Liberals Matriculate at Calhoun College

In the Trump era, progressives are now most likely to secede.



Over the weekend Yale announced that the university will rename its undergraduate Calhoun College to expunge the memory of John C. Calhoun, the 19th-century South Carolina statesman. Yale says it is acting in the name of social justice amid campus protests, but the school’s timing is awkward. This erasure arrives while liberals are increasingly turning to Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification to justify anti-Trump resistance.

Calhoun was antebellum America’s foremost intellectual defender of slavery, and his political theory was aimed at upholding the rights of political minorities, especially states. He argued that a minority could veto the will of a “numerical majority” if its interests were threatened. Progressives are deploring the Great Nullifier’s racism even as they revive his legal concepts for their present-day advantage.

Coastal states are now lining up to thwart or otherwise undermine President Trump’s policy agenda. Take the more than 200 sanctuary cities whose mayors, police chiefs and sheriffs openly defy federal immigration enforcement. Some jurisdictions like Chicago even refuse to report illegal aliens in custody for violent felonies. Mr. Trump has vowed to strip these cities of federal funds, and San Francisco sued to overturn this executive order, claiming “a severe invasion of San Francisco’s sovereignty” that “violates the Tenth Amendment.” 

Meanwhile, New York’s Eric Schneiderman, the state Attorney General, published guidance to law enforcement in January that informs them about their “Tenth Amendment protections.” He notes: “The federal government cannot ‘compel the States to enact or administer a federal regulatory program,’ or compel state employees to participate in the administration of a federally enacted regulatory scheme.” These documents don’t cite Calhoun’s “Disquisition on Government,” but they could.

California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom has suggested using state environmental laws to prevent the feds from building a border wall with Mexico, despite the supremacy of federal immigration law. Governor Jerry Brown has said the Golden State will take over atmospheric research if Washington interferes. “If Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellites. We’re going to collect that data,” he said.

Some of the rowdier Californian progressives even want to secede from the U.S., a desire Calhoun would have applauded. There’s even a #CalExit campaign to get a secession initiative on the ballot. Maybe the beleaguered federal forces can retreat to Alcatraz to hold off shelling from the San Francisco artillery of the Progressive States of America.

Most of this isn’t “nullification” per se, merely a rediscovery of state powers under the Constitution’s system of dual federalism. But for decades the American left has considered state sovereignty to be merely an artifact of the Jim Crow era, and states like Texas that sued to defend their prerogatives under President Obama were accused of peddling frivolous cases. Progressives held this view as recently as 2012, when the Supreme Court struck down ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion as an unconstitutional commandeering of the states.

The liberal recovery of the Tenth Amendment will be healthy to the extent it isn’t simply about achieving outcomes that liberals favor. Democrats could show their good faith by endorsing block grants for Medicaid that return more power to the states.

As for Yale, well, the folks in New Haven aren’t particularly good at coping with adversity. Recall the 2015 meltdown over halloween costumes. As the Trump Presidency emerges, maybe knowing that Calhoun, class of 1804, is the intellectual architect of the opposition will come to be a source of consolation.

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