Sam Tanenhaus’ Calhounian Discipleship

I write from the Washington, DC suburbs, now quivering in fear from the violence of the last few weeks, from madmen, our police, and our Redskin-baiting politicians. But a Canadian immigrant (and I don’t mean Mark Steyn) relieves some discontent while producing even more.

In furious rage against the Cruz-sade, this weekend’s New York Times regular op-ed page columnists sputter about President Obama resorting to sinking aircraft carriers; Washington DC Hunger Games workouts led by Paul Ryan; and our sick politics that has produced gerrymandered red-lite districts. But there is an adult in the room, Times writer-at-large and sadly, former Book Review Editor Sam Tanenhaus, who gets to the heart of the crisis in his op-ed, “The Benefits of Intransigence.”

Just prior to the 2010 Tea Party elections, he published The Death of Conservatism, whose themes were reviewed here (link no longer available). Now Tanenhaus needs to kill the pesky right-wing zombie one more time: “[T]hese more combative Republicans may be in the vanguard of a new post-consensus politics.” Their secret is that they will no longer respect the venerable consensus politics of both right and left. (See Angelo Codevilla’s insightful and amusing vilifications of the bipartisan “ruling class” on this site.) That is, they won’t leave the welfare state alone and the host of aberrant policies it spawned, including irrational economics, regulatory mania, assaults on the family, and racial and ethnic preferences.

Tanenhaus leaves such policy matters aside. He wants to expose the right’s real hero as John C. Calhoun, not necessarily always for his views on slavery and race but more for his defense of states’ rights. Tanenhaus attempted this diagnosis of conservatism before, in a New Republic polemic that emphasized the racial element in Calhoun. Several conservatives denounced this argument by innuendo; I saw some even deeper problems in my post for this site.

Introducing Calhoun should be taken as a serious move, not a drive-by insult, for Calhoun’s new science of politics was modeled after natural science and sought to replace founding father James Madison’s attempt to produce the public good out of the natural conflict of different understandings of liberty. Unfortunately, Tanenhaus does not seem to understand what follows from this radical change: Calhoun’s rejection of natural rights in favor of natural science leads to his embrace of unlimited sovereignty, that is, unlimited government. Contrary to Lincoln, as Harry Jaffa observes, for Calhoun “right is founded on might.”

This is why the early Progressive political scientists embraced Calhoun’s thinking (and had no problem with his racial views). The scientific approach of Calhoun would do away with the superstition of natural rights that plagued antebellum political thought, in favor of science and historical progress or Darwinism. More to Tanenhaus’s point, Calhoun’s “concurrent majority”—a type of rule by consensus—is not based on States but on fundamental interests. If it supports states’ rights (really the constitutional principle of federalism) at all, it only does so incidentally. Calhoun attempts to produce limited government at the cost of dispensing with natural rights.

One admirer of Calhoun, the early Russell Kirk, turned more to admire Lincoln, once the Progressive features of Calhoun became more evident. And the Tea Party, whom Tanenhaus hopes to identify Calhoun with, is even more distant from the South Carolinian, with its emphasis on the Constitution, limited government, and the Declaration of Independence. (Calhoun had declared the natural equality of men as “a self-evident lie.”)

It’s no wonder that Tanenhaus finds puzzling the admiration of libertarians and conservatives for the 10th Amendment (limiting the powers of the national government) and their opposition to the 17th Amendment (providing for direct election of senators by the people of each State, not the state legislature). He regards these as obstructions to majority or popular rule. Constitutionalists, to the contrary, regard these Amendments (see as well the 9th, which reaffirms our government to be limited) and the whole Constitution as a “Bill of Rights” that limits arbitrary power and fosters the only majorities people ought to respect, reasoned majorities.

The 17th Amendment unfortunately severs the constitutional tie between state legislators and their Senators, and the voters who saw their state officials as indirectly involved in the great national issues dealt with by the Senate. The 10th Amendment may limit the national government, but any government, federal, state, or local, can violate rights. This is not an argument against majority rule; it is an argument for self-government. Thus in fact Tanenhaus is the real Calhounian here, for as a good progressive himself he appeals to something akin to Calhoun’s notion of unlimited sovereignty.

Whether they always take the most prudent course of action, the “post-consensus politicians” whom Tanenhaus derides are defending rights and want to restore our current mockery of majoritarianism to one rightly understood. Such a constitutionalist consensus is not some “shut up, and sing” chorus but an expression of rights in the reasoned form of law. And a law cannot be some document of thousands of pages which no one has read and simply delegates authority to unelected bureaucrats.

As Jefferson declared, it is a “sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable….” Growing numbers of Americans today yearn for reasonable majorities, those that honor the constitutionalism of limited government and the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence. They reject the temptations of Calhoun, whether from the right or the left. And, though it hardly needs to be said, my labeling of Sam Tanenhaus as a Calhounian, is not to imply anything about his racial sentiments.

Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi is a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute. He teaches in graduate programs in political science for Johns Hopkins University and for the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University. He has edited Interpreting Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, co-edited The Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science, and co-authored and co-edited several other books on American politics and political thought. In addition, he has worked ten years in the federal government as a speechwriter and on policy issues, at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he was a special assistant to Chairman Clarence Thomas, and the Departments of Justice and Labor.

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  1. gabe says


    Nice piece!
    It appears that “Calhounism” is the first resort of the scoundrel and it is good that you have rebutted this. Funny, how this works. Over at the Nomocracy in Politics blog, they ascribe to Strauss(ians) certain statist delusions that are more properly the province of the leftist/ Progressive school.
    But how about a little thought experiment?
    Justifying states rights, nullification based upon natural rights. In other words, “what if Calhoun based those “reserved rights” (as he claimed) not upon natural science but, rather, upon natural right? Suppose for a moment that Calhoun propounded his thesis over the Tariff of Abominations and not over slavery, what then?
    Perhaps, this is nothing more than a foolhardy attempt (by me) to get “nomocrats” and Straussians to regonize their congruences rather than their divergences. Both appear to share a similar sense of, and respect for the 9th and 10th Amendments and a common disparagement of the 17th amendment which eliminated the role of “States Diplomats” (Jaffa’s terminology).

    Just food for thought!

    take care

  2. Ken MasugiKen Masugi says

    Gabe, thanks once again. If Calhoun did as you suggest (using natural rights), then he would be Thomas Jefferson. As Jaffa (following someone else, Henry Adams?) put it, the Civil War was Thomas Jefferson arguing with himself.

    • gabe says


      Well said!
      however, I was attempting to get to a somewhat more vexing question – the status of such issues as interposition, nullification and secession. I have been having an ongoing debate with some regarding these issues and they, at times, assert that Jefferson advocated such “reserved powers.” The record does not appear to fully support this.
      Often times, people seem to resort to what Hadley Arkes calls “judicial or legislative history debates” as opposed to a natural rights reasoning when interpreting the Constitution.
      So perhaps, we should ask: “Employing natural rights reasoning, can nullification, etc be justified?” would Jefferson side with secessionists?” or nullifiers (his Virginia Resolutions notwithstanding). In other words, even if jefferson were arguing with himself, is there a case to be made based upon natural rights for such rights as claimed by Calhoun for the states over some issue such as discriminatory tariffs?

  3. Ken MasugiKen Masugi says

    Gabe, yes, this is the question. My provisional answer is that whatever governments do to protect natural rights is justified–whether state govts or the national. The problem is how to arrange institutions so both can do this. It’s like with the presidency–it has to be free to protect the nation, yet other institutions need to be poised to strike down usurpers. This is not satisfactory, I know, but it gets us started, I think.

    • gabe says

      As you know, you and I are in agreement on this. I am trying to find some clear statement or expression of “positive” law or “constituent Law” (again Jaffa’s terminology) that would not be subject to the most egregious misinterpretations as is so much other law.
      Oh well, back to my search!!!

      take care

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