Thomas Gibbons ran two steamships between Elizabethtown, NJ and New York City. He had a federal license, but the state of New York wanted to shut him out. It seems they had granted a monopoly to Robert Fulton, and said Congress had no right to interfere.

It’s an old story that applies today. (More)

The Party of Null, Part III – Fred Whispering (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considers the modern nullification movement, which denies the popular sovereignty of “We the People,” at least when they lose elections. Thursday we examined their arguments of government “at war” with “free markets.” Yesterday we looked at claims of government “suppressing” religion by not enacting religious doctrine as law. Today we consider how progressives can discuss this with Fred, our archetypal median voter.

The Tea Party GOP and right-wing pundits throw the word “tyranny” around often nowadays. They say government is “out of control,” yell “I want my country back,” and assert an “original intent” of the Constitution that oh-so-conveniently fits their political, economic, and social agendas. Their arguments are not new. Aaron Ogden and advocates for the state of New York made the same arguments in 1824, when they tried to shut out Thomas Gibbons’ steamship company.

Gibbons v. Ogden

Aaron Ogden bought a steamship franchise from Robert Fulton, to whom the state of New York had granted a monopoly on steamship operations in state waters. It was a sweetheart deal, and Ogden didn’t want competition from Thomas Gibbons.

At issue were the Commerce and Supremacy clauses of the U.S. Constitution, and the scope of federal and state sovereignty. Gibbons held a license under a federal law regulating “coasting trade,” and he argued that included ports along the entire U.S. coast, even New York. Ogden and his allies disagreed, arguing the state of New York had exclusive sovereignty over New York ports. The Commerce Clause may allow Congress to regulate commerce “among the states,” they said, but once commerce entered a state it was subject only to state law. They claimed that was “strict construction,” and the alternative would allow federal government run amok.

Judging by what they say on TV, radio, and the internet, and what they write in the many books decrying “tyranny” in today’s bookstores, most of today’s Tea Party GOP would agree with Ogden. The Supreme Court did not. Chief Justice John Marshall rejected their “strict construction” frame, in language that might have been a reply to Grover Norquist:

What do gentlemen mean by a “strict construction?” […] If they contend for that narrow construction which, in support of some theory not to be found in the Constitution, would deny to the government those powers which the words of the grant, as usually understood, import, and which are consistent with the general views and objects of the instrument; for that narrow construction which would cripple the government and render it unequal to the object for which it is declared to be instituted, and to which the powers given, as fairly understood, render it competent; then we cannot perceive the propriety of this strict construction, nor adopt it as the rule by which the Constitution is to be expounded. (Emphasis added.)

“Cripple the government” reads a lot like “drown it in a bathtub.” As for the object – “some theory not to be found in the Constitution” – that hasn’t changed either. The specific issue may be health care, taxes, affirmative action, abortion, LGBT rights, or immigration. But for today’s Tea Party GOP, as for Aaron Ogden, the object is more wealth and privilege for the wealthy and privileged.

The Party of No Others.

As we’ve discussed many times in Morning Feature, to have majority support for progressive reforms, we need Fred: our archetypal median voter. Media surveys show Fred doesn’t watch cable news or listen to talk radio. He gets his news from friends, neighbors, coworkers, people in checkout lines and waiting rooms … people like us. We need to be Fred’s news anchors.

The good news is that Fred doesn’t believe the Tea Party GOP’s policies will help. The bad news is that there are Skeptical Freds – 27% of Independents overall, 32% of white Independents – who don’t believe our policies will help either. We must win Skeptical Fred’s trust, and we can do that by talking about shared values …

… like democracy itself. It’s not a perfect system. “We the People” can and do elect poor leaders and support bad ideas. But at least “We the People” get to make those mistakes, and to change our minds. As Hannah Arendt wrote, “political freedom, generally speaking, means the right ‘to be a participant in government,’ or it means nothing.” Having fled the Nazis in 1941, she had direct experience of what tyranny was, and what it was not.

The Tea Party GOP don’t believe in democracy, at least not when they lose elections. They believe in crippling government that interferes with “free markets.” Some even claim government should be run by the Bible, as interpreted by … well … them. They aren’t simply “The Party of No.” They are The Party of No Others: of more wealth and privilege for the wealthy and privileged.

So yes, Democrats make mistakes. But we think Fred’s opinion matters, and we think government should work for Fred and not only for the wealthy and privileged. That may be many things … but it’s not “tyranny.”


Happy Saturday!