number of clearly definable traits that give the spirit of nullification its distinctive character.


First is the anger that fastens upon particular targets (national health care, deficit spending) but transcends all of them. This anger is visceral. But it's fueled by moral, even religious outrage at the threat Mr. Obama supposedly poses to the American way of life as a whole. The anger has an ideology that purports to justify it.

An ideology isn't a philosophy. It isn't engendered by a thoughtful process of reflection and self-questioning. Philosophizing begins with, and tends to deepen, one's awareness of one's ignorance, one's appreciation for complexity, one's recognition of the plausibility of different points of view. Usually, it leads one to affirm certain core moral principles. But it can and should also lead one to realize that one can act as these principles require, only responding sensitively to the uniqueness of particular situations.

Ideology, on the other hand, is used to rationalize prejudices instead of challenging them. It provides one with answers to questions that one doesn't want to ask, and so makes the very process of careful reflection unnecessary. Ideology nullifies complexities. It doesn't need to be attentive to particular situations because it applies to all of them the same oversimplifications and unquestioned certainties.

Ideology, then, is inherently anti-rational. Today's nullifiers are, generally, quite frank about this. Once one has wrapped one's intelligence in an ideology, one doesn't need scriptural scholarship to understand the Biblical account of creation or treatment of homosexuality. One doesn't need the natural sciences to know whether climate change is occurring. One doesn't need economic expertise to determine whether deficit spending or deficit reduction is more urgent at a particular time. Ideology doesn't have to consider particulars. It doesn't have to inquire because it is sure it already knows.

It may be that ideology, like poverty, will always be with us — always be part of our political life. But we are beginning to learn again, as the country learned in 1860, what happens when a growing number of the thoughtful capitulate to it. What ideology nullifies, above all, is the democratic process itself: the morally required work of thoughtful compromise and collaboration on behalf of the common good. Ideology subordinates this good to its own angry certainties. Such certainties are among the gravest threats that democracy ever faces.

Given this threat, the next election is not primarily a contest between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, nationalists and internationalists, deficit cutters and deficit spenders. It is, like the election of 1860, primarily a contest between the angry, anti-rational ideology of nullification and what Lincoln in his first Inaugural called the better angels of our nature. These better angels do not belong exclusively to any one geographical section or political party or religious tradition. In fact, our democratic system rests on the conviction that one of these angels is to be found in each of us. It's urgent that we respond to their counsel.

Jerome Miller is professor emeritus at Salisbury University, where he taught philosophy for 37 years. His email is