The shutdown standoff is one of the worst crises in American history

The shutdown standoff is one of the worst crises in American history

[Ed. note: Hyperbole much?]

The current government shutdown threatens to stall the already slow economic recovery from the Great Recession. But more is at stake here. Political philosophers from Aristotle to Locke have defined the nation-state as the highest form of political community. Locke, whose views are embedded in America’s Declaration of Independence, saw government as a result of a communal compact—a social contract—among peoples. What is happening in America is that this social contract is being voided, largely through the initiative of rightwing Republicans from the deep South and rural Midwest. America is not likely to become Afghanistan, but it could easily become Italy or Greece or even Weimar Germany.

There is no simple explanation for why this is happening now, but there are precedents in American history for the kind of assault on government that the Republicans are mounting. First, there is the South of John Calhoun, which Sam Tannenhaus wrote about in The New Republic. Calhoun developed the doctrine of nullification—that states, claiming a higher Constitutional authority, could refuse to obey federal laws—in order to justify South Carolina’s opposition to tariffs adopted in 1828 and 1832. Calhoun’s doctrine became the basis of the state’s rights argument against attempts by the federal government to limit the expansion of slavery and a century later to enforce racial desegregation.

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