The Constitution, Radicalism, and the "Mainstream."

Over at Slate, Dahlia Lithwick and Jeff Shesol give us the lowdown on the latest in conservative creativity, a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would allow states to band together to repeal any federal laws they didn't like. So for instance, if legislatures in two-thirds of the states decided that $7.25 is just way too much for people to be paid, they could nullify the federal minimum wage. Sounds like a great idea! What I really love is that the website for the plan wants you to "join the movement to restore the Constitution," by dismantling the rather carefully crafted balance the Constitution strikes between state and federal power.

What's new about this isn't that a bunch of cranks are coming up with new ways to free themselves from government's authority -- we've always had that. What's different is that some of these cranks have gotten elected to offices at the state and even federal level, and the rest of their party is too terrified of primary challenges to stand up to them. So we might hope that people like John Boehner or Eric Cantor would, when apprised of this sort of thing, say, "Give me a break. Will you nutjobs pipe down and stop sullying the name of the Republican Party?" But alas, they won't be saying that. As a matter of fact, Cantor has already endorsed the idea. As Lithwick and Shesol explain:

For a party (whether of the Tea or Grand Old variety) that sees the Constitution as something so perfect as to have been divinely inspired, the idea that it needs to be altered fundamentally is beyond crediting, something like putting the Fifth Commandment up to a popular referendum. But the Tea Party vision of the Constitution has never been one of fidelity to the document itself, or even to the Framers. Instead, it's a devotion to those scraps and snippets of the Constitution they accept, an embrace of only the Framers they admire, and an eagerness to jettison anything that conflicts with or complicates that vision, including the rest of the Constitution.

Here, then, if you needed it, is another indication that the Republican Party—in an act of grand, ongoing, unconscious irony—is assigning true conservatism to the ash heap of history and replacing it with a brand of radicalism in which nothing, not even the Constitution, is sacrosanct.

And that's what great about this kind of radicalism -- as long as you throw in a sentence or two about how much you love the Constitution and want to "restore" it, then you can convince at least some people that what you're proposing isn't actually insane. One of the things that will be happening over the next couple of years is that nuttier and nuttier ideas will be moving into mainstream discussion. The reason is fear -- the fear Republicans have of being accused of not being conservative enough, with primary challenges to follow. Sen. John Cornyn, who as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee is in charge of getting Republican senators re-elected, recently told his colleagues that they should all expect primary challenges. And the best way to head off such a challenge is not just to move to the right but to embrace any idea any Tea Party extremist tosses in front of you.

This isn't something that only has effects within the Republican Party. What validates ideas like this nullification amendment, and what cues journalists that they should now be taken seriously, is when people in positions of authority take them seriously. This is one of the main reasons that the political debate in America tends to extend further to the right than it does to the left. It's been said that Republicans fear their base, while Democrats hate their base. The result is that Democrats don't want to be associated with leftists, and you don't see leading Democratic politicians endorsing crazy left-wing ideas. Consequently, journalists see those ideas as "out of the mainstream" and thus not worthy of discussion. On the right, however, you will often see a politician like Cantor endorse a radical idea like this one. And then as a result, journalists will see it as in the mainstream -- after all, the House majority leader has endorsed it! -- and therefore it's something we should be taking seriously.

-- Paul Waldman

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