'What Are Those Traditions? Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash'

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Ta-Nehisi Coates writes today about the persistence into this moment's news of the past centuries' racial traumas and racist institutions. Mike Lofgren, who recently retired from a career as a Republican staffer in the Senate, and whom I have quoted before, by coincidence makes a directly parallel point about the origins of the filibuster and the recent return of "nullification" thinking by Republican members of the Senate.

(Nullification in a nutshell: it's the proposition that if you oppose something that has already become law, you act as if its passage never happened, and that you have an ongoing right to thwart its coming into effect. Fans of the OJ Simpson trial will remember the parallel concept of "jury nullification." Fans of the Civil War will remember the role of the "nullification crisis.")

Lofgren writes about yesterday's assertion by Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina that he doesn't "want" the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, which has already been voted into existence, to take effect. Lofgren's case is worth reading very carefully:

I'm not surprised Lindsey Graham thinks he's rediscovered another tradition of the World's Greatest Deliberative Body. After having worked there, my reaction to the Senate's hallowed traditions would be along the lines of Churchill's response to an admonition that he was tampering with the traditions of the Royal Navy: "And what are those traditions? - rum, sodomy, and the lash!"
 
In the Senate's case, it would definitely be the lash of chattel slavery. The restrictive, minoritarian makeup and procedures of the Senate (at least those enumerated in the Constitution - most of them were established piecemeal by the Senate's membership at later times) did not arise solely from a disinterested desire to create a bulwark against a hypothetical future tyranny. They came into being in the first place partly as a compromise to protect slaveholding interests in the less populous Southern states. And the history of the Senate for the next seven decades after the founding was closely bound up with the antebellum South's defense of slavery. After the Civil War, and for the next hundred years, the Senate was often the last ditch of defense of the Jim Crow system. The current 60-vote threshold is actually a reduction from the previous 67-vote threshold, and was to some extent a reaction to the bitter fights Strom Thurmond and his segregationist colleagues waged through the mid-1960s against civil rights legislation.
 
Talk about your rotten boroughs - the institutional compromise with slaveholders means we are stuck with a Senate where the voter in the smallest state gets more than 50 times the representation of a voter in the largest state. [JF note: actually, about 66 times, Wyoming vs California.] This accounts for some of the crazy legislation we are saddled with, from the various farm bills to the 1872 mining law. It also makes the State Department's bellyaching about undemocratic procedures in other countries seem hypocritical.
 
And as for the old-world gentility - has the Senate unfailingly been the arena of Cato and Cicero, or people of a less exalted demeanor? For every La Follette or Fulbright, there have probably been at least three John Calhouns, Bully Brookses, Jeff Davises, Joe MacCarthys Theodore Bilbos, or Strom Thurmonds.
 
Trying to govern a complex society of 310 million people via a museum piece like the Senate is like trying to operate an airline whose fleet consists of Wright Flyers. The liberum veto system in 18th century Poland (whereby one delegate to the Polish diet could prevent its functioning)led inexorably to legislative dysfunction and at least partially to Poland's inability to defend its own national existence. The S & P credit raters were not wrong when they attributed the reason for their downgrading the U.S. credit rating in August less to economic fundamentals than to political dysfunction.

Update. A reader from the national-security world amplifies the historical references in Lofgren's message:

"And as for the old-world gentility - has the Senate unfailingly been the arena of Cato and Cicero, or people of a less exalted demeanor?"

Of course, Cato the Elder was a famous demagogue who helped provoke a genocidal war against the remnants of Carthage, and Cato the younger, was a self-righteous prig willing to bring down the Roman republic rather than embrace a the quite reasonable legislation of the First Triumvirate largely out of personal feud with Caesar who was having an affair with Cato's half-sister.

Cicero ordered the extra-constitutional murder of members of the Cataline Conspiracy -- including fellow Senators and even former consul Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura. He later foundered about, looking for short-term political advantages instead of taking the high road and helping to defuse the political dynamics that led to the Civil War in 49 BC.

So, our current day Republicans are behaving quite like Cato and Cicero in many ways.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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